A reblog from last Christmas! I will be away for Christmas and these are my favorites to share! Merry Christmas to one and all!
Here are 11 secrets to keep in mind as you breathe life into your characters through description that Rebecca finds to be very important in writing descriptively.
- Description that relies solely on physical attributes too often turns into what Janet Burroway calls the “all-points bulletin.”
When we describe a character, factual information alone is not sufficient, no matter how accurate it might be. The details must appeal to our senses. Phrases that merely label (like tall, middle-aged, and average) bring no clear image to our minds. Since most people form their first impression of someone through visual clues, it makes sense to describe our characters using visual images. Green eyes is a beginning, but it doesn’t go far enough. Are they pale green or dark green? Even a simple adjective can strengthen a detail. If the adjective also suggests a metaphor—forest green, pea green, or emerald green—the reader not only begins to make associations (positive or negative) but also visualizes in her mind’s eye the vehicle of the metaphor—forest trees, peas, or glittering gems.
- The problem with intensifying an image only by adjectives is that adjectives encourage .
It’s hard to think of adjective descriptors that haven’t been overused: bulging or ropy muscles, clean-cut good looks, frizzy hair. If you use an adjective to describe a physical attribute, make sure that the phrase is not only accurate and sensory but also fresh. In her short story “Flowering Judas,” Katherine Anne Porter describes Braggioni’s singing voice as a “furry, mournful voice” that takes the high notes “in a prolonged painful squeal.” Often the easiest way to avoid an adjective-based cliché is to free the phrase entirely from its adjective modifier. For example, rather than describing her eyes merely as “hazel,” Emily Dickinson remarked that they were “the color of the sherry the guests leave in the glasses.”
- Strengthen physical descriptions by making details more specific.
In my earlier “all-points bulletin” example, the description of the father’s hair might be improved with a detail such as “a military buzz-cut, prickly to the touch” or “the aging hippie’s last chance—a long ponytail striated with gray.” Either of these descriptions would paint a stronger picture than the bland phrase brown hair. In the same way, his oxford shirt could become “a white oxford button-down that he’d steam-pleated just minutes before” or “the same style of baby blue oxford he’d worn since prep school, rolled carelessly at the elbows.” These descriptions not only bring forth images, they also suggest the background and the personality of the father.
- Select physical details carefully, choosing only those that create the strongest, most revealing impression.
One well-chosen physical trait, item of clothing, or idiosyncratic mannerism can reveal character more effectively than a dozen random images. This applies to characters in nonfiction as well as fiction. When I write about my grandmother, I usually focus on her strong, jutting chin—not only because it was her most dominant feature but also because it suggests her stubbornness and determination. When I write about Uncle Leland, I describe the wandering eye that gave him a perpetually distracted look, as if only his body was present. His spirit, it seemed, had already left on some journey he’d glimpsed peripherally, a place the rest of us were unable to see. As you describe real-life characters, zero in on distinguishing characteristics that reveal personality: gnarled, arthritic hands always busy at some task; a habit of covering her mouth each time a giggle rises up; a lopsided swagger as he makes his way to the horse barn; the scent of coconut suntan oil, cigarettes, and leather each time she sashays past your chair.
- A character’s immediate surroundings can provide the backdrop for the sensory and significant details that shape the description of the character himself.
If your character doesn’t yet have a job, a hobby, a place to live, or a place to wander, you might need to supply these things. Once your character is situated comfortably, he may relax enough to reveal his secrets. On the other hand, you might purposely make your character uncomfortable—that is, put him in an environment where he definitely doesn’t fit, just to see how he’ll respond. Let’s say you’ve written several descriptions of an elderly woman working in the kitchen, yet she hasn’t begun to ripen into the three-dimensional character you know she could become. Try putting her at a gay bar on a Saturday night, or in a tattoo parlor, or (if you’re up for a little time travel) at Appomattox, serving her famous buttermilk biscuits to Grant and Lee.
- In describing a character’s surroundings, you don’t have to limit yourself to a character’s present life.
Early environments shape fictional characters as well as flesh-and-blood people. In Flaubert’s description of Emma Bovary’s adolescent years in the convent, he foreshadows the woman she will become, a woman who moves through life in a romantic malaise, dreaming of faraway lands and loves. We learn about Madame Bovary through concrete, sensory descriptions of the place that formed her. In addition, Flaubert describes the book that held her attention during mass and the images that she particularly loved—a sick lamb, a pierced heart.
