A picture is worth a thousand words.
I’m sure you’ve all heard this saying before. A lot of authors may dispute how accurate this claim is, but I think it does touch on something. There’s a reason film is such a powerful narrative format and why movies and television are so popular. It’s easy to convey messages instantaneously through simple sets of imagery, and certainly it is very easy to characterize people quickly with an image rather than a description.
George Lucas does this very effectively in Star Wars. There are stark differences between the imagery used to characterize the Rebels and that which is used to characterize the Empire.
The Rebels are colorful and individualistic. Their uniforms are both brightly colored and worn. The faces of their soldiers are always visible, letting the viewer distinguish them, and many of the pilots have unique insignias on their helmets.
By contrast the Empire is colored only in black, white, brown, and gray (with just a splash of red). Their foot soldiers don’t display their faces, appearing as a mass or a unit rather than an individual. They are very clean, crisp, and precise.
Every time we see these soldiers or the locations in which they reside, we are reminded of the differences between these two factions. Lucas doesn’t have to use exposition to convey anything to the viewer in this regard, whereas fiction authors would have to churn out thousands of words worth of description to cue in a reader to all of the different details.
So, as fiction authors, how exactly can we convey a similar effect to the pictorial mediums without the use or advantage of visual cues? We have to use word cues, or themes, instead.
You probably have an idea in your head as to what your world and the characters who inhabit it look like. Of course it is important to describe these things to the reader, but you can’t do that every single time these things show up. Instead, you can evoke them through the use of specific words that are meant to characterize them, much the way that Lucas characterized his factions with specific visuals.
To generate these word cues, start by brain storming every word that comes to mind when thinking about your characters, locations, factions, or whatever. Literal descriptions of these things are fine, but try to push and reach for more metaphorical descriptions as well.
For example, a set of descriptions for Stormtroopers might read:
Once you’ve exhausted your list of words, try to think about what other things these descriptions might fit with.
Now try to use these things to create a theme that fits with these types of characters, the location, or the faction. Ideally your theme will also fit with how your protagonist sees the world.
For example, someone whose parents were killed by the Empire might see Stormtroopers in a different way than an Imperial officer who bosses them around.
Finally, expand your word base again, using this theme to find descriptive words you can insert into your text to subtly characterize these characters, places, etc. Attach those words and that imagery to specific people or things so that the reader feels a connection between the object and the word. But, as I said, be subtle, don’t hammer it home too hard. Be precise with the words you are using.
I don’t normally advocate for the use of a thesaurus, but if you feel you absolutely must expand into more words, then use it at the end of this process to generate some more descriptions you can pull out of your writing hat. I advise that you do it in the final step so that the word cues you initially come up with are organic to what you’re trying to describe.
I hope that this was helpful. If you have any thoughts, please let me know in the comments or connect with me on one of my social media channels.