Adjectives – words that describe nouns or pronouns – add specificity and detail to writing. The literal definition of adjective is ‘throw towards’, from the Latin prefix ad- (towards) and the verb jacere (throw). That’s what great describing words do: They ‘throw’ readers into your fictional world; let them see, hear, taste it. Read adjective examples from works by esteemed authors that show how to be creative with your descriptions:
1. Reveal characters with strong describing words: Charles Dickens
The Victorian author Charles Dickens is a master of creating vivid, characterful protagonists, villains and supporting characters. When we first meet the sister of the narrator and hero Pip in Great Expectations (1861), the character Mrs Joe, this is how Dickens describes her:
‘My sister, Mrs. Joe, with black hair and eyes, had such a prevailing redness of skin that I sometimes used to wonder whether it was possible she washed herself with a nutmeg-grater instead of soap. She was tall and bony, and almost always wore a coarse apron, fastened over her figure behind two loops, and having a square impregnable bib in front, that was stuck full of pins and needles. She made it a powerful merit in herself, and a strong reproach against [her husband] Joe, that she wore this apron so much.’ (p. 8)
Dickens’ use of adjectives is masterful. Note that he doesn’t just fixate on the colours of Mrs Joe’s features, as an amateur writer might. She does have ‘black’ hair and eyes. From here the description immediately gets more interesting. Dickens could simply describe Mrs’s Joe’s ‘red skin’. The phrase ‘redness of skin’ instead uses a ‘noun + preposition + noun’ construction. This is grammar we use to express a vague measurable quantity (e.g. ‘a cup of tea’ or ‘strand of hair’). The effect (combined with Pip wondering if she uses a nutmeg-grater to wash) is comical.
Dickens returns to simple adjectives when he describes Mrs Joe’s physique (‘tall and bony’). He then describes an item of her clothing in detail to convey Mrs Joe’s character.
Her apron is ‘coarse’, but the word ‘impregnable’ is genius. It’s clever because on one hand, it suggests toughness, in the meaning ‘unable to be pierced.’ The always-worn apron is like a suit of armour for stern Mrs Joe. It also has the dual meaning of ‘inability to conceive or fall pregnant’, suggesting the absence of maternal attributes.
Similarly, when you choose adjectives to describe your characters:
- Don’t just describe eye colour: What do characters’ complexions, clothing, posture and other details say about them? The irritated redness of Mrs Joe’s skin tone and her fort-like apron suggest an irritable, tough nature, as Dickens proceeds to show
- Describe clothing details so they reinforce characters’ personalities. For example, the reproachful, long-suffering way Mrs Joe wears her apron
2. Describe places clearly: Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez has a skill for rich description, even read in translation. In this description of Dr. Urbino’s library from Love in the time of Cholera (1985), notice how Marquez mixes simple adjectives with characters’ superstitions and actions to show how his characters live in time and place:
‘Unlike the other rooms, which were at the mercy of noise and foul winds from the port, the library always enjoyed the tranquility and fragrance of an abbey. Born and raised in the Carribean superstition that one opened doors and windows to summon a coolness that in fact did not exist, Dr. Urbino and his wife at first felt their hearts oppressed by enclosure. But in the end they were convinced of the merits of the Roman strategy against heat, which consists of closing houses during the lethargy of August in order to keep out the burning air from the street, and then opening them up completely to the night breezes.’ (p. 19)
Marquez evokes sound and smell (the ‘noise’ and ‘foul’ winds from the port). He uses the ‘noun + of + noun’ construction we read in Mrs Joe’s ‘redness of skin’ to describe the library’s smell that resembles a place of worship. The same goes for the ‘lethargy of August’. Marquez then uses simple adjectives again to describe times of day – the day’s ‘burning’ air and the ‘night’ breezes.
Thus while Marquez uses simple adjectives to describe the elements (‘foul winds’ and ‘night breezes’), he also uses more complex descriptions. Like Dickens he uses nouns modifying nouns (‘lethargy of August’) to describe in more general, abstract terms. These descriptions show everything from times of year to comparisons between the Urbinos’ private library and a place of worship.
