5 Easy Techniques to Bulk Up a Paper-Thin Character

“[An] error of inexperienced writers—or journalists in a hurry—is to confine characterization to the obvious physical attributes.” —Sol Stein

image by OpenClipartVectors
image by OpenClipartVectors

Let’s build a character. I based the 5 easy techniques on Sol Stein’s suggestions in Stein on Writing.

Let’s say we want to introduce the father of our heroine. Telling readers he’s an angry brute gives him a description that’s as flat as the paper we write on.

The Scene. In a diner, the heroine sits beside the hero in a booth facing the door. The heroine’s father enters the diner, intending to drag his twenty-year-old daughter home.

image by skeeze
image by skeeze

Building Block 1: Describe the character through his actions and dialogue.

Dad burst through the diner door like an avalanche.

Building Block 2: Employ Exaggeration

Dad burst through the diner door like an avalanche carrying along a mountain of boulders.

 

angry-774029_1280Building Block 3: Compare the character to a known quality or quantity.

Dad burst through the diner door like an avalanche carrying along a mountain of boulders. His red Angry Bird face whipped left and right until he located us in the last booth.

 

Building Block 4: Characterize the character with a word or phrase— instead of excess details.

UntitledDad burst through the diner door like an avalanche carrying along a mountain of boulders. His red Angry Bird face whipped left and right until he located us in the last booth. I grabbed Andy’s hand beneath the table, as Dad, the wart that no cutting, freezing, or caustic liquid could remove from my existence, barreled toward us.

Building Block 5: Give the character physical or psychological behavior that offers a sense of personality.

image by ClkeFreeVectorImages
image by ClkeFreeVectorImages

Dad burst through the diner door like an avalanche carrying along a mountain of boulders. His red Angry Bird face whipped left and right until he located us in the last booth. I grabbed Andy’s hand beneath the table, as Dad, the wart that no cutting, freezing, or caustic liquid could remove from my existence, barreled toward us. He drew on his habitual sneer, displaying his left-side teeth from his canine to his first molar—the sneer whose purpose I always thought was to let out steam.

 

Hopefully, we brought the angry brute to life.

Replace flat character descriptions with these life-building techniques. Click to tweet.

How would you use one of these suggestions to characterize an ex-boyfriend who shows up?

10 Fixes to Edit Unclear and Wordy Sentences

“Telling me to ‘Be clear’ is like telling me to ‘Hit the ball squarely.’ I know that. What I don’t know is how to do it.” —Joseph M. Williams

image by weinstock
image by weinstock

First, lets look at an unclear, wordy passage.

image by Unsplash
image by Unsplash

Grayson said he’d made a decision not to return to their relationship due to the fact that Ella was unable to change.1  Hadn’t he seen her establishment of a different approach to her behavior over the last year? 2  She’d made great improvement in the area of dealing with life’s problems. 3

 

Under the circumstance in which Dr. Peters came to town, Ella’s hope was ignited by him. 4 It was her belief that Grayson wasn’t aware of the root of her poor attitude, but Dr. Peters was. 5 Through the patient inquiry method therapy, he showed her how her upbringing had an impact on the way she perceived and reacted to her environment. 6 He really helped her rise above her past injuries and learn new ways of how to respond to her fears. 7 

Second, lets consider fixes for clearness and conciseness – sentence by sentence. (All 10 fixes are mentioned – a few, multiple times. Fixes are in parentheses.)

Sentence 1.

  • Watch for the verb make: make a decision (decided); made use of (used); made a correction (corrected).
  • Avoid wordy phrases: Due to the fact that. (because) Was unable to. (could)

Sentence 2.

  • Avoid changing verbs into nouns, especially adding –tion was in need of an estimation, instead of needed to estimate. In our example, we had establishment of a different approach (rewrite with strong verbs)

Sentence 3.

  • Watch for the word make: made great improvement (improved).
  • Avoid vague, encompassing noun phrases: in the area of dealing with (remove the unnecessary phrase the area of.)

Sentence 4.

  • Avoid wordy phrases: Under the circumstance in which (when)
  • Use active voice. Watch for the word by. Her hope was ignited by him (he ignited her hope)

Sentence 5.

