Tag Archives: character vocabulary

Tapping into your character’s senses

This entry is part 7 of 10 in the series Writing the senses

Yesterday (and throughout this series), I mentioned that we have to focus on our characters and what they perceive when we detail the sensory information. We’ve talked about how to get into a character’s head (waaay back when), but sometimes seeing with our character’s eyes (or using their other senses) is a bit more challenging than just understanding what they’re thinking.

One thing that I’ve done to work on this (can you tell this is actually what I’m working on now?) is to go through each scene and write down all five senses for that character in that setting. As I do this, I ask myself questions about the character in the setting:

  • Which of my character’s emotions or experiences would color this setting? Does the sandy desert remind her of her grandmother’s house, or him of Desert Storm? (Or make up new experiences, if you feel like it.) If you need a setting to have an impact, sensory data could trigger strong memories for your character. Or if you just want your character to have a strong emotional experience, sensory data from the setting might be the way to go. Emotional
  • Is this a new setting for the character? If so, keep in mind your character’s personality and purpose there. Someone accustomed to danger might scan for the best escape route first. (And she won’t sit with her back to the door. Don’t even ask.) But if she’s there to meet a friend, looking for that friend will be a close second priority.
  • Conversely, is this setting very familiar to the character? If, for example, it’s their home or workplace, they may not “experience” it anymore. So if you need to be in that character’s POV in that setting, focus only on what stands out. Most of us don’t know what our own house smells like (unless we’re the ones buying the air fresheners!), but we’ll notice the overripe garbage.
  • In a familiar setting, can I have other people interact with the set? The other characters’ interactions with the POV/owner character’s furniture may suddenly draw her attention to the ratty patch on the arm of the couch where her cat sharpens its claws—or maybe the cat does that itself.
  • Do we remain grounded in the setting? Do we go too long without referencing something concrete in the “real world” of the story, devolving into people talking in space? (That’s one of my big things to work on.) Note: we don’t have to redescribe the drywall, but even interacting with a prop keeps us from floating off into space.
  • Do we remain grounded in the character? Kind of the opposite phenomenon—do we spend too much time on the description so that we kind of lose track of what the character is doing/thinking/feeling? (And thanks to Andrew for bringing this to mind in the comments!)

What do you think? How do you get into your characters’ senses?

Tomorrow, we’ll have more about picking which senses to focus on for your character!

Photo by Vestman

Deep POV: the view from inside your character’s head

This entry is part 4 of 14 in the series Deep POV

So how do we know how our characters think? Maybe you completed the character freewrite or interview exercises last week. Maybe you’ve filled out extensive character questionnaires. Maybe you only have a sketchy mental picture of a new character. No matter how well you know your character, you can help to make sure her thoughts—her voice, her feelings—come through in your writing in what she notices, how she talks/thinks about it and how she feels about it.

What they notice

My friend Annette posted the other day about “lenses.” She tells how on a visit to New York with her mother and sisters, they were each drawn to attractions that appealed to their personal interests—things that the rest of the family didn’t even notice.

Personal interests for your characters might arise from simply the need to “round them out” and make them more full, or they can influence the plot (she hates baseball? Fantastic—he’s a semi-pro shortstop.). When you’re just starting to design a character, even one simple interest can help to create deeper characterization.

Does your character have a passion for painting? Collect baseball cards and rare comics? Live for the dance? If not, why not? Everyone has something he loves&hobbies, interests, even their occupation. The architect might admire the layout of the museum while her dabbling-in-interior-decorating sister is more focused on the color scheme. Their wannabe-artist father, of course, is there for the art, while their hobby-egyptologist mother wants to hurry up and get to the mummies.

Our personal interests often filter what we see around us. The father in the above family might be the only one who really notices the paintings, but he barely glances at the dessicated bodies. These interests also influence our perceptions of those things that we do manage to notice.

Character vocabulary

A character’s personal interests, hobbies and especially profession not only filter what they notice, but the words they use to describe it—from the scenery to the events to the other people in the story.

I, for example, can’t tell a sloop from a schooner. But someone who spends every weekend on his sailboat is going to have a full vocabulary for not just every type of ship, but the masts, the rigging, the knots, the . . . other stuff.

Let’s say that character identifies himself, essentially, as a sailor, despite his day job in sales (*snicker*). When he meets a beautiful woman, is he going to think of her using the vocabulary of fashion? He might like the cut of her jib (that’s a sailing term trying to be a play on “fashion” and “cut,” not an innuendo), but unless she’s wearing a spinnaker (another sailing term—a sail. Very Little Mermaid.), I doubt he cares much about her dress.

Instead, he might use more . . . you know, “nautical” terms—the vocabulary of his passion. At this point, I’ve made it fairly obvious that I know nothing about sailing, but for lack of anything better, he might describe how she moves through the clumps of people like a cutter slicing through the waves. She could have eyes the color of the sea, hair the same shade as the burnished mahogany fittings of his cabin. (Okay, this dude is really starting to wax poetic for a guy, but maybe the sea does that to some people.)

The more parallels our character can draw to the things around him and his passions, the more likely he is to like those things.

Character attitudes

The character’s attitude toward the things and people around him is another important aspect of his character—and his voice. Perhaps most importantly, character attitudes are a strong characterization tool. When we see how someone feels about the world around him, we really get to know him. If he recoils at a church and quotes Karl Marx to himself (“Religion is the opiate of the masses.”), we know him more deeply than if the author just told us that “Jimmy hated religion.”

Again, his interests, hobbies and profession can influence this heavily. Our sailor friend might think a man whose only maritime experience was on a ferry to be a troglodyte. Put your character working in an urban environment. Freeway tunnels are the epitome of all that’s wrong with the city—they’re closed in, suffocating, dark, crowded, and most of all, nothing like the freedom of sailing, the open ocean, the wind in your face.

On the other hand, he loves taking his lunch on the observation deck of his building—when the wind is right, you get a breeze from the sea. He has an immediate affinity for people who strike him as sailors. And your Nautica bathroom decor? Well, you decide—he could either love the touch of sailing in your home, or he could think you’re a total poseur.

The slob might not even see the pile of clean (or are they dirty?) socks on the floor, simply walking past. But her neat-freak roommate is sure to notice—and she sees whether they’re clean, dirty, or a mix of the two—and then what does she think of her slovenly roommate? (Hello, Odd Couple!) If the neat-freak is a housekeeper or maybe a professional organizer, does she have a specific term for someone like her roomie?

What other ways can we incorporate and convey our characters’ voices?

Photo credits: 3D glasses—Harry Fodor; Sailboat—Horton Group; Anchor print—mckenna71