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May 30, 2017

How to Strengthen Our Characters with Strong Writing

Broken piece of wood with text: Weak Writing Can Break Our Characters

Readers can interpret our characters as being weak for many reasons. They might come across as passive, not acting on the plot or exhibiting agency. They might take foolish actions, being “too stupid to live.” Or they might lack a strong arc, showing how they’ve grown and bettered themselves.

Another way a character might seem weak might be surprising: A character can seem weak when we use weak sentences in our writing. Let me explain…

The words and sentence structures we use can act in a subtextual or subconscious way to give readers the impression of weakness. That weakness can reflect badly on us—the author—which is bad enough.

Many writing techniques require a sense of confidence and competence to come through our words for readers to trust that we’ll deliver on our author promises. However, weak writing can also reflect badly on our characters, making them seem more wishy-washy than we intend.

Let’s go through a few examples of ways we can strengthen our writing—and thus, strengthen readers’ impressions of our characters—starting with the most obvious and working our way to the most subtextual.

“Weasel” Words

We may have heard the advice before to avoid “weasel” words in our writing. Weasel words are vague, weak, and wishy-washy such as…:

  • somewhat, nearly, almost, appeared, seemed, looked

In most cases, either something is or it isn’t. Using a vague word undermines the point we’re trying to make.

In school, we might have been instructed to avoid unnecessary qualifiers in our essays and professional messages, such as “I think we should…” rather than “We should…” Weasel words are another form of unnecessary qualifiers.

If we’re trying to emphasize a near-miss or a character’s assumption, weasel words can make our point:

  • She almost made it to the bus stop on time, but only the cloud of fumes met her at the corner, and now she had to face the dog chasing her.
  • His boss seemed happy, a smile etched on her face, but the expression never reached her eyes.

But if we’re trying to make a statement, such as indicating what a character actually does or thinks, weasel words weaken our writing:

  • She almost missed the bus, but she stepped on board just before the door closed.
    • If it doesn’t matter that she almost missed the bus, just cut the first part of the sentence.
  • His boss seemed happy.
    • If he thinks his boss is happy, just show the evidence he sees to make that assumption, such as describing her expression.

How Does This Weakness Affect Our Characters?

If our characters think or speak with unnecessary weasel words, they can come across to readers as unsure of themselves or their thoughts. A hesitant or tentative character won’t seem as strong.

Obviously, we could use this technique on purpose to show when a character is unsure or lying to themselves, but that approach will only work if the rest of our writing avoids these words. Otherwise, readers will just see more of the same and not follow our intentions.

Unclear Meaning

Some words or phrases could be worded more clearly, which would also make our writing stronger. For example, words like it, this, that, these, and those can all leave the intended meaning ambiguous.

An easy way to fix the issue and make our writing sound stronger is to use more precise nouns. Precise nouns are like active verbs. They help readers picture our story in their heads and make our writing feel more confident.

Instead of using “it,” we should instead state what we’re referring to, changing the sentence structure and/or coming up with another word to describe the thing. If we can’t avoid using “it,” we’d want to make sure the antecedent—the thing we’re referring to—is clear.

  • He cleaned the knife and slipped it into the sheath.
    • While the reference in the sentence is clear—it refers to the knife—we could use another specific noun:
      He cleaned the knife and slipped the blade into the sheath.

In the case of other types of pronouns—such as demonstrative pronouns: this, that, these, and those—we would at least want to check for clear antecedents. Again, however, our sentences might sound stronger if we add a clarifying noun.

  • Living in an apartment means putting up with the sounds of barking dogs and noisy neighbors. These can interrupt our sleep.
    • An extra noun can clear up the meaning and strengthen the sentence:
      Living in an apartment means putting up with the sounds of barking dogs and noisy neighbors. These disturbances can interrupt our sleep.

How Does This Weakness Affect Our Characters?

Unclear meanings won’t necessarily make our characters seem weak. However, as mentioned above, more precise nouns strengthen our writing—and thus our characters. If we write our characters with active verbs and precise nouns, they’ll come across to readers as more definitive, knowing what they’re doing and thinking.

Again, we might want our characters to seem hesitant sometimes, but readers will only come away with that impression if that section of writing is different from the rest. The point, as with many things writing, is to write with purpose.

Wordiness

Even though I’m a developmental editor and don’t specifically look for line and copy editing changes, if a client’s writing could benefit from the advice, I’ll often point out a few examples of sentences that could be tightened.

Like the other examples above, tighter writing sounds stronger, more definitive. We sound more confident as an author, which can help us convince readers that our story is worth listening to or deserves the benefit of the doubt. In the same way, wordiness can affect readers’ impressions of the “worthiness” of our characters and how much they deserve our readers’ attention.

Common wordiness issues include:

  • “go ahead and…”
    Just state the second action.
  • “He/she turned and…”
    Just because we picture in our head that the character turned before their next action doesn’t mean we have to state it. We can often skip to the second action: “He strode to the door.”
  • “go inside and…”
    Adverbs such as inside usually don’t need their own verb phrase, as we could instead skip to the second action and indicate that it takes place inside, outside, wherever: “He waited inside.”
  • “…began to/started to…”
    Unless the action following began/started is about to be interrupted, we don’t need to specify that it began. The action is the important part, not that it started, so we can skip to the main verb.
  • “…noun of the noun…”
    Rather than saying something like “The sleeves of the jacket were too short,” we could usually tighten the sentence to “The jacket’s sleeves were too short.” Occasionally, a sentence will read clearer with the “of” style of possessives, but most times, we can use the tighter apostrophe style.
  • “…crept through the door and around the back of the building.”
    Multiple prepositional phrases in a sentence are a red flag, as there’s usually a tighter (and less confusing) way to word the idea.
    Here—with through, around, and of—we could at least tighten to “…through the door and behind the building.” Depending on the action, we might even be able to get rid of the first one with something like: “…crept outside behind the building.”

