How I improved my descriptive writing

You know how some people are excellent at creating the most descriptive narratives?

Wondrous descriptions of fantastical places, landscapes and characters. Dreamy castles, blood-curdling dungeons.

I’m not great at painting grand spaces in my stories, I admit it. I like to get the big picture down.

The dialogue that floats around in my head. Write everything from start to finish so you don’t lose that idea that’s been hounding you.

For a first draft, that’s fine. It’s all about getting your ideas on paper and sorting out the rest later. But, at some stage in your writing journey, you will have to figure out some better descriptions than ‘old man’. Or ‘ancient watch’. What’s so special about this ancient watch? Why should the reader be as fascinated by it as the character holding it seems to be?

The magic of descriptions slides in. Granted, some writers get away with minimalistic description.
There should be a nice balance between the imagination of the reader and of the writer. During key moments you need to get a little more detailed. Language is there to help the flow of your story, not stunt it.

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I am, by no means, perfect at this. Absolutely not. I’m still learning every day but here is a list of things that have helped me work on my descriptive skills.

Descriptions are not about throwing in as many adjectives as possible or telling the reader about the weather in each paragraph. It’s about conveying a feeling.

READING

One of the best ways to improve your descriptions is by learning from authors who are amazing at it. That’s pretty straight-forward, right?
Most fantasy or sci-fi books are superb at this. The first author that came to mind when I thought about this was George R.R. Martin. I guess most people know him, he’s the creator of Game of Thrones after all. His descriptions are breath-taking. I never get bored reading them. Some authors just list what a place looks like. Martin shows the reader around through all senses and feelings. He’s also created extensive, imaginative places many can only dream about. We get an immediate image drawn into our heads.

Neil Gaiman is another master at this. I was just skimming through his Wonderbook yesterday. It’s a guide on how to create imaginative fiction. If you need inspiration, it’s a great read.
Plus, the illustrations really get your creativity flowing.

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ART

Put yourself in the shoes of an artist. Painting or drawing is not that different from writing.
You use those eyes of yours and see. Then you transform it onto a canvas or piece of paper.

It’s your interpretation of the world around you. To create a great painting you need to think about the details. Shadows, texture, colour composition, structure, focus. It’s the same with writing descriptions. Is that dress your character adores a warm crimson red or a colder pale red?
What effect might it have on the reader when your character wears a blood-coloured gown?
What material is it? Silky or stiff cotton? How does the material feel under the character’s fingers?
Is it itchy or smooth like a second skin? Could she forget that she is wearing a dress at all which makes her act more free-spirited than she usually is?

One of my favourite exercises is to sit down and write up a story to a piece of art. Take the Mona Lisa, where do you think she sits?

How did she get there? How would she have experienced the landscape around her? How does she feel in the clothes she’s wearing? This exercise is super doable because you already have a basis for your description. But, from whatever perspective you approach it, it will be different.

You could also try and describe your own home. You spend every day there. How would a character who has never been there experience it? Try to see your own four walls through the eyes of a stranger. What would be the first thing a young boy would notice when he walked in? Probably not the shoe and coat rack. Maybe he’d be drawn to the colourful piggy bank, he’d shake it, sending the coins inside into a rattling frenzy.

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FLOW

Sometimes what gets in the way of a great description is simply our own mind. Is this too wordy? Too long, too much? We over-think. And the result – either you overload your piece of work or you have no description at all. The minimalist approach can be great but you have to offer your reader some form of guidance. Some may like the challenge of a blank room, but a skeleton is not a human. Give it some skin, hair, a posture. Clothes.

If you really can’t think of any descriptions, take a walk through nature. Or your urban neighbourhood. Don’t take a pen or your phone. Walk and see. Then when you come home, sit and write everything down. Every random detail, every odd occurrence.
Let it all spill out and don’t think about it.

How did it feel? Go through all your five senses.
Sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell. It can be a great idea to build up an archive of your favourite descriptive phrases. That way you can go back to it when you need inspiration. This works everywhere. Next time you take a bath or a shower, think about all the sensations you experience.

