by Fae Rowen
Last week I was writing a character study for my WIP. The character is persistent, never giving up, even when the cause seems lost. At times she's like a small child who keeps asking "Why?" and driving the adults around her crazy. I had more than a half dozen adjectives in my list, but something seemed lacking. I added perseverance.
On my trail walk, I thought about persistence versus perseverance. If I were in a hurry, I would have stopped at persistence. But as I mentally detailed the difference between the two words, persistence took on a more negative flavor. At home, I used the thesaurus and found these words for persistent: perseverance, tenacious, determined, obstinate, stubborn, pushy, relentless, insistent, continuing. The words for perseverance included: determination, insistence, stubbornness, doggedness, diligence, resolve, drive, purpose, tenacity, dedication, devotion, tirelessness, pushiness.
When you compare the two lists, the words are very close in meaning. But the diligence, resolve, drive, dedication, devotion and purpose in the perseverance column, convinced me that I made the right choice in labeling my character as exhibiting perseverance.
As writers, taking the time to drill down to the finer meaning of the words we choose can help us better define characters, their goals and motivation, and our stories. Think of this exercise like an artist painting a color wheel. The primary colors are placed within the wheel, then the artist must mix the paints to move from red to red-orange to orange to orange-yellow, and finally yellow. All the gradations between red and yellow are shown in the small space on the wheel.
If we became adept painters with our word choices, we can convey more depth to our readers without having to resort to telling them what we want them to know.
Let's look at another word pairing. Do you want to humble an arrogant character or do you want to humiliate him? When someone is humbled, their pride or rank is lowered. But when you humiliate a character you shame him, usually in public. That character loses self-respect and the respect of others. Again, as writers the careful choice words we use to describe the humbling or the humiliation can help us convey the feeling we want the reader to experience. There's a big difference between calling a lover a "boy toy" or a "friend" or a "sweetheart" or a "partner."
I've been guilty of using my thesaurus to find a synonym quickly. A good thesaurus can do much more than that, if we're aware of the gradations of meaning as we look for a "better" or "fresher" word. A partnership can be an association, a connection, a collaboration, or an alliance. By choosing a more descriptive word, we can subtlely convey more meaning without having to spend precious word count to explain what we're trying to say.
You don't need to be tied to a dictionary or thesaurus to be mindful of your word choices. And you don't need to do this for every word in your story. But the important words, the words that describe your characters' emotions, their character traits, the turning points, deserve extra time and thought.
Taking time and care with critical words is like using the right tool for the job. When you have the best word to describe a situation, that word does your work better than a paragraph of explanation ever could. The pace of your story isn't slowed with exposition or back story. The reader builds and fills in details that enrich their experience and make that experience unique to each reader.
Take a few moments to think about how you could describe a plain Jane character on the first page, using one word to convey much more than the cliched plain Jane. Don't turn to a thesaurus. Picture the character. Watch her. Make up a backstory for her. Then sift through words until you find the best one to describe what you want a reader to know about this character.
You'll find this gets easier, and it will help you hone in on your characters' important traits. And an added side benefit: you'll find yourself writing fresher descriptions, combinations of words you haven't seen before.
Do you have an example of a refined word choice that you'd like to share?
Why did you choose one word over the other?