How Does This Weakness Affect Our Characters?

Wordiness tends to clutter sentences with unimportant details. Just as an overly chatty friend can make us tune out—which is mildly disrespectful—readers can tune out and lose respect for our overly wordy characters.

Many of the examples above fall into the category of sentences with compound verbs, but only one of the verbs is strong. In most of those cases, we’d be better off ditching the weak verb unless it’s absolutely necessary for clarity.

Other Weak-Writing Issues to Watch Out For

  • Short, Too-Simplistic Sentences:
    Combine and add sentence complexity unless shorter is better for active pacing and rhythm.
    Too-simplistic sentences can lead to an impression of our characters being childish or uneducated.
  • Unnecessary Words (prepositions, modifiers, etc.):
    Cut words like “down” or “up” unless needed for clarity (gravity doesn’t allow us to fall up). Similarly, modifiers such as “big” don’t need to be applied to elephants, as that’s expected. Also, there’s a reason why adverbs can signal weak writing. Instead, keep modifiers only when necessary and only when we can’t use a stronger word, such as a better verb.
    Unnecessary words create the same wordiness issues as mentioned above.

Weak writing doesn’t just reflect on us as authors. Weak writing can make our characters come across as wishy-washy, weak, and tentative. While we might want to create that impression sometimes, we can only purposefully make our characters seem hesitant if the rest of our writing is strong.

If we want our characters to come across as strong, we must use strong writing. Click To TweetMore importantly, many of our characters need to seem strong to readers, such as those who should be a leader, an “alpha,” or a character to admire. If we want our characters to come across as strong, we must use strong writing.

Telling readers that a character is strong and determined won’t do any good if we’re showing our character through weak writing. We’ll undermine their personality strengths if our writing for them—descriptions, narrative, dialogue, actions, etc.—is wishy-washy in the slightest.

Readers might not consciously recognize when our writing fails to sound strong, but the subtext for our characters and the subconscious impression of our writing won’t be good. Tight, clear, and strong sentences are good for our characters, good for our story’s pacing, and good for the impression readers have of our competence to deliver a story worth reading. *smile*

Have you ever noticed wishy-washy writing when reading? What impression did it give you of the author and characters? Do you agree that weak writing can reflect on our characters? Do you struggle with any of these issues? Can you think of other examples of weak writing that can make our characters look weak too?

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10 Comments on "How to Strengthen Our Characters with Strong Writing"

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Sieran Lane
Sieran Lane
Hmm, though I recognize many of the above examples in books, no, these words and phrasings never gave me the impression that their characters are weak… I guess to me, what the author writes is independent of how the character actually is. The author might have mis-transcribed what the character really thought or said! But I’m not saying that all readers think like I do, though. Only talking about myself as a reader. As a writer, I tend to be very utilitarian. I don’t believe in rules, and instead like to judge and treat everything as a unique case. So while in many situations, I think it would be good to make the sentence more concise (to make the sentence easier to read and sometimes to create a more pleasant rhythm), I do see that in some other situations, it’s best to keep that sentence long, due to whatever reason. I’ll admit now that it’s a lot harder to judge what’s “right” or “wrong” if I don’t rely on rules, but–for me, I’m happier and wiser when I focus on the specifics of the case at hand! This utilitarian approach of mine doesn’t necessarily mean less work for me, however. I definitely need to think a lot more, and if all my beta readers say X is okay, I might disagree with them and think X is NOT okay, and so I spend a lot of time editing X, lol. I don’t always disagree with people, though. Btw, I’m not… Read more »
Mary Higginson
Mary Higginson

Thanks for this post Jami. As well as being helpful, constructive advice I found it really interesting and it brought up one or two points I hadn’t thought of.

Donovan Quesenberry
Donovan Quesenberry

Greetings,
Awesome post. OMG. I have made every mistake you have listed here, so am really grateful that solutions are included.
The list of strong verbs is–N-I-C-E! 🙂
The trick for which I have yet to discover the treat is self critique. Oops-ies are difficult to see. Still, this post gives good fixes.
Thanks Jami. Great image at the top, by the way.
Stay Well,
Donovan

Tinthia Clemant

I’ve read a lot of bestsellers with all the weaknesses you listed. But they’re published and on the bestseller list! How does this happen? I work hard to make my writing strong and your suggestions are spot on. However, I’m not on a bestseller list. There seems to be a lesson here…hmmm.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth

Thanks. I hadn’t thought of keeping a look out for too many prepositional phrases. Also, I had never even considered replacing it/they/them/etc with clarifying nouns. Recently, I did notice ups and downs were unnecessary. I also recently noticed I can say “I blinked,” and I don’t have to add “my eyes.” Duh. Same with waved (my arm). I have become aware that one can skip things like I turned. But, I’m not sure how to do that, how much to abbreviate the action.

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[…] voice, and setting. Jami Gold explains how we should deal with character stereotypes, and how to strengthen our characters with strong writing. Padma Venkatraman writes about voice: writing lean, spare, or lush, rich, and Tasha Seegmiller […]

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[…] believable characters is always a challenge. Paranormal author Jami Gold offers some advice in: How to Strengthen Our Characters with Strong Writing on her […]

Elizabet Kral
Elizabet Kral

Do you accept editing contracts?

Elizabeth
Elizabeth

I’m getting it. I appreciate the advice. It’s all good.

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