When you eat, be mindful of all the flavours in your mouth or the heat that spreads inside your stomach. Take all these sensations and form them into words. And then, put feelings into it.
Give your character a personality. Maybe he gets annoyed when someone drags their feet on the asphalt. Or he hates the scent of strawberry bubblegum from a young girl at the bus stop.
Or he might be obsessed with the crumbling, orange leaves that fall from trees in October.
The reader will wonder why and you can choose to reveal, or not. It feeds into the growth of a story.

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POETRY

This one I am testing right now. I have always liked reading poetry. The skilful twist on words to describe how someone experiences the world. It is such a specific art of words.
When I forced myself into a corner with my writing, I turned to poetry. I grew up reading a lot of Sylvia Plath poems so the challenge was on. Poets see the world a little bit different from fiction writers.

They describe the world through beautiful metaphors and poetic lines. Whereas a writer would produce several pages of prose. For me, writing poems was a big help in extending my vocabulary and writer’s eye. I don’t stick to a specific rhyme scheme most of the time. It just flows, but it is fun when a coherent structure comes out.
Of course, I still write prose but sometimes I catch myself sounding very poetic in what I write and I don’t mind it one bit.

It adds a beautiful flow and when you toss in some unusual imagery. The reader cannot help but be captured by your words. Especially micro-poetry I have grown fond of. The challenge of expressing a colossal concept within a few lines is a fascinating game. When you are someone who tends to write wordy sentences, micro-poetry might be of interest to you.

Just to name a few of my favourite poets here: Sylvia Plath (obviously), Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, Savannah Brown, Rupi Kaur, Arch Hades, Rumi, Charles Bukowski

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What did I learn over the last few months, growing my poetry portfolio? (Check out my insta if you want to see some of my poems/ write-ups)

Dare to improvise, write the strange things, write the aches of your heart. Write with the five senses, explain what you feel.
Make it weird. Weird makes people feel something, whether good or bad. And when people feel something they will remember your words and cherish them.

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© 2021 vic lejon

The shadow side of your character

Talking about darkness makes most people think of the villain but even the most heroic and ‘bright lights’ of protagonists have a dark side. If you want to write a convincing story, it’s probably a good idea to tap into it and see what you find.

The notion of a Shadow self was coined by Carl Jung to refer to the part of our unconscious mind that contains the repressed traits, needs or ideas we tend to hide away from everyone. Either, because society has deemed them unspeakably terrible or because we ourselves cannot accept the faults or weaknesses of our own character.
Today’s world pushes positivity and happiness down our throats, but can those concepts truly exist without their counterparts?

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Think of the shadow self like a twin. It’s a mirror of you, only it balances out all the light that you radiate into the world with darkness. In terms of a novel, you will have a hard time creating conflicts if you were to have all your characters at their best behaviour. The villain and protagonist would go out for ice-cream. The villain would offer to pay for both of them instead of poisoning the ice-cream to get revenge on the protagonist’s family.

We can’t have that!

We need our shadow selves, not just to create an entertaining drama but also to allow us to evolve. Conflict is necessary for change, that is to create a brilliant plot but also memorable characters who have gone through hell and back to get where they are.

Your characters will surely have a range of commendable traits.
Morality, honesty and mental resilience are awesome attributes to help beat the bad guy, but, like real-life humans, they will encounter moments of weakness. They might blame themselves for not standing up to the monster earlier, which could have prevented the apocalypse altogether. Damn, that laziness or escapism trait.

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All repressed ideas and traits wavering around in our darkness are not pure evil, some might be underdeveloped sources of potential too. Your character might harbour boundless creativity (in the questionable form of ways to murder his neighbour’s cat) that could be harvested to stop a homicidal lizard creature instead. It is easy to ignore faults to focus on happiness. It is even easier to be scared of our own dark sides. Ignoring them, however, will only feed them. They will become monsters too.

Think about the character you are building for your story, what irritates him in other people? Why does he hate the cops in his city with a passion? Why is his wife resentful towards her sister’s picture-perfect family? Their objects of hate have traits which are veiled in the depth of their own shadow, longing to jump out and revel in the spotlight of your page. Make your protagonist’s life miserable by exposing them!

