Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
This is not an article about costuming your characters, though a character’s clothing can reveal personality and emotion. What I want to address here are words, the words you put in a character’s thoughts or dialogue, the words you use to describe a character, an event, or a scene.
I’ve covered this topic before, but I find it not only vital for writers, but fascinating on its own.
The right words can change an otherwise blah or common story into one with depth, emotion, and meaning. The right words can elevate a character into one who resonates with readers, into a character whose life touches those readers. The right words at the climax of a novel can change a reader’s life, send him on a new direction in his own life.
Words can be serviceable, getting the job done. Your intent may be to finish a manuscript, not necessarily create the novel of our time. But with a little, just a little, attention to word choice, your so-so story can become a memorable one, a story that sticks with readers after they close the book or set aside the e-reader.
One powerful but often neglected way to achieve a memorable story is to use words that fit your characters.
How Do Words Fit?
What am I talking about when I say that words should fit a character?
Just as clothes reveal personality (or social or financial status) in our world, so do words reveal and reflect our characters—their personalities, attitudes, emotions, and concerns.
Characters wear words. Words are what we use to clothe the people of our stories, to give them personality. And that wear may be a bad fit, a great one, or a neutral one that doesn’t tell us much.
We’ve all felt the jolt when the wrong words come out of a character’s mouth. We feel the bad fit, know when a character would not say a particular phrase or word.
But we don’t as easily recognize when the words are simply bland or only slightly off. That is, we may not be jarred when we read words that aren’t too bad a fit. Yet, if we were to tailor the words for our characters, readers would notice. They’d notice the cohesion. They’d notice the impact. They’d notice the strength in phrases that truly reflect a character’s motivation and background and attitude.
Words that truly fit, as opposed to those that are a so-so fit, lead readers deep into story. Great-fitting words strengthen the ties and threads that lace a story together, making it an integrated whole, a story with purpose and substance.
As clothes make the man, words make the character. And the right words used by a character, as well as those spoken about him, create memorable characters who resonate with readers.
As soon as we write a character description, we’ve clothed a character. Not in a flashy outfit, but in personality. Our word choices give readers a sense of who a character is, what she’s like, what she wants.
If we say a character is anal, readers know exactly what we mean. If we describe a character as generous with time or money, we’ve clothed that character with a giving personality.
We can paint description by showing how a character dresses, what he eats, how he walks, and the details of his speech patterns and habits and mannerisms. We also clothe a character with personality when we let other characters describe him, when they react to him.
We may use description both to show and to tell.
Ed was a hard man.
Ed, assistant principal at Hobart High School, ate fiber cereal—no milk—for breakfast, black coffee at ten, and out-of-control freshmen for his afternoon snack.
Word choice is one of the major influences on mood. Words convey tone, they bear emotion and nuance. Words can rattle readers, tugging and pulling and twisting their emotions into a response that they’ll carry forward through the story.
If we want a dark scene, we must choose words that not only provoke darkness, but words that give darkness a place to dwell, that create a framework that can be built upon and utilized by the darkness. When we want to establish a mood in a scene, we match word choice to the mood we want.
If we’re going for somber, characters won’t be cracking jokes (though dark jokes could find their way into such a scene).
Unless we’re using words for deliberate contrast, we don’t want light and fluffy, sunny words in a dank cellar filled with decomposing bodies. For a mood to fit the scene, we must choose words with deliberation, with purpose in mind.
On the other hand, a lighthearted feel won’t be achieved through a character who speaks with the slow and deliberate and near sorrowful words (and cadence) of Eeyore.
Match words to tone and mood. And remember that readers have varied experiences—not every reader will feel the same mood because of word choice. If one reader had a vivid negative experience with a clown, he might not read a scene’s mood as lighthearted, even if a dozen clowns romp with abandon.
Use pointed words to convey your character’s attitude. If he’s surly, give him short words that make him sound surly. If your character doesn’t care about something tragic that’s about to explode around him, don’t put words such as worry, concern, hesitation, or fear into his dialogue or into his thoughts.
Match word to attitude. Match word to the attitude a character hopes to have.
A character may fool others but not himself or himself but not others. Choose words that allow a reader to know both his true attitude and the one he hopes to project.
Do the words you choose fit the emotion you want to convey or induce in the reader? They should.
