round robin

How three classic writers use careful word choice to build character #writetip #amwriting

It’s the middle of November already and that means it’s time for another Round Robin from my authors’ group.

round robin, helena fairfaxThis month the topic is: How does wording choice develop a character? How do you use and select your words?

Or, in the words of Dr Bob, one of the authors in our group:  “I sometimes find myself writing down turns of phrase like: She had to be the sexiest-looking 42-year-old on the planet, the best that money could buy. Is this a positive or a negative when you read a book? How can such statements be used to describe character?”

I think Dr Bob’s choice of words just goes to show how one simple sentence can direct readers towards looking at things in a certain way. As a reader, when I read that description I feel it reveals far more about the protagonist who is “saying” the words than it does about the 42-year-old he’s describing. (And already, for some reason, I feel strongly that it’s a “he” who is talking.) I would think from this sentence that the protagonist isn’t the sort of person I’d want to know. He’s judging a woman on her physical appearance, and talking about “buying” her on the strength of her appearance. Not a pleasant person. Of course, it could be a woman, and not a man, who is talking about another woman looking sexy, and talking about “buying” her. That would certainly be a twist that would surprise the reader!
I don’t think I’d talk about this sentence in terms of being “positive” or “negative” when I read a book. I don’t ever find anything negative about reading fiction…! They are just the words of an unsavoury character that the author is portraying. (And now I’d like to hear the 42-year-old speak for herself. What is she really like?)
For this post I decided to pick up three books from my shelves and open them at random for a character description. All of these authors use a totally different vocabulary to describe their characters.
 helena fairfax
Book one: “But yet – he is not the kind of young man – there is something wanting – his figure is not striking; it has none of that grace which I should expect in the man who could seriously attract my sister. His eyes want all that spirit, that fire, which at once announce virtue and intelligence.”
Book two: Over the next few afternoons Mrs Phelps could hardly take her eyes from the small girl sitting for hour after hour in the big armchair at the far end of the room with the book on her lap. It was necessary to rest it on the lap because it was too heavy for her to hold up…And a strange sight it was, this tiny dark-haired person sitting there with her feet nowhere near touching the ground, total absorbed in the adventures of Pip and old Miss Havisham.
Book three: I sat down on the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble. She was stretched out on a modernistic chaise-longue with her slippers off, so I stared at her legs in the sheerest silk stockings. They seemed to be arranged to stare at.
Book one is Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. It’s Marianne Dashwood who is talking, and she’s talking about the things she thinks are missing from her sister Elinor’s suitor, Edward. She says he lacks “spirit”, “fire” and “grace”. The words Jane Austen gives Marianne to say reveal far more about the character of Marianne – who is highly romantic – than they do about Edward. But that’s the genius of Jane Austen!
Book two is Matilda, by Roald Dahl. This is a book for children, so Roald Dahl doesn’t use overly flowery language. But he doesn’t talk down to his readers, either, just because they’re children. Matilda comes across as a sympathetic heroine through his choice of words – she’s tiny yet determined to read the heavy book. Dahl makes his readers think that Charles Dickens’ books could be something they, too, could easily get absorbed in
Book three is the brilliant Raymond Chandler and The Big Sleep. I love the way he says Mrs Regan’s legs “seemed to be arranged to be stared at”. In that sentence he says so much – that Mrs Regan is calculating and is using her sexiness to throw him off the scent.
helena fairfax
These are just three books out of many on my shelf, and three entirely different ways to put words together to build up a character description.
I’m in a writers’ group on Facebook and someone asked the question recently whether writers should read every genre possible, no matter what they write themselves, or if they should stick to reading their own genre. I think yes, they should read as widely as possible, because you can always learn something from how other writers choose and use their words.
This has been yet another thought-provoking topic. Thanks very much to Robin Courtright for setting the topic and for organising our Round Robin.
If you’d like to know what the other authors in the Round Robin are saying on this topic, please do click on one of the links below and drop in to check them out.
Are you a writer, and if so, do you spend a long time over your choice of words, or does they flow naturally? And if you’re a reader, are there some writers whose descriptions and word choices you love?
If you have any comments at all, I’d love to hear from you!


