Monday, October 29, 2012

Setting and Characterization: Make Them Believable and Compelling With Specific Visuals

Readers love writers who write with knowledge, confidence, and authenticity. They love it when they know they're in good hands and the story is going to unfold with detail and believability as well as style. I love that when I'm reading. Who doesn't?

To write that way, we have to be inside our characters' heads, in the room they're in and in the world they're in, and we have to be able to bring those aspects alive. It sounds like a tall order, but there are methods to help us achieve this most important form.

In her book, A Writer's Guide to Fiction, well-known fiction editor Elizabeth Lyon explains the process for us. First of all, she points out that, "As writers, we are our readers eyes. Through us they visualize the setting, characters, and events, and in their mind's eye, readers connect images with emotions and realize an event's literal, as well as its symbolic, meaning." (p. 143)

How do we accomplish being our readers eyes? Through the use of visuals. Lyon argues that every style of writing requires  visuals, whether minimalist or any other. "As an editor, I see minimalist efforts that fall far short of Papa Hemingway's deft spartan style. I also see purple prose that would make Faulkner roll over in his grave. On the whole, though, most aspiring writers err on the side of too few visuals, especially ones selected for specificity, impact, and meaning. (p. 144) (emphasis added)

Specificity in description of setting or characterization is accomplished by avoidance of cliché, selection of concrete nouns (those that can be perceived through a sense organ—eyes, nose, skin, tongue. See 7/23 post: Strong Sentences, Concrete Nouns and Verbs for examples), and creation of an original perspective. (p. 144)

Here is an example that Lyon uses to show specificity of place, from Winterkill, by Craig Lesley, a novel that describes a former thriving Indian village:

Both the sky above the garage and the flat water of Celilo Lake had taken on a slate-gray color. The old village with its salmon-drying shacks and Wy-Am longhouse was gone now that the dam's backwaters had covered Celilo Falls and ended the fishing. Tommy Thompson's home was gone too. The old chief had painted his east door a bright salmon color to catch the sun's first rays each morning.

Yellow corrugated plastic sealed the east end of the new cedar-shake longhouse, and the same plastic covered the peak of the roof, although it had been nailed on earlier and had become faded with passing time . . . . Beside the longhouse, a utility pole had a lead wire strung to a bright blue-and-white Pepsi machine. 

This description is not cliché, it uses concrete nouns (Celilo Lake, salmon-drying shacks, east door a bright salmon color, etc.), and offers an original perspective (the contrast between the former thriving village and the current depressing one).

Here's what Lyon says: . . . The combination of all the visuals not only provides the reader with a clear sense of a place but also delivers a mood and meaning—I feel sad about the loss of an intact culture, distressed over the displacement of people and the incursion of the bright, cheery, Pepsi machine.

Less experienced writers often hurry through the setting or character description, perhaps taking half or three-quarters fewer words than Lesley used. But it is not quantity of description that dissuades a reader. Readers stay engaged by the specificity, impact, and meaning of those images.

The same sort of technique applies to characterization, but to keep this post at a manageable length, we'll leave that for another discussion another day.

My best writing teachers made a point of asking for more detail, more specificity of description, and that I slow down and give the space needed to accomplish these things. When we're caught up in telling a story, and focused on maintaining tension to keep the reader turning pages, it's sometimes difficult to remember how important specific visuals are for bringing the characters and settings to life—but definitely worth the effort!

Do you have examples from your work, or from writers you love, where specific visuals shine?


  1. I love a book that comes to life with great visuals. One of my favorites is The Vespertine by Saundra Mitchell. That lady has a talent for beautiful writing that puts you in the world.

    1. I remember that book—she's good! Thanks, Heather.

  2. This is a great post Linda. I'm wondering if genre makes a difference as to how much. I tried to put more into my crashes, but seriously from the POV character, they're fighting for survival and not thinking about their surroundings. Maybe I need more work to learn how to do this better.
    Of course I do.
    I will read Elizabeth's book again. She is awesome!

    1. It does, Karlene, at least I think so. When you're writing a thriller you don't have time or space for long, lyrical descriptions. But that really just puts more pressure on you to come up with those very specific AND DEFT visuals. Readers still need to see and feel the visual, natch.

  3. One of the most gorgeously descriptive books I've read is THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND IN A SHIP OF HER OWN MAKING by Catherynne Valente. Here are two sentences from around page 2: "September climbed out of her window, leaving a sink full of soapy pink-and-yellow teacups with leaves clinging to their bottoms in portentous shapes. One of them looked a bit like her father in his long, coffee-colored trench coat, gone away over the sea with a rifle and gleaming things on his hat." I wish I could've gone further, but I typed this from the little bit I could gleam from the book at Amazon. (I have the book at home, but I'm not near my bookshelf.)

    1. Wow, some writing is purely lyrical. This looks like one of those! Thanks, Lin. (An amazingly lyrical book I read recently that managed to also be a page turner with lots of tension was MINK RIVER by Brian Doyle. Another great example of how it can be done.)

    2. Ooo! I just added Mink River to my wish list! Thanks for the recommendation.