Monday, December 9, 2013

The Psychology of Writing: 4 Ways to Give Your Readers the Right Impression Of Your Characters, World, and Tone

Writing and psychology go hand-in-hand. Believe it or not, it only takes the subtlest of words, or an ambiguous turn of phrase, to give your readers the right (or very un-right) impression of your characters, world, or tone. Here are four simple ways that you can utilize “word psychology” and apply it to your writing.

1. Ask Yourself: What Impression Am I Giving?
A while ago, I was critiquing a friend’s short story about an elderly widow living deep within a forest, surrounded by friendly wildlife and a beautiful garden. Things seemed pleasant enough, until I came across this line: “Sunlight filtered through her blood-red curtains…”

Notice how much this sentence jars with the previous descriptors? “Blood-red” may be an accurate description of the curtain’s color, but the word-choice paints an ominous (and rather graphic) image.

I asked my friend why he had chosen the words “blood-red” to describe the curtains, and asked if there were some dark meaning behind it. When he told me that “blood-red” served only as a color descriptor, I suggested that he use another word instead, such as cherry-red, apple-red, or rose-red, to better tie-in with the woman’s humble life, surrounded by nature.

This brings me to my next point.

2. Choose Words that Paint Your Character, World, or Theme
One of my favorite writing quotations is by British author, Brian Jacques. It goes like this:

'Paint. That's the magic word. Paint pictures with words. That's the greatest advice I can give anybody. Paint the pictures with words. The picture will appear in the imagination so the person reading it can say, "I can see that"'.

While this quotation applies to using colorful descriptions to flavor your writing, it can also apply to the more subtle uses of description. In the example with the widow woman above, my friend was painting a very negative and sinister image of the woman with the phrase “blood-red curtains.” Even though the other details about this woman and her environment were pleasant (“beaming smile,” “warm hearth,” “cheerful songbirds”), this one factor clashed violently with these positive details. And, as a result, the readers’ impressions of this otherwise benign character were darkened by the thought of what these “blood-red” curtains could mean for her. Negative messages linger longer in the mind, because they raise our curiosity and suspicion. Be cautious about accidentally giving the wrong impression of your character or world by using ill-fitting words.

When you describe aspects of your character, take extra time to consider what your words mean. What pictures do they paint of your character? Is that discoloration on your character’s cheek a “scar” or an “old battle-wound?” Notice that, even though these two words mean nearly the same thing, there are completely different “sub-meanings” to each of them. Scar is a rougher word that could paint the image of a brawler, a tough soldier, or even a villain. Battle-wound paints the more heroic image of a veteran warrior who perhaps earned his injury through valor.

3. Strive to Create Harmony
If your story has a theme, take advantage of subtle words that can create this themed harmony throughout your story. This same rule applies to characters and worlds.

For example, if your story features a futuristic metropolis world in which technology and speed are king, consider using terms that would paint such images.

Instead of “Hovercars glided along the maze of highways.”
Try “Hovercars zapped along the network of speedways.”

Notice the words “zapped” and “speedways” imply velocity, whereas “glided” and “highways” paint a smoother, more relaxed image. Also, note the word “network,” which gives the impression of something digital, like a computer or other technological gadget. These are small changes, but, as you can see, they can really alter the tone and feel of your fictional world.

4. Don’t Get “Out of Universe” or “Beyond Character”
What is the setting of your story? Is it set in a day of dragons and knights? A crumbling dystopia? Perhaps on another planet, populated by little, purple, five-legged bunnies?

Whatever universe, or time period, your story is set in, always keep in mind what exists within your world, as well as what your characters have knowledge of.

One of the most jarring examples I ever read came from a medieval, fantasy novel, in which a character found “fungi shaped like a football.” Do you notice the problem here? Football did not even exist during the time-period of this story, let alone within the universe that this story took place in.
Despite the fact that the story had drawn me in deeply, this odd turn-of-phrase pulled me out of the immersion for a moment. This, in turn, took away from the believability of the story and broke my focus on the action at hand.

Keep in mind, too—especially when writing from the viewpoint of a character—not to describe things using words that that particular character would be unfamiliar with or likely not use. An uneducated shepherd boy is not likely to look at a stormy sky and ponder how many water molecules are floating around up there. Likewise, an arrogant scholar would probably not refer to clouds as “puffy, white things.”

Give It a Shot!
One of the best ways to practice integrating “word psychology” into your writing is to pick up an old piece that you wrote a few years back and examine the words critically. Ask yourself:

  • What image am I painting of this character, world, theme?
  • Do any words or phrases seem “out of universe” or “beyond character?”
  • What words or phrases could I replace them with in order to get a more accurate, mental picture across?

 And don’t forget to search for places where you integrated “word psychology” well. Underline them, and put a big smiley face nearby. Then, once you’ve re-worked the entire piece, treat yourself to a cookie. They are a writer’s best friend, after all.

1 comment:

  1. Good advice. You're having fun with this already I see. ;-)