Living among those white-faced women with their rosaries and copper crosses, never getting away from the stuffy schoolroom atmosphere, she gradually succumbed to the mystic languor exhaled by the perfumes of the altar, the coolness of the holy-water fonts and the radiance of the tapers. Instead of following the Mass, she used to gaze at the azure-bordered religious drawings in her book. She loved the sick lamb, the Sacred Heart pierced with sharp arrows, and poor Jesus falling beneath His cross.
- Characters reveal their inner lives—their preoccupations, values, lifestyles, likes and dislikes, fears and aspirations—by the objects that fill their hands, houses, offices, cars, suitcases, grocery carts, and dreams.
What items would your character pack for a weekend away? What would she use for luggage? A leather valise with a gold monogram on the handle? An old accordion case with decals from every theme park she’s visited? A duffel bag? Make a list of everything your character would pack: a “Save the Whales” T-shirt; a white cotton nursing bra, size 36D; a breast pump; a Mickey Mouse alarm clock; a photograph of her husband rocking a child to sleep; a can of Mace; three Hershey bars.
- Description doesn’t have to be direct to be effective.
Techniques abound for describing a character indirectly, for instance, through the objects that fill her world. Create a grocery list for your character—or two or three, depending on who’s coming for dinner. Show us the character’s credit card bill or the itemized deductions on her income tax forms. Let your character host a garage sale and watch her squirm while neighbors and strangers rifle through her stuff. Which items is she practically giving away? What has she overpriced, secretly hoping no one will buy it? Write your character’s Last Will and Testament. Which niece gets the Steinway? Who gets the lake cottage—the stepson or the daughter? If your main characters are divorcing, how will they divide their assets? Which one will fight hardest to keep the dog?
- To make characters believable to readers, set them in motion.
The earlier “all-points bulletin” description of the father failed not only because the details were mundane and the prose stilted; it also suffered from lack of movement. To enlarge the description, imagine that same father in a particular setting—not just in the house but also sitting in the brown recliner. Then, because setting implies time as well as place, choose a particular time in which to place him. The time may be bound by the clock (six o’clock, sunrise, early afternoon) or bound only by the father’s personal history (after the divorce, the day he lost his job, two weeks before his sixtieth birthday).
Then set your character in motion. Again, be as specific as possible. “Reading the newspaper” is a start, but it does little more than label a generic activity. In order for readers to enter the fictional dream, the activity must be shown. Often this means breaking a large, generic activity into smaller, more particular parts: “scowling at the Dow Jones averages,” perhaps, or “skimming the used-car ads” or “wiping his ink-stained fingers on the monogrammed handkerchief.” Besides providing visual images for the reader, specific and representative actions also suggest the personality of the character, his habits and desires, and even the emotional life hidden beneath the physical details.
- Verbs are the foot soldiers of action-based description.
However, we don’t need to confine our use of verbs to the actions a character performs. Well-placed verbs can sharpen almost any physical description of a character. In the following passage from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, verbs enliven the description even when the grandmother isn’t in motion.
Notice the strong verbs Robinson uses throughout the description. The mouth “bowed” forward; the brow “sloped” back; the hair “hovered,” then “sprouted”; the hem “swept” the floor; hats “fell” down over her eyes. Even when the grandmother’s body is at rest, the description pulses with activity. And when the grandmother finally does move—putting a hand over her mouth, closing her eyes, laughing until her shoulders shake—we visualize her in our mind’s eye because the actions are concrete and specific. They are what the playwright David Mamet calls “actable actions.” Opening a window is an actable action, as is slamming a door. “Coming to terms with himself” or “understanding that he’s been wrong all along” are not actable actions. This distinction between nonactable and actable actions echoes our earlier distinction between showing and telling. For the most part, a character’s movements must be rendered concretely—that is, shown—before the reader can participate in the fictional dream.
