What Are Adjectives For?

His mimsy gait and uffish demeanor could barely conceal his slithy character and vorpal intellect.

You could pretty much catch what the first sentence is saying even though four of the words (taken from Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky), all of which are adjectives, don’t mean anything. If you subtract the words “mimsy” “uffish” “slithy” and “vorpal” you would have:

His gait and demeanor could barely conceal his character and intellect.

You could still get that “he” looks harmless on the outside, but is short of being trustworthy. Which begs the question: What are adjectives for?

You could even throw in items you can find around the kitchen.

His pepper-mill gait and cream bowl demeanor could barely conceal his ice-tray character and meat-cleaver intellect. 

It still kind of communicates the intended message.

“Adjectives, you can do anything with them” as Humpty Dumpty would say. This is why so many writing manuals advise you to avoid adjectives altogether.

Adjectives, if you get too creative with them, will describe the writer more than they will the story. The flip side is that when your story has multiple POV, and each chapter is told by a different character, you can use a different set of adjectives for each character.

James Scott Bell, the thriller writer, has a few books out on writing. He recommends that you keep a “voice journal” which is a record of random thoughts written in the POV of each character. This will help you keep track of the various voices of each character. When you write a voice journal, it is useful to keep in mind that each voice would use a different set of adjectives. Robin the Caped Crusader, from the original TV series kept crying “Holy- !”, as in “Holy Smokes, Batman!”. This is a quirk in speech and not a voice. A voice reflects emotions, dispositions, upbringing, and education. If someone used words like “mimsy” “slithy” and “vorpal” I would say he has a wry sense of humor.

In spite of Humpty Dumpty’s opinions, adjectives have character. They reflect the things your mind grabs from the world, be they Lewis Carroll rhymes or kitchen appliances, when it wants to project an image, incidentally projecting a bit of itself with it.

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