Jung called these moments of repulsion our ‘projections’, everything that we suppress in ourselves we dislike in others.

Think about why your character dislikes the antagonist. What does he or she stand for, and how could that trait take form in your protagonist? How could you access your protagonist’s darkness and turn it into his power? Or what happens if he chooses to indulge the dark side? Would he become a villain?

It takes a certain kind of bravery to acknowledge the face a shadow self. They might not be the prettiest faces in the mirror but if your characters want to win the big battle (whether in space, underground or a perfectly trimmed backyard), they will have to face their own short-comings to become greater.

How can I make my character face his shadow self?

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There are probably a hundred different ways to confront your character’s dark side, but the ones below came to my mind as I sat and stared at myself in the mirror to find my own shadow self. 😉Villains and antagonists

This one is pretty obvious if your protagonist struggles with some ideal or trait, it is a brilliant idea to give that trait to the antagonist. Make the protagonist face off against his own worst nightmare. Either he will beat it, have a moment of self-awareness and grow even stronger… or he will join the dark side (secret love for those moments). Or maybe, there is a grey area where they could meet. If so, what would that look like?

Dreams, visions, prophecies

At night, our unconscious mind comes out to play. Of course, the shadow self will prowl about to exhibit your character’s darkest longings.
Dream sequences can be used to plant a seed that leads to a shocking plot-twist, whether during a maniac chase through a fantasy underworld or in the form of a vision that points out your protagonist’s weakness.

Mirrors or reflections

A scene where your character looks at herself in the mirror can subtly point out a duality or darkness that others fail to see.

Do her eyes have contrasting colours, or does her skin texture change in the light? It might just be a smile that sits too forced upon her face.
Give a clue in her reflection of what darkness might reside within. Or even more dramatically, give the mirror image its own personality.

A dark room

This is more of a metaphor that I first heard about in a youtube video but I thought it is a great way to incorporate someone’s dark side.

Imagine the house of a friendly family. There is a young boy, a cute dog and the parents have stable jobs and a thriving social life. Everything appears perfect but there is one room in the house no outsider has ever set foot in.
What’s inside of it? What could they be hiding?
It could be a literal representation of a collective shadow. A dark secret they don’t want anyone to know about. What happens when you open that door?

Personality disorder

The perfect example of someone’s dark side being revealed is probably Fight Club. What we first assume to be two completely different characters, is actually one person with a literal dark side in the form of a young Brad Pitt.
The dissociated personalities create one of the biggest plot twists in the story. There is a lot of literature out there that employs personality disorders to show a shadow self. I am not saying to glamourise mental health issues, but if you have experience with it and know what you’re doing, it might be an effective way to showcase a person’s darkness.

The annoyingly perfect person everyone loves

I mentioned this one above, but a simple way to introduce the dark side of anyone is to confront them with a person they hate.
Maybe it’s the girl from the office with the perfectly manicured hands and high-pitched laughter that gets their blood pressure up like no one else.
Maybe, it’s the villain who has a secret crush on the girl next door. He hates her because he hates his own ability to fall in love.
The annoyingly perfect person can take any form as long as it sketches out a side of your character that lurks in their unconsciousness.

Death or trauma

Nothing gets the dark side going like a loss of a loved one. Your character will be going through a tornado, volcano and tsunami of emotion. That’s a lot of natural disasters to handle!
Crying, laughing, feeling nothing… a phase of utter despair shifts and changes anyone. Your character, whether good or bad, will be no different. The Shadow self might use that moment to creep around and show-off its cunning face.

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There are many more ways to uncover the shadow self of a character, so if you can think of them let me know. I would love to be inspired. I hope this helped you to figure out what your characters might be harbouring in their unconscious minds and to shape them into even more kick-ass people.

© 2021 vic lejon

How do your characters express love?

My previous post discussed how to find your character’s personality type, but what about the way they communicate their love and commitment to another?

