Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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March 30, 2018

Word Choice for Character Strength

Elizabeth Essex

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!

If you have questions or comments, I’ll be around to answer them, or you can write me at elizabeth@elizabethessex.com, or find me on Facebook, or Twitter and Instagram as @essexromance.

Wishing you all happy, powerful writing!

 *     *     *     *     *

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.

You can reach me at elizabeth@elizabethessex.com or on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/elizabeth.essex.94 , Twitter and Instagram at: @essexromance

25 comments on “Word Choice for Character Strength”

  1. Like you, Elizabeth, I can't do these the first time through. They occur to me usually when I'm reviewing what I wrote the day before.

    Love them, and thanks to Margie Lawson for teaching them to me!

  2. I write in deep POV, and try to make sure my word choices fit my characters, but if I go for the "like" phrases, my editor cuts them, saying they're distracting and actually slow the pace. She might give me 3 or 4 per book. And she never sees the ones my crit partners flag as "purple prose." Of course, that probably means I suck at coming up with them.

    It also might have to do with genre. I write action/romantic suspense, so there's not a lot of "time" for my characters to think in terms of metaphors. I tend to keep them short, again, for pacing.

    Here are some examples:

    "The cattle baron, who was built like one of the steers he raised, jerked his head in their direction."

    "They had people who could spin things like a Hanukkah dreidel."

    "Lexi paused, collected the thoughts she’d been gathering like a random bouquet of wildflowers, then let them scatter again."

    "Two tweakers, both scrawny, looking like they could barely lift the weight of their next fix, but so hopped up on meth it had been like trying to take down a couple of gorillas."

    "If Fish had had any doubts about the lengths Blackthorne would go for one of their own, they dissolved like the sugar Nana put in her coffee."

    I had one about tigers clawing at insides, but she'll nix that, I'm sure, so it might not even get to her.

    I'll be turning in my draft in a couple of weeks. We'll see what stands.

      1. I think she'll let most of these pass; it's when I try things like tigers clawing at his insides that she takes them out. Frankly, my take on a lot of metaphors is that they require the reader to conjure up secondary images, which slows things down.

        For example, in a high-action scene, I have "Barely aware of bumping into rocks, the waves crashing over his head, he aimed his body for the man."

        If I'd 'stopped' to add a metaphor (if that's the right term), about the waves crashing over his head "like" ... it, to me, would slow the read while the reader thinks about whatever I compared the waves to -- if that makes any sense.

        1. Terri,

          Yes, I do agree with you that both voice and genre play key roles in deciding how much, and when, to employ character-themed words, but there is plenty of space for them even without resorting to rhetorical devices like similes.

          And I love the examples you've given. I don't think they slow down your pacing at all. Of course it's hard to read any examples (even mine) out of context because any writing needs to fit seamlessly into your story, but I think yours DO fit seamlessly.

          While I do agree that these phrases do—and I think SHOULD—conjure up strong images or associations within the reader's mind, I think that is a perfect place for subtext and tone. These images go through the readers mind like a galloping horse—they really don't last long, but when they do, you want them to set the right tone.

          For example, your phrase, [Fish's doubts] "dissolved like the sugar Nana put in her coffee," is to me a calming, homey association. To me, this means that Fish has drawn the right conclusion. If you had wanted a different tone—if you wanted Fish's conclusion to be wrong about his doubts, I would go with a different phrase that will punch his gut more specifically into uneasiness.

          Thanks so much for sharing with us this morning! Cheers, EE

    1. I love these two particularly, Terry:

      “Two tweakers, both scrawny, looking like they could barely lift the weight of their next fix, but so hopped up on meth it had been like trying to take down a couple of gorillas.”

      “If Fish had had any doubts about the lengths Blackthorne would go for one of their own, they dissolved like the sugar Nana put in her coffee.”

      I hope you get to keep them!

  3. Your examples are amazing! (And I just finished that latest book this week—loved it!!!)

    As for me, I adore finding just the right character-themed words to sink the reader into deep POV. Here's a before/after example:

    BEFORE: "It was a bit much for cheater girl to be playing judge now. As far as I was concerned, she should get a life."
    AFTER: "It was a bit much for Scarlet Letter girl to be playing judge now. As far as I was concerned, she should go lasso a life."

    The character, Chloe, is a well-read high school student who often references classic literature, plus this scene happens at the Houston Rodeo. 🙂

    1. You are kindness itself, Julie. 🙂 I am thrilled you enjoyed Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Marry.

      And your example is marvelous! Especially as it involved the exchange of only a few words in each sentence. Using Character-Themed words does not have to be complicated or elaborate. Honing in on one or two words that can be made more specific to your character and her setting is all it takes.

      Thanks for sharing!

  4. Terry: IMHO even action oriented novels read better if the pacing is varied throughout the story. You don't want to break up a fight scene with metaphors, but a metaphor might fit in when describing the results at the end of the fight.

    1. This is a very apt suggestion! There are times when we want to give our reader the space for a deep breath, no matter the genre.

      Digging a little deeper into character, or employing character-themed words more strongly is best employed at those moments in your work where you especially want the reader to pay attention—when you're leaving a clue in suspense or mystery, or explaining a rule of the world in sci-fi or fantasy that is going to be important later, or that moment in romance when the hero and heroine "see" each other in a way that no one else in their world can.

      Those are the moments when you want your reader to spend a little extra time with the thought, and adding in rhetorical devices loaded with character-themed words can create that time.

      Thanks for sharing!

    2. Thanks, and yes. Since my books are also romantic suspense, the 'romance' scenes give the characters time to regroup, and readers can catch their breath. (Although when the Hubster reads those scenes, he plops the pages on my desk and says, "All right, I guess. A quiet scene.") He likes it when things blow up. 🙂

  5. Fantastic examples. Thanks for sharing.

    Here are a couple from my WIP. My protagonist is a teenager who loves visual arts and photography:

    Raindrops slide down the windows and make everything outside into an impressionist-blur.

    My insides go hard, like old clay. “She didn’t tell me that.”

    1. Miss W,

      Two great examples.

      But I LOVE, "My insides go hard, like old clay." Such a great visceral, told in a way that reminds us the character is into the arts. Brilliant.

      KEEP THAT UP!!! 🙂

      1. And I should also have said, that "My insides go hard, like old clay," is a great example of LOOKING AROUND THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENS to find the words or objects that will power up character.

        Even if this scene doesn't actually take place in an art or pottery studio, we know from this piece of dialog that the character HAS been in an art or pottery studio. This is something that the character has seen and stored in her memory. PERFECT!

  6. I love all of your examples! In my WIP, the main character has had a lot of experience with music, and music also plays a very big part in the story. I don't have any examples of my own, because I'm still on the first draft, but you've already given me lots of ideas! Thanks for the post! 😀

  7. My latest character-themed words, for an animal-loving girl who grew up scared with a father who inspired terror.

    "Fear stalked through my childhood, a rabid dog that refused to be put down."

    1. Jenny!!!

      (First—waving hi!!!)

      Second - BRILLIANT. Such a deeply powerful, vivid image.

      POWER WORDS: Fear, stalked, rabid, refused.

      And taken together, this phrase is deeply character-themed because of the heroine's childhood experiences.

      Think of a different heroine, with a different childhood—what would her fear be like? Maybe, "Fear was an omnipresent ache, eating at her hungry belly." Or what would a female cop be afraid of? "Fear was always two steps behind her, a stalker lurking just beyond the circle of light."

      Thank you so much for sharing, and giving us such a great example to work with and learn from!

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