To choose good adjectives to describe places:
- Describe to involve different senses: Sight, sound, smell, touch
- Use other describing words (such as noun modifiers). For example, you can use a noun with a modifying phrase to describe a character’s face: ‘He had a face for radio’ (here ‘for radio’ implies the character isn’t good-looking, since radio is sound-only).
- You can describe places through actions, too: Marquez shows us how his characters live in their home at different times of year and day
3. Combine adjectives creatively: Toni Morrison
Examples of adjectives, taken individually, don’t always tell us much. A single describing word may be apt, but it’s how an author strings together descriptions that creates a memorable effect. Take this example from Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz (1992), where she describes lovers Joe (a make-up salesman) and Dorcas:
‘The Iroquois sky passes the windows, and if they do see it, it crayon-colors their love. That would be when, after a decent silence, he would lift his sample case of Cleopatra from the chair and tease her before opening it, holding up the lid so she could not see right away what he has hidden under the jars and perfume-sweet boxes; the present he has brought for her. That is the little bow that ties up their day at the same time the citysky is changing its orange heart to black in order to hide its stars for the longest time before passing them out one by one by one, like gifts.’ (p. 38)
Morrison chooses an interesting adjective to describe the sky, referring to the Iroquois indigenous people of North America (perhaps referencing the purple of their flag, or the important role of the sky in their mythology).
Morrison’s description of Joe’s travelling case is evocative. She describes ‘perfume-sweet’ boxes, creating a hyphenated, portmanteau adjective. Instead of describing the sky as simply turning from orange to black, she personifies the sky – it actively changes its ‘orange heart to black in order to hide its stars’. The sky itself mimics the hiding and revealing of Joe and his box of gifts, similarly waiting for the perfect moment for a dazzling reveal. This description is rich and poetic.
- Creating your own compound adjectives (e.g. ‘a whiskey-strong kick’; ‘ her shutter-fast retort’). Elsewhere in Jazz, Morrison describes the character Violet’s ‘snatch-gossip tongue’
- Finding varied, metaphorical ways to use adjectives (instead of ‘the orange sky turned black’; for example, ‘the sky turned its orange heart black’)
4. Craft effective adjectival phrases: E. Annie Proulx
In addition to choosing the right standalone adjectives to describe your characters (like Dicken’s ‘impregnable’ for Mrs Joe’s armour-like apron), it’s also important to use adjectival phrases well. An adjectival phrase (also called adjective phrase) is a group of words that describe a noun or pronoun in a sentence. For example, in the sentence ‘not until dark, frost-slicked morning did she discover what had happened’, ‘dark, frost-slicked’ is a phrase describing ‘morning’.
An adjectival phrase can come before the noun in the sentence, as in this example from E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News (1993):
‘A great damp loaf of a body.’ (p. 2)
This is Proulx’s description of her protagonist Quoyle’s body. The describing words in an adjectival phrase can also come before and after the noun (e.g. ‘His damp body, a great, soggy loaf’) or before it, as in this example:
‘The were friends for a while, Quoyle, Partridge and Mercalia. Their differences: Partridge black, small, a restless traveler across the slope of life, an all-night talker; Mercalia, second wife of Partridge and the color of a brown feather on dark water, a hot intelligence; Quoyle large, white, stumbling along, going nowhere.’ (p.4)
In longer adjectival phrases such as these, note how the author maintains clarty and structure. At the start of each sentence after the colon, Proulx uses each character’s name, followed by adjectives and adjectival phrases.
- When stringing together adjectives and adjectival phrases, order your descriptions for good flow. Proulx in the example above moves from the simple and clear (e.g. ‘black, small’) to the longer and more complex (‘all-night talker’) description. Each phrase is easy to follow
- Combine the simple and visual with the more complex and abstract (e.g. Mercalia is described as having ‘a hot intelligence’)
Improve your descriptions: Get constructive feedback on your use of adjectives and other details and get help to finish writing a novel now.