My favorite things about any book is always the CHARACTERS—I like Pride & Prejudice more than Northanger Abbey, because I like forthright Lizzie Bennet more than I like silly but well-meaning Catherine Moreland. But I love Persuasion best of all because I LOVE sweet, kind, thoughtful, long-suffering Anne Elliot.
That is why I believe every word in your novel should serve two purposes:
— to move the plot forward,
— and give greater insight into the characters
so our readers have an authentic and immersive experience—that is, a unique experience that they witness through eyes, ears, sensory experiences and emotions of our characters.
We can achieve this by using “power words,” “scene-themed words,” but more especially “character-themed” words.
Power Words give strong images & associations and drive up tension
Scene-themed words give us the vital information to tell us where and when we are in the story and what’s going on.
Character-themed words give us insight into the mind and thoughts of our characters
But the MOST POWERFUL WORD is one that does double or triple duty in combining all three of these concepts together.
In my first drafts, I give myself permission to write lazily—to give an easy, generic description, or fall back into cliché—just to get the action of the story down on paper. But once I can see the through-line of the plot, then I like to go back and find opportunities to inject as much POWER, SETTING and CHARACTER into my work as possible.
Let’s look at six specific examples from my latest Highland Brides novel, Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Marry.
Ewan Cameron, 5th Duke of Crieff’s joy was a rare and pleasantly exhilarating thing, like the hot tot of strong Scots whisky he tossed back to celebrate the good news—he was going to be married.
In this passage the character-themed phrase is “hot tot of strong Scots Whisky.” I could have said “he took a strong drink,” or “tossed back a bolt of brandy.” But I chose power words that would also place us strongly in the setting—the highlands of Scotland—and tell us more about the hero’s character—he’s a strong Scotsman through and through.
Note also: I’ve made this phrase punch over its weight by adding rhyme (hot tot) and alliteration (strong Scots) for cadence.
He slitted one eye open to see an auld fellow wearing a weather-beaten face leaning over him, inspecting him like a gralloched deer on a game larder hook.
Our character-themed phrase is Our character-themed phrase is like a gralloched deer on a game larder hook. I could have said (and probably did in my first draft), “like meat on a butcher’s counter,” which was a good, vivid description, but did little to punch up the setting and make the circumstances unique to the hero’s world. You don’t even have to know the Scots colloquial power word “gralloched” (gutted) to get a very visceral, vivid picture that is specific to this hero’s life in the Scottish countryside.
Greer knew she was no conventional beauty—she was too ordinary, too sharp-jawed, too flame-haired to be considered bonnie anywhere but Scotland—but she knew she was loved. Which gave one a different sort of beauty—a beauty that came from confidence in one’s merits instead of solely one’s looks.
In my first draft, I had used the rather ordinary phrase “considered pretty anywhere but Scotland.” But I made the phrase work a little bit harder with the simple use of a setting and character-specific colloquial word, ‘bonnie’ instead. It was a small change, but one that deepened both character and setting.
The lass came over the lip of the ridge like the sunrise—sweeping the glen with light and warmth. Not that he had been watching for her, but the peregrine falcons high on the cliff tops had nothing on him for sharpness of eye.
I could have said ‘the girl’ came over the ridge, but I chose the more colloquial, scene and character-specific word ‘lass.’ And then to describe the way the hero had been watching for her, I visualized his world in the highlands of Scotland, and decided that the sharpest eyes in his world would be peregrine falcons, which are native to the highlands. If this book had been set in the slums of London, I might have said the “cutty-eyed kid men of Covent Garden had nothing on him for sharpness of eye.”
[He was] afraid he would startle her into flight like a deer at the sound of a gunshot.
This character-themed phrase is specific to this hero’s life and surroundings. If this were a contemporary-set thriller, I might convey someone’s startlement differently: “the backfire made her hit the deck faster than a combat medic,” or something that would convey an instantly vivid picture of the character’s world and experiences. And this image from the hero’s background—he has stalked deer in these mountains—gives the strong, power word “gunshot” at the end of the sentence foreshadows that very soon in the book, someone is going to take a shot at this lass.
Her heart leapt like a highland dancer.
I could have just said her heart leapt—that would have given me a good visceral reaction. But I wanted to go deeper, and convey that this was a joyous reaction, not a fearful one. So I chose “highland dancer’ to create an uplifting image—all that colorful, pointed elegance—that is specific to the characters and the setting of the novel.
Lesson learned: We use a great many words over the course of a full-length novel—but we want to make them do more heavy hitting, but doubling, and tripling their power by adding scene-themed or setting specific words along with character-themed words that are specific to the hero and heroine’s experiences in their world.
Think about your own work in progress—what unique experiences does your character have that you can use in your story to give your readers an authentic experience? Please use the comments to share an example of before and after from your own work!
Wishing you all happy, powerful writing!
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If you have questions, need clarification or want more examples, I often teach my “All About Character” class at Lawson’s Writer’s Academy, and do presentations on “Word Choice for Character” to writing groups.
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