In his blog post The Great Semi-Colon Debate, author James Scott Bell says that semicolons should be avoided in fiction. I agree to a point, but I wouldn’t ban them altogether. If used skillfully, semicolons can reveal character in dialogue and internal monologue.
In my own fiction writing, I associate certain punctuation marks with the speech patterns of certain personality types. These aren’t hard rules, of course. But here’s my list of punctuation marks and the personality types that go with them.
INFPs and INTPs communicate with the world through extraverted intuition. Intuition naturally sees all ideas as connected. But as introverts, the INPs think before they speak. This combination of tendencies leads to sentences that are long but carefully constructed; the semicolon is the best punctuation mark to communicate this quality.
Comma splices: ENPs
A comma splice is an ungrammatical use of the comma to separate two independent clauses without the benefit of a conjunction. This use of punctuation best captures the rapid, unruly flow of ideas of the ENFPs and ENTPs. Unlike their introverted cousins, ENPs use their extraverted intuition to think out loud, one thought leading to another, with no time for conjunctions or breaks in sentences.
ENFJs and INFJs communicate with the outside world using extraverted feeling aided by intuition. When their values are engaged, they speak passionately, their voices rising in a crescendo. Dashes communicate movement and building tension—a hallmark of these types.
The ESFJs and ISFJs also communicate using extraverted feeling, but with a preference for sensing. Sensing types see information as discrete, so their ideas don’t bump wildly into one another. Commas help express the community-oriented nature of the SFJs but also their desire for control.
Like their SFJ cousins, the ESFPs and ISFPs see information as discrete. Yet their communication is more open-ended. One idea sort of trails off…and then another pops up in its place. The ellipsis captures the sense of flow of a dash or a comma splice, but not the sense of connectedness. It’s the perfect choice for SFP characters when used sparingly.
Periods: TJs and STPs
These practical types don’t have time for long sentences. They’re direct and honest. They focus on facts, not feelings. Their expression is short and sweet. (Or at least, short.)
Keep in mind that personality type is a natural tendency, not a limitation. Under stress, even an ENTJ might feel indecisive enough to use an ellipsis. Use punctuation with intent—and with care—to add spice to your writing.
How do you use punctuation to convey character in fiction or other creative writing? Leave a comment!