Actable actions are important elements in many fiction and nonfiction scenes that include dialogue. In some cases, actions, along with environmental clues, are even more important to character development than the words the characters speak. Writers of effective dialogue include pauses, voice inflections, repetitions, gestures, and other details to suggest the psychological and emotional subtext of a scene. Journalists and other nonfiction writers do the same. Let’s say you’ve just interviewed your cousin about his military service during the Vietnam War. You have a transcript of the interview, based on audio or video recordings, but you also took notes about what else was going on in that room. As you write, include nonverbal clues as well as your cousin’s actual words. When you asked him about his tour of duty, did he look out the window, light another cigarette, and change the subject? Was it a stormy afternoon? What song was playing on the radio? If his ancient dog was asleep on your cousin’s lap, did he stroke the dog as he spoke? When the phone rang, did your cousin ignore it or jump up to answer it, looking relieved for the interruption? Including details such as these will deepen your character description.
- We don’t always have to use concrete, sensory details to describe our characters, and we aren’t limited to describing actable actions.
The novels of Milan Kundera use little outward description of characters or their actions. Kundera is more concerned with a character’s interior landscape, with what he calls a character’s “existential problem,” than with sensory description of person or action. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tomas’s body is not described at all, since the idea of body does not constitute Tomas’s internal dilemma. Teresa’s body is described in physical, concrete terms (though not with the degree of detail most novelists would employ) only because her body represents one of her existential preoccupations. For Kundera, a novel is more a meditation on ideas and the private world of the mind than a realistic depiction of characters. Reading Kundera, I always feel that I’m living inside the characters rather than watching them move, bodily, through the world.
With writers like Kundera, we learn about characters through the themes and obsessions of their inner lives, their “existential problems” as depicted primarily through dreams, visions, memories, and thoughts. Other writers probe characters’ inner lives through what characters see through their eyes.
… and I saw how the smooth, white curve of the snow as it lay on the ground was like the curve of a woman’s body, and I saw how the farm was like the body of a woman which lay down under the sun and under the freezing snow and perpetually and relentlessly produced uncountable swarms of living things, all born with mouths open and cries rising from them into the air, long-boned muzzles opening … as if they would swallow the world whole …
Later in the book, when Agnes’s sexual relationship has led to pregnancy, then to a life-threatening abortion, she describes the farm in quite different terms.
It was August, high summer, but there was something definite and curiously insubstantial in the air. … In the fields near me, the cattle were untroubled, their jaws grinding the last of the grass, their large, fat tongues drinking the clear brook water. But there was something in the air, a sad note the weather played upon the instrument of the bone-stretched skin. … In October, the leaves would be off the trees; the fallen leaves would be beaten flat by heavy rains and the first fall of snow. The bony ledges of the earth would begin to show, the earth’s skeleton shedding its unnecessary flesh.
By describing the farm through Agnes’s eyes, Schaeffer not only shows us Agnes’s inner landscape—her ongoing obsession with sex and pregnancy—but also demonstrates a turning point in Agnes’s view of sexuality. In the first passage, which depicts a farm in winter, Agnes sees images of beginnings and births. The earth is curved and full like a woman’s fleshy body. In the second scene, described as occurring in “high summer,” images of death prevail. Agnes’s mind jumps ahead to autumn, to dying leaves and heavy rains, a time when the earth, no longer curved in a womanly shape, is little more than a skeleton, having shed the flesh it no longer needs. ****originally posted Writer’s Digest by Rebecca McClanahan
Creative Writing Prompts by Melissa Donovan, https: http://www.writingforward.com
Get inspired by the future. How would people in the Middle Ages respond to a television? What would someone from the 1700s think of a helicopter? What would a person from the early twentieth century think of a computer, or more specifically, the Internet?
They would think these things were magical — either illusions or genuine supernatural occurrences. They might even believe the persons yielding the magical objects were witches, wizards, or gods.But you and I both know that’s not the case. Televisions, helicopters, and computers are all very real, and thanks to modern technology, most of us have access to them.
We humans have a tendency to believe that we are at the apex of knowledge — that right now, we know as much as we ever will. As much as we love fictional, futuristic stories, we tend to think of them as fanciful. Sure, a great writer or a skilled filmmaker can help us suspend our disbelief for the duration of a book or a film, but sitting in your living room on an ordinary day, it all seems rather unlikely, doesn’t it? People bouncing around in time? Fighting intergalactic wars in outer space? Come on.
But if you stop to wonder what our world will look like 100 or 1000 years in the future, these fantastical ideas don’t seem so crazy. What incredible inventions will be developed over the course of the next millennium?
