Connotation helps add unspoken meaning to readers through subtext. Connotation helps you show your reader backstory and character traits without telling them anything. It’s the writer’s job to be as economical as possible and make words pull double duty (say as many things to a reader as possible) so getting connotation to work FOR YOU is very helpful. At the very least, make sure it’s not working against you.
When someone drags their past into a situation we say they’ve got baggage. Every word has baggage. Every word has a past, an association, a history, and that’s brought with it into your work. Sometimes that baggage belongs to the reader – you can’t help that, sometimes it’s a historical event or etymology.
History Lends Connotation
If you decide to set your story in Chernobyl, that place name brings a lot of baggage with it. It could be a phrase: “I am no man!” or how about “Live long and prosper.” If a character uses those phrases that gives readers insights into your character.
My kids have each taken a turn reading The Great Gatsby and Fitzgerald uses the term “concentration camp” to mean something other than a reference to the death camps in World War 2. Of course, Gatsby was written before World War 2, but my teenagers stumbled over that trying to understand what Fitzgerald intended by using that term. I was editing a translation and the writer used ‘concentration camp’ which I substituted for ‘forced labor camp’ because the association to the death camps in World War 2 wasn’t intended.
You can’t shrug off connotation. You can’t say to yourself – well, I mean this word this way — because you won’t be in the ear of every reader explaining that to them, right. Be specific with your words.
Part Of Connotation Is Etymology
et·y·mol·o·gy: The study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history.
Anyone who’s studied Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Chaucer, etc. knows that language changes, it evolves. We don’t speak the same way they did in 1066 or 1546, and while we still use some of the same words, the meanings and usage may have changed. If you look in a dictionary, it will give you the etymology of a word whether its roots are in French, Old English (OE), Latin, or another language. Etymology is why English words have so many nuanced meanings based on context.
Nude is from the Latin (1525–35) nūdus: lacking clothing or covering, color of a white-person’s flesh
Naked is Middle English from the Old English (pre 900) nacod: lacking embellishment, lacking confirmation or support, unaided by device or instrument, devoid of concealment or covering
(definitions from Merriam-Webster.com)
One word is older than the other, and both have distinct origins. This should tip you off that though they mean basically the same thing, the connotation (added layer of meaning) is different for each one. There’s a vulnerability to naked – as though a naked person is lacking something – is deficient in some way. Whereas nude is more refined – leads me to think of art, of shedding the burden of a covering, nude is a choice, you’re au naturel. The history of the word is especially important to those writing any historical genres. Jamie Fraser from Outlander would never say something was “spic and span” but Claire might.
Connotation Adds To Character Voice
I’ve read many manuscripts that didn’t take these nuanced meanings into account when choosing a word. These nuanced meanings come into play with character voice as well. What word would your point of view character use based on their upbringing, past experiences, prejudices, etc.
Maybe your teenage point of view character would describe school as a concentration camp–that would show us a few things about how that character sees the world, right. I’ve had people say to me, “I feel naked with my …” fill in the blank. I feel naked without my wedding ring. What would that show readers about a character who said or thought that? Their identity is wrapped up in marriage somehow – who they’re married to, that they’re married, they feel vulnerable, etc.
In an intimate scene, a woman who sheds her clothing to stand nude before her man strikes me as natural, confident, alluring, unashamed. In that same scene, if the woman is naked there’s a raw sexuality to it, she’s lacking something she should have – she’s exposed. A nude woman gets up from the bed and walks to the bathroom unconcerned if she’s observed. A naked woman wraps the sheet around herself before walking to the bathroom.
These distinctions add layers and depth through subtext to readers, about how they feel, how they perceive things, their prejudices or experience.
Personal Associations Bring Connotation
While you can’t help the personal connotations a reader brings to your work, you should manipulate the connotation your characters bring to the story. If your character is a woman who was sexually abused as a child, she might not ever use the word nude, even when it’s appropriate.
Feminist is a word loaded with social connotation right now. Some see a person wearing that label as a left-wing zealot and others see them as couragous social warriors. Sometimes a word can be both things, so you’ll either need to explain how your character means it or choose a different word.
Connotation Can Be Negative Or Positive
Often, we turn to the thesaurus when we’re stumped for the right word and there’s nothing wrong with that. But be aware that words often carry connotation with them, and may not be as interchangeable as you’d like to think. We do this all the time as writers, we just need to do it consciously and strategically. Is your character thin or gaunt? It’s all in how you frame it.
Let’s look at a common word: seductive
The dictionary gives me these synonyms: attractive, captivating, charming, enticing, fascinating, flirtatous, inviting, irresistable, provacative, tempting, beguiling, bewitching, desireable, come-hither…
A woman who is attractive and charming is not necessarily provocative or flirtatous. Be sure of the connotation the word brings to your story and your character’s intentions and feelings.
You can get a copy of my book Method Acting For Writers: Learn Deep Point of View Using Emotional Layers here.