28 thoughts on “How three classic writers use careful word choice to build character #writetip #amwriting

  1. Hi Helena, Yes, I wholly agree because any dialogue used is going to tell us about the speaker as well as what they observe. I love dialogue. Great choice of books. I haven’t read Matilda and must now do that. anne stenhouse


  2. Helena, I write what I want to read. I let the words flow and then, upon revision, I will edit words for brevity and impact, if I can. I like short to the point sentences and try to make every word count. Sometimes this happens naturally and nothing needs revision, other times I sit and searching my brain for the most suitable word/words to improve the clout of the sentence. I like to imagine the characters I am reading about and don’t want too much description and when I am writing I try to keep descriptions to a minimal, letting the reader decide about the character. If someone moves me when writing about them, I hope I move my reader the same way. Words count. Simple is best. Just saying…


    1. I totally agree about simple being best, Jane. You can let your characters reveal themselves through their actions and conversation, and let the reader make their own mind up. That’s so true! I forgot to mention in my post that Tolstoy gives no physical description of Anna Karenina at all in the entire novel, apart from something like she had “plump hands”. And yet I expect every reader has their own picture of her.
      I often have to search my brain for the most suitable word. I find it frustrating when it doesn’t come easily. But when I’ve finally found the right word it’s so rewarding :) Thanks very much for your interesting comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Helena, I very much enjoyed your post. I myself adore the writing styles/word choices of Baroness Orczy, Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, and recently Lyndsay Faye. They all vary quite much in style, but all their voices are incredibly unique!


  4. Totally agree that a description of a character tells us not just about that character, but frequently a lot about the one who’s doing the describing. I will definitely be thinking carefully about how my POV character is coming across when they describe someone else from this day forward.


  5. Great examples. I really wanted to read the Roald Dahl book right now! Reading out of one’s genre? Yes! Reading all genres? Well, if you can. I really cannot read romance or science fiction. Which is not to say that if I found the right book, I’d enjoy it a lot. Distopian literature such as Margaret Atwood, I like. I like romantic suspense and am crazy about Janet Evanoviche’s series with Stephanie Plum. She mixes crime-solving, romance, humor and craziness to the right degree.


    1. Hi Judy, I’ve never read any of Janet Evanovich’s series but I’ve heard so much about them. She’s definitely on my list to read now! There are certain genres I’m not a fan of, too. I don’t read much fantasy but even so there are some books in the genre I have read and loved. If it’s a great book, I’ll read it!
      I enjoyed your comment. Thanks very much for dropping in!


  6. Really interesting post. Everything a character says or does tells us something about them (at least it should). Great examples.


    1. Hi Marci, that’s so true that genre doesn’t matter if it’s a great book. I don’t often read fantasy but I loved all the Harry Potter books and the Narnia series. Thanks very much for dropping in!


  7. Great post. I enjoyed your comments on Bob’s initial sentence and agreed with them. And I liked the examples you pulled out from three different books and authors. The one I enjoyed the most was from Sense and Sensibility.


    1. I love the quote from Sense and Sensibility, too, Beverley. I literally just opened that book at random and could have picked anything. Jane Austen is one of my favourite writers ever. Thanks for dropping in. I really enjoyed your post!


  8. Helena, your guess is right. The speaker is an older man, thrice divorced. He is Secretary to the Board of a billionaire, and the 42 year old woman is the billionaire’s current wife, 44 years his junior.
    I loved your three examples. Very perceptive.


    1. Hi Bob, you gave a really good picture of your speaker in just that one sentence. It was a great topic to write about and I’ve really enjoyed reading what the other authors had to say. Thanks for your comment!


  9. One of the most important things I ever heard, as a reader and as a writer, was ‘Every word on that page is there for a reason’. I really enjoy writing unconsciously unreliable narrators – as in Dr Bob’s example – whose comments on others tell us far more about themselves than they do about the supposed subject.


    1. Hi Kathleen, I love unreliable narrators, too. As a reader you have to work a little harder to get to the bottom of what is actually going on – but then often you have to work at the real meaning behind conversations in real life. Thanks for dropping in, and for your great comment


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