Asking questions about the future is an excellent way to generate ideas for speculative fiction. Let’s Take a Trip to the Future Let’s do some thought exercises to flex your imagination. You’ll need to envision what the world looked like in the past, what it looks like today, and what it might look like in the distant future.
Use these questions to spark ideas and then write anything you want: a poem, a story, a personal essay, or just a short scene. The goal is to engage your imagination, remove barriers that block all the possibilities, and open your mind.
Some of humankind’s greatest achievements have been in medicine. We now use all the technologies at our disposal to diagnose, treat, and prevent illnesses — from pills and vaccines to X-rays and MRIs. From a device as simple as a stethoscope to one as complex as microscope, we’ve made wellness possible in ways that couldn’t have been imagined a few hundred years ago. What is yet to come? How will health care change in the future? Will we walk through a machine that scans our bodies to detect any possible ailment? Will there be a heal-all pill? And for each advance we make, will another new devastating disease rear its head?
Advances in travel are awe-inspiring. There was a time when humans were limited to travel by foot. Then came the wheel, which made the cart possible. Later, ships carried people across water. Eventually, trains made high-speed, long-distance travel possible. Next, the airplane. Then, spaceships took us higher and submarines took us deeper. Where will we go next? Will intergalactic travel ever be possible? What about teleportation? Time travel? A thousand years ago, it’s doubtful most people believed traveling to the moon was possible. Where will we go a thousand years from now?
Technology has grown rampantly in the past few decades. Since the 1970s, almost all households in developed countries are equipped with more than one television, stereo, and computer. We can store an entire library of books, movies, and music on a device that fits in the palms of our hands. Two hundred years ago, if you wanted to talk to someone, you had to go to their house. Fifty years ago, you had to find a phone and dial their number. Today, you reach into your pocket, pull out your device, and press a button. How will personal technology advance in the next 100 years?
It’s not easy for everyone to imagine things that don’t exist yet. It might help if you can summon your old history lessons. If you can conceptualize where we’ve been and contrast it with where we are now, you might start getting ideas about where we’ll be at some point in the future. Run with your ideas, even if they seem crazy, absurd, or impossible. The purpose is to let your imagination run wild and to have fun.
Once you’re done, come back and tell us what inspired you. What did you write? Was it fun to explore the future? Will you keep writing?
Reading Aggravated Momentum, a murder mystery, by author Didi Oviatt, is like stepping into the life of a real serial killer. Adding to the story are two sisters, Kam and Markie. Markie has no idea that a friend is plotting the deaths of her other friends and even Markie herself. This friend is meticulously good at hiding his murderous deeds and enjoys every step into murder with glee.
The writer also allows the reader to see, from the victims’ point of view, the terror, fear, and shock as it is happening in real time – as the victim begins to realize what is going to happen with disbelief, and no amount of reason, begging or pleading will change the outcome. At first, you don’t have a clue who the murderer is, but then the murderer lets you in on his murders and his plans for more murders, as he licks his lips with sexually sadistic anticipation.
The author has fashioned this murderer in such a way that you get to go inside his mind, see how he thinks, feel his emotions, his thought processes and his sadistic appetite for torture. Aggravated Momentum is so well written that you are taken into the story in a very real way, knowing that this kind of murdering individual could be anyone you know.
The realism is so incredibly well done that it is one of the most terrifying depictions of its kind that I have ever read. It will terrify you and you may never look at your neighbors and friends in the same way again. The idiom, “you never really know anyone”, comes alive in this story like never before. Aggravated momentum lives up to its title in a very real way and you can’t even guess the ending. I highly recommend this journey into the mind of a real-to-life, sexually sadistic murderer. 5 Stars !
Virginia Woolf: “The psychic risk of a novel such as Woolf’s The Waves is vast – particularly for someone for whom psychic risk was so potentially debilitating.” This article is Written by Toby Litt who is a London-based writer. Hospital, his latest novel, is published by Hamish Hamilton. ( A reblog from 2015)
Bad writing is mainly boring writing. It can be boring because it is too confused or too logical, or boring because it is hysterical or lethargic, or boring because nothing really happens. If I give you a 400 page manuscript of an unpublished novel – something that I consider to be badly written – you may read it to the end, but you will suffer as you do.