  • Limit it is, there is, and there are: It was her belief that (in the example, the phrase was unnecessary)
  • Avoid wordy phrases: Wasn’t aware of (didn’t understand; or didn’t realize)

Sentence 6.

  • Avoid strings of nouns: patient inquiry method therapy (through asking probing questions)
  • Avoid inflated words: an impact on (affect) (more examples: facilitate (help); cognizant of (know))

Sentence 7.

  • Delete weasel words: really helped (helped) (more examples: very unique; quite nice)
  • Avoid unnecessary prepositional phrases: of how to respond to her fears (to face her fears) (See post about reducing of.)

Finally, lets look at a possible rewrite.

image by geralt
image by geralt

Grayson refused to reconcile their relationship, because he believed Ella could never change. What did he think she’d been tackling this past year? She’d turned her life around.

When Dr. Peters came to town, he ignited Ella’s hope. Grayson misunderstood the root of her poor attitude, but Dr. Peters recognized the source. Through asking probing questions, he revealed how her upbringing had affected the way she perceived and reacted to her environment. Over time, he helped her forgive old injuries and learn new ways to face her fears.

10 Ways to improve wordy & unclear sentences. Click to tweet.

Which tip will improve your sentences?

What 5 Experts Say About Writing Story Settings

“Many early-career authors treat setting as merely an element of the background – an incidental necessity, maybe, but a tertiary craft concern when compared to plot or character development or dialogue.”
—Jacob M. Appel “Know Your Place” Writer’s Digest November/December 2013

image by KreativeHexenkueche
image by KreativeHexenkueche

Let’s get started:

  1. Jacob M. Appel – “Know Your Place” (Writer’s Digest November/December 2013).

Appel holds:

  • Stories should reveal the setting by the second sentence unless there’s a convincing reason not to.
  • Stories should be set in places the writer understands well. The slightest errant details jar readers. He reminds writers that what’s familiar to them may be exotic to readers.
  • image by Unsplash
    image by Unsplash

    Authors must do three things:

º Orient the reader – don’t waste the reader’s energy in his trying to figure out where he is. (See this post on grounding the reader.)

º Awe the reader – with knowledge of accurate plants, animals, architecture, furniture, and “distinctive diction and syntax.” Appel says, “The magic lies in the subtle details, not the strange environs.” 

º Trap the reader – Appel suggests that a passage describing a setting is an easy way to slow the pace to build suspense, or anticipation of a surprise.

  1. Dwight V. Swain – Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Swain instructs writers to remember these key points about setting.

  • The reader has not been there. So, Swain says to paint the setting in full color and enough pertinent details to bring the setting alive for the reader.
  • image myMarionF
    image myMarionF
    The world is sensory. Swain says to build the setting through what’s seen, heard, smelled, touched, and tasted. He says analogies are particularly important – perceived likenesses between two things using metaphors or similes.

 

  • The world is subjective. Depending on the characters’ objectives, attitudes, and pasts, they’ll react to their surroundings in unique ways.

3. Renni Browne and Dave King. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

Browne and King suggest that, because most of today’s readers prefer more concise literature, writers should give readers only enough detail to assist them in imagining the setting for themselves

lion-171311_1280

I don’t think this’s necessarily contrary to what Appel and Swain have said. I interpret Browne and King to say setting is important, but don’t bore the reader with details they can already picture.

 

 

  1. James Scott Bell – Plot & Structure.

Bell asks, in the reader’s behalf, if the writer can take him some place he’s never been before, to bring life to the plot. Bell says the place doesn’t have to be far from home.

Bell advocates parting from the predictable to some place fresh. He mentions the overdone example of lovers-to-be talking in a restaurant.

  1. Debra Dixon – GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict.

tomb-333659_1280Dixon says the setting is important to heighten conflict. If the setting is at odds with the tone of a story, she suggests the writer will have hard work ahead to develop a mood of tension.

She gives examples of good and bad settings for dark suspense. Good: the rainy Northwest or New Orleans with its swamps, graveyards, and secrets. Bad: Disney World, and for a romantic comedy, Ethiopia.

Consider these experts perspectives when writing your story settings. Click to tweet.

As a reader, what’s important to you about setting?