Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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It’s okay to hiss —

Your character can indeed hiss, as well as whisper, murmur, mutter, and so on — according to Chuck Wendig at Terrible Minds.

Here I have been persuaded by various copy editors and demagogues that a character can’t hiss — unless the words in question include sibilants. But Chuck has convinced me otherwise. Like so:

Let’s assume that Merriam-Webster is a fair authority, yeah?

Go to their definition of hiss, please.

You will note that their definitions include:

1: to express disapproval of by hissing

2: to utter or whisper angrily or threateningly and with a hiss

Just in case we’re not clear, let’s look at their sample sentences, one of which is:

‘“Leave me alone!” he hissed.’

See? It’s okay. Some people get caught up in the literal definition where it requires sibilance — but even there, you’re in tricky territory, because writing fiction is not like writing a fucking software manual. Not everything has to be literal. If I say someone growled something, they don’t first have to be a wolf or a fucking Yeti to do that. When I say, “We dug up new information,” it doesn’t require a literal shovel, nor is a backhoe required when I say, “She dug the idea.” We all understand she liked the idea, not that she had to excavate it physically. And when we say that someone hissed something, we do not explicitly require them to have snakily-sibilantly-hissed it at them. Because language is a fucking playground and we can have some fun with it. We can attempt to evoke with metaphorical or phrasal verbs. Language is fluid. It shifts and changes. So must our expectations of it.

I never thought of hissed as in the same category as growled; ie, fair game no matter what words are coming out of the character’s mouth. But I think I will consider the word equally okay from now on.

What do you all think, would it bother you to have a character hiss without sibilants?

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3 Comments It’s okay to hiss —

  1. Mike S.

    I’ve never forgotten Steven Brust’s bit in Taltos:

    ‘She hissed, “No, I’m going to lie right here forever.” Yes, I know there are no sibilants in what she said. I don’t care; she hissed it.’

  2. Elaine T

    There’s a character in the anime Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood whose voice actor played him as having a hissy, slithery voice – so it’s definitely possible to ‘hiss’ without actual sibilants.

    The character was Kimblee, in case anyone is curious. The actor did someone else’s voice – Sano, in the live action Kenshin (English dub) – completely differently, loud and blustery, so I know the qualities of Kimblee’s voice were deliberate.

    There’s also someone who voiced a Slayers character as having a throbbing voice, which I didn’t think was actually possible. Never caught that actress on anything else, so don’t know if that was natural, or acting.

    Paying attention to voice actors can help when trying to describe voices I think.

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