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Most articles on ways to improve writing will give a very simple rule: cut adjectives and adverbs. Instead, use strong nouns and verbs.
And they’re right. Adjectives are like sprinkles. Used in the right way, they can add just the right dash of color, but they really don’t have much substance and can easily be overdone. (Or maybe I’m just biased against sprinkles because I threw up a bunch of them when I got food poisoning a few years ago…long story.)
The time when the no-adjective rule is most likely to apply is when it comes to characters. There are so many more ways to show what people are like that we shouldn’t need to slap on one-word descriptions. Unlike, say, a rock, which can’t do much to demonstrate that it’s rough or igneous or whatever, a person’s words and actions can substitute for adjectives.
Don’t tell us he’s quirky. Show him playing “Little Mermaid” songs an accordion just because it sounded like fun. Don’t tell us she’s a bad loser. Have her slam her cards down on the Candy Land board and accuse her seven-year-old cousin of cheating. Suddenly, adjectives aren’t necessary.
That’s all well and good…but what happens to those poor adjectives, I ask you? Is there no place for them to go, other than Words with Friends or bad fan fiction? Will no one welcome the syntactical rejects of the world?
Thankfully, I’m a big fan of underdogs and misfits of all kinds, being a bit of one myself. All of my poor, unwanted adjectives limp off to an Excel spreadsheet. I make one for every book-length project that I start. It contains all of my characters’ names, and next to that, three adjectives that would best describe these people.
My favorite spreadsheet right now is full of characters from the first two books in a YA science fiction series I’m working on. There are twenty-three characters listed so far. That would be 69 different adjectives. And I tried to make each one the perfect word to describe that particular person.
In that same file, I put other character information that might come in handy. For some reason, I don’t picture any of my characters in my head, so I have to write down their physical description, or I’ll change it about five times over the course of the book. I also have their age and Myers-Briggs type.
(Incidentally, if you told me what your type was when I did a series on personality types, I instantly compared it to the characters I have on record so far. You should be friends with my fictional characters. You’d get along well.)
I almost always write at least five or six chapters before I start pulling all of this together, and I usually don’t do the three adjectives until I’m almost done with the entire project. The reason? Adjectives are powerful little words. Those three adjectives doing their best to sum up an entire person. If you’ve ever tried to think about the complexity of human beings, their personalities and intellects and the ways they interact with others, and tried to compress all of that into three words, you understand that you need to know the person pretty well first.
Don’t believe me? Try it for the person you know the best: yourself. It might actually be harder because of the crazy amount of information you know about yourself, but it can be a good exercise. You might even try asking other people to describe you in three words (but give them plenty of time—it can be difficult).
One the main benefits I see in having a file like this is that it made my characters seem more like real people to me. When I went through the process of thinking about how I would describe them, it gave me a better picture of who they were. In a few cases, I noticed some inconsistencies in their actions that I needed to fix in my next edit.
Can you grid up real people into an Excel document? Can you describe someone completely and accurately in just three adjectives? Nope. Not possible.
But is it a helpful tool in writing a novel? You bet.
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