Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Literalism

So, I wanted to run a question by you all. Something that came up at Wyrdsmiths made me wonder about how literally people take a turn of phrase. The example in question is "evil smile" and what I was wondering is how many of you would take that to mean that the person smiling is evil. Lyda has already proposed a stronger alternative, so it's not a question that's going to change the text in question at all but it might change the way I think about writing.

I've always taken phrases like "evil smile," "wicked laughter," or "nasty grin" to denote someone being pleased in a very self-serving way and not as some cue of inner evil. I use them in day-to-day conversation to talk about an expression you might well see on my face in some circumstances or on the faces of people I would personally never characterize as evil.

So, figure of speech denoting an expression rather than something about inner nature? Or authorial clue to true inner evil? Bonus points for other examples and detailed explanation of why you read or hear these sorts of phrases one way or the other. Further bonus points for speculation on the connection of same to genre conventions and/or existential beliefs about the idea of evil.

4 comments:

Beth said...

I agree with you, Kelly - to me, evil grin doesn't mean the person is evil, just a description of an expression.

I'll have to pass on the bonus points, though - way too early to think that hard! Maybe I should start my day with overnight oatmeal and tea...

If my brain cells kick into gear, I'll come back later.

Bill Henry said...

When you smile that evil smile, Kelly, I know you're evil.

: P

Stephanie Zvan said...

For me, it depends a lot on context (big surprise). I think most decent writers are going to be pretty consistent in how strictly they use language, and I don't think I've ever had a moment like that jar me.

Also, it depends on whether it's one of those stories where evil exists. Using it in that context would be like writing about a mathematician and telling me, meaning it metaphorically, that "his problems multiplied." That would hurt because I'd already be using those words for something else.

Kelly Swails said...

Those terms I read at face value: unless I've been given reasons to think otherwise, that evil smile isn't enough to make me think the character is evil.

In fact, now that I think about it, if a character is, say, a serial killer, and he smiles as he kills his victims, in my mind it's already an evil smile. I don't need to be told. However, if we have two teen characters and one is trying to connvince the other to shoplift some underwear and uses an evil smile to do it, I might think the kid's a thug, but I won't think he's evil.