A reader who feels an emotion while reading a scene or book is invested. He’s touched. You’ve got him experiencing a bit of fiction as if it were really happening.
That’s powerful. That’s one of our goals as writers. And that can be difficult to achieve.
Choose words that get a rise out of the reader. Let your character tick someone off or spout off with a nasty speech that would stir anyone’s emotions, then put a strong response in the mouth of another character.
Refuse to play it safe.
Write with boldness. This is no time for squeamishness or for holding back. Go for the emotional jugular and don’t let go.
If you don’t tap into reader emotion—if you don’t give readers a reason to feel emotion—you haven’t done your job as a writer. If characters don’t convey their feelings through thought or dialogue or action, readers won’t feel. And you will have lost your chance for entangling readers in your fictional world.
What am I talking about here?
Have you chosen the best word or phrase for the moment? Do you use the word concern? Would worry be better? How about fear? Dread?
Have you pushed enough or do you hold back? Holding back should not be your first choice. Yes, you might go overboard. But you can always tone down the emotional words. But try pushing the emotions first. Make the character and the reader feel. Make them feel exactly what the scene calls for. Put emotion-laden words on your character. And watch how they’ll not only sparkle, but spark, spark stronger writing and more emotion and a deeper level of intensity for the reader.
Characters have a history, whether the story delves into it or whether you’ve actually developed one for them.
For realism, characters should use words that fit their experiences and backgrounds, areas that include education, income level, parents’ interests, and family social background.
If your character is a dockworker who dropped out of school at 14, he shouldn’t sound like a Ph.D. in linguistics. And your Ph.D. shouldn’t sound like a woman who’s never read a newspaper.
Have characters speak and think words that relate to their jobs. This is a great trick for keeping the reader subconsciously thinking about all the facets of a character’s life.
So a carpenter, even when he’s not working, might pound (Kirk pounded up the stairs), might nail (“You nailed it, buddy,” Kirk said to his son), or he might join or trim or smooth.
An accountant might keep a running total of all the grievances against him.
A baker might decorate her life with friends who ask nothing of her.
Workplace or job words can go a long way, so you wouldn’t want to overdo on their use, but they can be quite effective for pulling a story together in terms of cohesion.
Just as a character can be dressed in words from her history and experiences, so can she wear words that reflect her interests.
If you’ve given a character a hobby, give her words—in thought, dialogue, and description—that reflect her hobby and her affection (or loathing) of that hobby.
Dreams and Fears
While a character may not always wear her dreams and fears where other characters can see them, she should wear them at some time. Maybe when she’s alone or when she’s allowing herself to be vulnerable, open to another character.
Readers should see the dream coat and the fear garments; the words you choose need to convey your character’s dreams and fears. Even her motivation.
Your words should be accurate and specific and fitting for character, moment, action, setting, era, genre, and plot.
Word choice is key for crafting engrossing characters, enthralling plots, and powerful emotions. And sometimes the simplest word can steer the course of a story.
Does a character fume or ponder or think? Does he wait or anticipate or simply hang on? Does he walk across a room or saunter or race or lope? Does he eat a meal or wolf down his burger or choke over every dry mouthful?
Does a woman look up at her lover? Maybe. Maybe look up at is perfect for the scene and the woman and the lover and the moment. But look up at isn’t always perfect. Sometimes a woman needs to gaze at her lover. Other times she might want to study him, inspect every line on his face, search his eyes for the words he couldn’t say.
Maybe she blinks up at him or peers up from under her lashes, hiding her own feelings.
This may sound as if I’m asking you to simply find synonyms for common words, yet that’s not my intent. I am asking you to find words that fit, words appropriate to your character at this moment in her life.
Have you clothed her for the conditions, given her what she needs in order to face other characters, the setting, and the action to come?
You need to. You need to clothe your characters appropriately. Refuse to send your characters naked or ill-clothed into your scenes. Give them clothing that not only fits but is useful.
Give them words that reflect who they are, what they want, and what they’re willing to try as they go after their goals.
Give them not only the best words, but the best-fitting words. If the word means nothing in another context but means everything for your character, use it. And then join your words into sentences and scenes and chapters that produce a cohesive whole, a story that fits because you’ve given your characters words that fit in every way.