It’s possible that you’ve never had to read 80,000 words of bad writing. The friend of a friend’s novel. I have. On numerous occasions. If you ask around, I’m sure you’ll be able to find a really bad novel easily enough. I mean a novel by someone who has spent isolated years writing a book they are convinced is a great work of literature. And when you’re reading it you’ll know it’s bad, and you’ll know what bad truly is.
The friend of a friend’s novel may have some redeeming features – the odd nicely shaped sentence, the stray brilliant image. But it is still an agony to force oneself to keep going. It is still telling you nothing you didn’t already know.
Bad writers continue to write badly because they have many reasons – in their view very good reasons – for writing in the way they do. Writers are bad because they cleave to the causes of writing badly.
Bad writing is almost always a love poem addressed by the self to the self. The person who will admire it first and last and most is the writer herself.
When Updike began writing Rabbit, Run it was either going to be a great technical feat or a humiliating misjudgment
While bad writers may read a great many diverse works of fiction, they are unable or unwilling to perceive the things these works do which their own writing fails to do. So the most dangerous kind of writers for bad writers to read are what I call excuse writers – writers of the sort who seem to grant permission to others to borrow or imitate their failings.
I’ll give you some examples: Jack Kerouac, John Updike, David Foster Wallace, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, Maya Angelou. Bad writers bulwark themselves against a confrontation of their own badness by references to other writers with whom they feel they share certain defense of worthy characteristics. They write defensive admirations: “If Updike can get away with these kind of half-page descriptions of women’s breasts, I can too” or “If Virginia Woolf is a bit woozy on spatiality, on putting things down concretely, I’ll just let things float free”. If another writer’s work survives on charm, you will never be able to steal it, only imitate it in an embarrassingly obvious way.
Bad writing is writing defensively; good writing is a way of making the self as vulnerable as possible. The psychic risk of a novel such as Woolf’s The Waves is vast – particularly for someone for whom psychic risk was so potentially debilitating. When Updike began writing Rabbit, Run all in the present tense, it was either going to be a great technical feat or a humiliating aesthetic misjudgment. (Excuse writers aren’t, in themselves, bad writers; not at all.)
Often, the bad writer will feel that they have a particular story they want to tell. It may be a story passed on to them by their grandmother or it may be something that happened to them when they were younger. Until they’ve told this particular story, they feel they can’t move on. But because the material is so close to them they can’t mess around with it enough to learn how writing works. And, ultimately, they lack the will to betray the material sufficiently to make it true.
Bad writers often want to rewrite a book by another writer that is written in a different time period, under completely different social conditions. Because it’s a good book, they see no reason why they can’t simply do the same kind of thing again. They don’t understand that even historical novels or science fiction novels are a response to a particular moment. And pretending that the world isn’t as it is – or that the world should still be as it once was – is disastrous for any serious fiction.
Any attempt to write fiction in order to make the world a better, fairer place is almost certain to fail
Conversely, bad writers often write in order to forward a cause or enlarge other people’s understanding of a contemporary social issue. Any attempt to write fiction in order to make the world a better, fairer place is almost certain to fail. Holding any value as more important than learning to be a good writer is dangerous. Put very simply, your characters must be alive before they seek justice.
Bad writers often believe they have very little left to learn, and that it is the literary world’s fault that they have not yet been recognised, published, lauded and laurelled. It is a very destructive thing to believe that you are very close to being a good writer, and that all you need to do is keep going as you are rather than completely reinvent what you are doing. Bad writers think: “I want to write this.” Good writers think: “This is being written.”
To go from being a competent writer to being a great writer, I think you have to risk being – or risk being seen as – a bad writer. Competence is deadly because it prevents the writer risking the humiliation that they will need to risk before they pass beyond competence. To write competently is to do a few magic tricks for friends and family; to write well is to run away to join the circus.
Your friends and family will love your tricks, because they love you. But try busking those tricks on the street. Try busking them alongside a magician who has been doing it for 10 years, earning their living. When they are watching a magician, people don’t want to say, “Well done.” They want to say, “Wow.”
At worst, on a creative writing course, the tutor will be able to show you how to do some magic tricks; at best, they will teach you how to be a good magician; beyond that, though, is doing magic – and that you will have to learn for yourself. For what a tutor can’t show you is how to do things you shouldn’t be able to do.
Toby Litt is a London-based writer. Hospital, his latest novel, is published by Hamish Hamilton.