by Ryan Lanz
Who doesn’t like the thought of being able to direct someone’s thoughts or emotions? Sure, it’s typically in fantasy only, but I’m sure most have skirted around the thought. When we imagine someone doing so, it’s usually an evil villain’s doing, involving elbow-length gloves and an over-sized, veiny head.
But actually, we writers do this all the time. We use words at the tip of our brushes to paint the reader’s emotions. We essentially angle wording in a way to guide the reader how to feel.
Now, you may be thinking, “Ryan, that’s ridiculous. The readers come to their own conclusions.” And yes, they do. However, let’s visit an example.
Brian turned toward me and held the baseball bat in front of him. He looked around before heading in my direction. He passed, then he laughed.
Compare that to:
Brian swiveled on his heel and reached across the table for the tip of the baseball bat’s handle. He held it front of him for a moment before his eyes flicked up toward me. The distance between us dripped away. At the exact moment he passed, he chuckled in my ear.
It sounds a heck of a lot creepier the second time, doesn’t it? The information essentially stayed the same, although I intentionally chose verbs and descriptive words that I knew would paint this character as creepy.
Writers do this all the time. Here are a few other swaps you can do. See how they change your perception.
- Instead of smiling, the character sneers
- Instead of shaking a hand, the character clasps it.
- Instead of laughing, the character’s lips curl back
- Instead of looking, the character gazes with a twinkle in his/her eye
In each example, you have a new perception of the character. It may be slight, but it’s there. This is why no two books can be the same, as there are an infinite amount of degrees of painting that can be done, all on such a subtle level. Sometimes all it takes to go from good to great is less than 1% difference, but that difference is huge.
Now, you might be asking yourself if you have to do this. Of course not. You can choose to not use these painting type words on purpose, to allow the reader to truly draw their own conclusion. Even if you paint heavily, the reader still can draw a different conclusion of a character based on his/her own experiences as a person. The beautiful thing about humanity is that everyone will have a slightly different take on the same thing. You could take a villain that most people hate, and there will still be that sliver-sized group that finds one thing endearing (or redeemable) about that person. Gollum is essentially a villain in Lord of the Rings, but the author paints sympathy and humor into the character. Ask yourself how that has changed your perception of the character. Apparently, I can forgive him for biting off Frodo’s finger (spoiler alert), because Gollum is still one of my favorite characters overall. Would I still like Gollum if the author didn’t paint him the way he did? Good question.
Why do it?
This is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. So you’ve learned how you can do it, or in many ways how you’re already doing it, perhaps without realizing. So why do it? Here are some reasons why:
- To draw solid morality lines for your reader
- If you need the reader to feel a certain way for a character to fit into your master plan
- If you want stark colors of the way your reader feels toward your characters
- If you purposefully want to change the reader’s perception of the character by the end of the book
The last one is my favorite. How interesting would Ebeneezer Scrooge’s transformation have been if he was already a swell guy at the beginning, with the reader already liking him? The author purposefully painted him as a less-than-likable character so that it contrasted more when you liked him at the end. I’m sure if you reread that story, you’ll find lots of dislike-painting going on at the beginning with not only his actions, but the way he went about those actions.
The idea is not to “dupe” your readers, instead to take them on a journey of emotions. I’m not saying that every character has to have a vast transition, but the reader wants to be led to feel something. So take them there.
Ryan Lanz is an avid blogger and author of The Idea Factory: 1,000 Story Ideas and Writing Prompts to Find Your Next Bestseller. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.
Good advice, advice to certainly think about!
Helpful post! Selection of verbs can enhance a writer’s prose.
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Terrific insight – thank you for sharing.
Terrific motivation! This is a great focus for my writing right now. Thank you.
Ah, a nice topic. Something different. Thanks for the article.
Reblogged this on Kim's Musings.
Thanks for the enjoyable and insightful post, Ryan. It’s fun to explore the nuances of emotion while writing our characters’ stories. Shared.
Thanks for sharing!
Sensory detail can be used to evoke emotion in the reader. The way a writer uses the five senses to present characters and setting will influence the way readers perceive them.
Great advice here. I am working my way through my novel doing exactly this. It’s time-consuming but ultimately worth every minute I spend on it.
Great post. I’d totally agree with you on the idea of making sure that your reader is on the same page as you by them a clear cut description of your character. As you said yourself, a lot of us interpret things in different ways and the more you can narrow that path the better. Always amazes me how a few chosen words can lift a limp piece into something exciting.
Thanks for sharing this guide.