Imagery and Characterization, can the two ever meet outside of an English class?
Is your hero a volcano, seething with fury and ready to burst at any moment? Is your heroine a skittish crane attempting to fly far, far away whenever trouble startles her? How about something more basic? Earth, air, fire, or water. When they’re angry, do they darken, flash, seethe, or boil? When they’re excited, do they thicken or sear, experience lightning or rivers of fire?
Talk about imagery and even writers roll back to their worst high school English class. That’s unfortunate because there is no easier tool for characterization than using good consistent imagery. How many of us have read something like this: His touch was like a hot brand against her skin. Her heart quivered with longing as he stabbed her with his arrow of luv. Okay, maybe not that last one, but you get the idea. Cliche imagery for cliche stories.
So many romance novels end up with Ken and Barbie characters. Physically they’re perfect, emotionally they’re perfect–except for their one scar that is the focus of their arc. Barbie needs to learn to trust because she’s been dumped before. Ken lost his last girlfriend to a fire because he was a coma at the time therefore it was all his fault and he now has a protect the world from its own stupidity. I’m making fun here, but romance readers know how the same emotional baggage in the hands of one author is farce in someone else’s.
So how do you make your characters deeply emotional people with real problems instead of Ken in a coma? Hard work. Ha! You thought I was going to say imagery. No, good imagery will not save a stupid book. But consistent imagery will deepen your characters and–here’s the good part–keep your themes in your head from the beginning all the way through to the end of the book. Yup. Since writing is HARD WORK, anything that makes it EASIER WORK gets a thumbs up from me.
Raise your hand if you’re wondering what the heck I’m talking about. Think of your heroine. For this example, we’ll call her Better Than Barbie (BTB). What’s her character arc? What does she learn through the course of the book? How does she change? If you can’t answer that, sit down and think of an answer. You can’t write a credible book without it. Remember, the answer could be that she doesn’t change. Despite everything, she remains rock solid in her beliefs.
Great, now BTB has a character arc. Let say BTB needs to learn to forgive, not only herself for her bad choices but her Mother From Hell who set her up with the Fiancé from Hell complete with the Family from Hell. Okay, what image best fits a woman who needs to learn forgiveness?
Let’s start with the easy part: earth, air, fire, or water. If she’s a religious character–water. You can use all that great baptism, washed clean, purified imagery. If she’s a stable character, grounded in her location or family or her job–then go with an earth concept. If BTB is quick tempered, someone who can either lash out or inspire–go with fire. Lastly, air. I chose air for the dreamers, the mystics, the people who wander around in their brain rather than the world because they’re either brilliant (genius academic) or lost in their imagination (airhead creative…ie, me).
Let’s go with the airhead creative. She’s an air person. Therefore colors that work for her would be pastels–light blue, white fluffy clouds. I’d make her a blonde with blue eyes that can grow really pale when she’s off day dreaming. Her body type is ethereal, ephemeral, and when Not-Ken looks at her, he wonders if she’ll just be blown away by the troubles of the world. She is the kind of person that all heroes want to protect.
When BTB becomes passionate, her eyes darken to a mysterious midnight sky. Her passion is surrounded by words like lightning, turbulence, and electric sensations–all those things that are associated with weather. Her happy laugh is light and brightens everything around her. Her ironic, snarky moments have a crisp snap to them. Now all of a sudden whenever you write about BTB, you have a whole slew of words to latch onto. She’ll walk lightly instead of with a heavy tread. She’ll float through a room instead of cut or stomp or glide.
Now think of her problem and start including words that demonstrate that. First scenes will include one or two words that indicate her need to forgive: stagnant, stuffy, choking, distant, maybe even dizzy. But as she moves through the book–especially in moments that reveal change–her imagery will change too. Her words or clothing will flow, her touch will feel like a benediction or the sun finally coming out. Learning to forgive will feel like a gentle spring rain that cleanses rather than punishes.
Sadly, no one but another brilliant writer will notice your imagery set. At least not on a conscious level. It’s all subconscious, but it helps create a unified feel for your characters that will flow (or drift or root or burn) through your entire book. And it helps you remember that BTB starts out as an air head but when hanging out with Not-Ken, she gets more grounded, and yet he appreciates the lightness to her spirit. Maybe she cools his volcano fire.