Editors and agents say they’re looking for a story with a voice that pops. Heck, that’s what makes many readers buy a book too. Although plot is important, it’s not just what you’re saying…it’s how you’re saying it. When it comes time to polish your manuscript, look for places to spice up your adjectives. Doing so will prevent your work from reading as generic or boring, and it also gives you a chance to illustrate the voice of your characters or narrator.
Use Adjectives to Advance Characterization
To illustrate the way in which word choice advances characterization, I’m going to provide two short examples. Using only the words provided, see if you can guess how old the speaker is, what profession they might have, the genre, and more information about them or the story. What can you glean about these characters by zeroing in on the words the authors used?
His old neighbors had some difficulty reconciling the quotes about him in the Times (“arrogant,” “high-handed,” ethically compromised”) with the generous, smiling, red-faced 3M employee they remembered pedaling his commuter bicycle up Summit Avenue in the snow; it seemed strange that Walter, who was greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural, should be in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people.(Example 1)
To visit the tower at the intersection of West Thirty-first and the Avenue of the Americas, you first had to know that you were being tracked by cameras that covered every inch of sidewalk and road around the building. So by the time you entered, you were expected, and Gloria Martinez, the dour forty-year-old Company desk clerk, was ready with your ID.(Example 2)
Exploring Example 1
Here are the adjectives the first author used:
- Ethically compromised
- Greener than Greenpeace
The narrator is talking about a man named Walter, who, from the description provided, seemed like an earnest, liberal working stiff until something happened later in life. I can envision this 3M employee’s neighbors, seeing him biking to work, even in the winter, mindful of how his choices affect the environment. The phrase “greener than Greenpeace” stands out to me for being slightly humorous yet also a little snarky and elitist (especially when paired with “country” people).
I think this is obviously an adult book about professionals aware enough to care (or have cared) about the environment. It’s also clear that the time horizon in this book is going to be long because the character of Walter is going to go through a metamorphosis great enough to change a biking Greenpeacer into someone ethically comprised by the coal industry. The author also mentions Walter’s “old” neighbors, indicating that he moved over time. The genre, if there is one, is not immediately obvious, but I expect a close character study. (In case you’re wondering, it’s Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel, Freedom.)
Exploring Example 2
Here are the adjectives we encountered in Example 2:
- Every (inch)
First of all, you can see the second example uses many fewer adjectives. Immediately it’s clear that the author’s style is different. The light and colloquial description of place (“every inch”) hints that this person has likely been to this spot many times and isn’t concerned about detail. The narrator instead spends most of the adjectives describing Gloria Martinez—and not in flattering terms. The use of the word “dour” and the notification of her perceived age (forty-year-old) makes me think this is a man doing the describing here. Perhaps it’s more of a note about my instincts as a woman, but I don’t think other females would find a desk clerk’s looks to be of much note.
Obviously the adjective “Company”—capitalized—makes me think of insider-y language around the CIA. These descriptions from example two would lead me to believe we’ve got a male narrator who’s in or associated with national security. I’d also guess that the narrator was seasoned in his profession—nothing about going to this place is new or worthy of much note, as we might expect from a newbie or a spy. The subject matter and more conversational style lead me to assume this might be a spy book of some sort. (Indeed it’s Olen Steinhauer’s 2009 novel, The Tourist.)
I hope that a careful parsing of these two brief examples shows you how important word choice, and in this case, adjectives, can be in your book. If your characters are only describing things that are “good, bad, cold, hot, neat, nice, or terrible,” you need to think twice about what message those weaker adjectives are sending. If your character is a child with a relatively limited vocabulary, that’s one thing. But if that’s not the story you’re writing, see if using more specific adjectives spices up your narration and brightens your characters.