For every person the way they convey feelings is different and, to maintain a harmonious relationship or friendship, you need to be aware of how your other half functions in the communications department.

Dr Gary Chapman developed the five love languages test to help people gain insight into how they can improve their communication with partners, friends or their children. Everyone will attach different degrees of importance to their types. Some people tend to favour one type in particular, while others have a top two or three. Either way, the deliberation of how we give or receive love will also help you in creating your characters.

Just like real-life human beings, your characters will have their own love language types, and they’ll stick to them throughout your story.
When two characters fail to communicate their feelings effectively, there will be conflict. (Hint: your antagonist might speak a completely different love language. Turn that into your advantage to increase tension.)

Reflect on your own life, how do you communicate your love to others?
Do you get upset when they express their love differently.

The Five Love Languages

Words of Affirmation

This type thrives on compliments, little post-it notes or text messages throughout the day to remind them why he or she is loved.

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Words can have an immense impact on your life, every writer knows that. Your ‘words of affirmation’ character will agree. Have your character’s boyfriend leave a voicemail to tell his partner that despite all the problems they are facing, everything will be alright in the end. Hearts will soar with appreciation. However, a verbal slight hurts these types more than others.

Quality time

Undivided attention is key for this type. Put your phone and laptop aside for a moment and listen to their thoughts.

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Characters of this type will put emphasis on spending one-on-one time with their loved ones. A young couple might try a new hobby or simply sit on the couch together doing nothing. A quality time person will be fulfilled with love as long as they have the other person’s attention. Time is their most important commodity. If it’s being wasted, they won’t be happy.

Receiving gifts

No, this type is not materialistic. The gesture of gift giving, for them, is about showing thoughtfulness and attention.

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Imagine, your character fell in love with a tiny bird sculpture she saw in an antics shop. Her husband had listened to her gush about it a few weeks ago. He makes the long drive to the shop and even wraps it in that hideous wrapping paper she giggled about on her birthday. The bird sculpture reminds her of her deceased mother, he knows how much she will appreciate the gesture. That’s mindful gifting your character will appreciate greatly.

Acts of service

This type will thrive when you do them favours or take off their excessive workload to show how much you care about them and value their presence.

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Doing the dishes, not out of obligation but support, will emphasise to the tired grandmother how much her grandchild values her. These types appreciate every genuine gesture of help and interpret them as acts of love. Broken promises or complete disregard for others’ needs, however, will make them prone to conflicts filled with accusations of neglect.

Physical touch

The name of this type is the game. Physical touch people love to hug, kiss or pat shoulders to signal others how much they care about them while also providing safety and warmth.

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These character types will prefer to hug someone for their achievements instead of complementing them. Denied touch or rejection will hurt them gravely, and they will probably not forget about the denial any time soon. A mother who fails to acknowledge her daughter’s longing for physical contact might deeply damage their relationship in the future.

Sourced from https://www.5lovelanguages.com/5-love-languages/.

Why are love languages useful?

Change relationship dynamics

Awareness of how your characters communicate their love will be vital in dialogue and non-verbal communication. While it is subtle, a love language will give your fictional friend a more realistic presence, while also allowing to inject extra tension or care into relationships.

The physical touch trait plays an important role in the body language of your fictional figures. Interactions between characters who are on opposing scores of this trait may have a hard time liking each other. One will despise touchy people trying to invade their personal space, the other will feel misunderstood or like there’s something wrong with them. Consider how their body language might differ in crowds versus intimate moments.

Create misunderstandings

If you want to introduce conflict, it can be helpful to identify love languages to establish why characters struggle to find common ground.
Maybe, the protagonist is furious when someone’s promise of help is broken. The protagonist is an ‘acts of service’ guy. To him, the ‘breaker of promises’ is a threat to his cause. They argue and the conflict escalates. An antagonist is born.

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Adding the element of love languages into your stories will shape character’s dynamics, body language or even give way to add subplots as communication break-down drives a wedge between friends and enemies. It’s worth a shot if you are looking to expand the profile you have of your fictional friends.

© 2021 vic lejon