Mastering The Power Of Negative Adjectives In Your Story

As the name implies, negative adjectives are negative in nature and often express disagreement or criticism.

Adjectives describe a noun, so a negative adjective will negatively describe a noun. An example might be, “That dirty rat is in our garbage again.” In this case, the adjective ‘dirty’ is negative, implying the rat is dirty, and having it around is undesirable. Using negative adjectives comes with a great deal of power, and while you can use adjectives to describe people, places, and things, they can also do much, much more.

The Power of Language

It would be easy to think of negative adjectives as single words that describe something in a singularly negative way, but they go well beyond that purpose. They tell us about the noun, but they also tell us about the author, character, and narrator’s feelings and intentions, and it also significantly affects the tone of what you are writing.

The short-tempered man entered the shopping mall.

The sentence illustrates that a man with a short temper (lacking patience) and a lousy mood enters a shopping mall. The implications of ‘short temper’ are not good and raise an interesting question about what form of conflict might be ahead.

Adjectives Can Imply Foreshadowing

If the man is short-tempered, entering a shopping mall will likely do nothing to soothe his short temper. The suggestion is that drama will unfold. The choice of this descriptor goes beyond telling us about the man. It sets the tone and sets up a potential conflict as well. Even if it does not set up a conflict, it will most likely create tension that will extend over the scene.

Negative Adjectives To Describe People and Character Traits

It is Sally’s first day back at school. Here are some example sentences for adjectives to describe people:

With an angry expression, Sally entered the school.

vs.

With a sad expression, Sally entered school.

In these examples, the two different negative adjectives completely change the tone. Both are implied negative, yet both mean vastly different things with many implications.

In the first example, the implication is that Sally does not like school or has a negative personality as she enters. In the second example, Sally is sad about going to school. There is a dramatic difference between angry and sad. It means that different things happen in her head and might unfold in action later.

When you describe people negatively, choose wisely to extend the context and tone of your work.

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Adjectives to Describe a Person Negatively

Below is the list of some of the most impactful negative adjectives that you can use to give your characterization a negative spin.

  • apathetic
  • bossy
  • cowardly
  • narrow-minded
  • untrustworthy
  • egocentric
  • narcissistic
  • disorganized
  • indecisive
  • intolerant
  • barbaric
  • broken
  • cold
  • complacent
  • creepy
  • fiendish
  • hopeless
  • insane
  • selfish
  • apathetic
  • illogical
  • oppressive
  • toxic

The adjectives listed above are incredibly helpful to establish an aura of negativity and to ingrain in the readers mind the characters’ negative traits. You can utilize a variety of different negative adjectives to achieve a specific impression, such as painting a picture of a person filled with displeasure, cruelty, violence, and discrimination, will provide the reader with a specific image in their mind.

However, it is important to remember to use consistency when using negative adjectives in your writing to introduce and sustain character traits, especially the characteristics of a protagonist and an antagonist.

Negative Adjectives for Places

You have likely experienced a most unpleasant place where you might use some negative choice adjectives.

He entered the gloomy graveyard after dark.

A graveyard is not necessarily gloomy by default. It can be a place of rest, a community of the departed, or a celebration of lives lived. By choosing the word ‘gloomy,’ the author intends to cast a certain mood over the graveyard and how the main character and the reader feel about it. It is just one word, but how you describe places can say everything about the moment in the story.

Negative Adjectives for Things

Remember that adjectives are not random words you throw onto the page. They are like chess, where your moves are deliberate and intended to have a broader impact and make ripples that resonate later in the story. Take a look at this example:

The cursed locket fell from the table.

What can be taken from this sentence? The locket is cursed (not a good thing) and has fallen from the table. From that single word, we get the implication that this is a story with supernatural connections dealing with some negative energy, like in the form of a curse. It also creates a feeling of dread—all from just one-word choice.

Negative Adjectives to Describe a Day

Negative adjectives can also allow the audience to visualize a day in the characters’ shoes. It is important to choose negative adjectives that justify the circumstances being depicted in each scene. The examples below help illustrate how a character’s day went either expectedly or unexpectedly. With these negative adjectives, you can create a side story which allows the reader to understand why a specific character behaved the way they did on that particular day.

Here are some helpful words to describe a character’s bad day:

  • heartbreaking
  • awful
  • unfortunate
  • terrible
  • horrible
  • stressful
  • unpleasant
  • chaotic
  • boring
  • unlucky
  • dark
  • stormy
  • dull
  • dreadful
  • miserable
  • hazy
  • hot
  • unproductive
  • tiring
  • unfavorable

Positive Adjectives

To further demonstrate the power of adjective choice, look at the same sentences using positive adjectives instead:

The smiling man entered the shopping mall.

The example is suddenly completely different. The man entering the mall is smiling, implying that he is happy about shopping. The back story is that he is buying a gift for a loved one. Single, positive adjectives can mean something nice is happening and change that line’s entire tone.

With a peaceful expression on her face, Sally entered the school.

Sally now seems happy, or at least at peace going to school. The sentence changes from a negative outlook of school to a positive outlook. It is a complete tonal opposite.

The exquisite locket fell from the table.

The locket is no longer cursed – it is exquisite, which implies a thing of precious beauty. There is a stark contrast in tone from ‘cursed.’ (It might still be cursed, but this is how the author presents it.)

It might seem obvious that the difference between negative and positive adjectives is the negativity and positivity of the sentence. However, understand what a vast difference one word can make in your work. These word choices change the tone and the focus of your sentences and your story.

Doubling Down: Using Coordinating Conjunctions

If you want to go big, you can double up your negative adjectives to add more power to your words. Here is an example:

The brutish and brooding sailor threw the cargo from the ship.

A couple of things are happening here. The sailor is described in a negative light as brutish and brooding. The implication is that whatever he is doing (throwing cargo) is not going in a good way. There is absolutely no proof of his actions as good or bad in this sentence, but the adjectives make it seem that he is not a pleasant guy and therefore is not up to nice things.

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The Sandwich of Dread

The use of the two words connected by ‘and’ suddenly worsens a bad implication. The negativity is doubled and creates a new dimension of darkness in the relationship between those two words. It is a sandwich of dread, showing how powerful descriptive words are⁠—they are not only rough, but they are also unhappy about something, a double the threat.

For further effect, both words that start with ‘broo’ sounds create alliteration. Even the sounds of words can have negative implications.

Some other examples of the power of double negative adjectives:

The rusted and chugging car barely made it to the finish line.

His flippant and dismissive manner offended the client.

The tarred and barren landscape showed no signs of life.

What further implications can be drawn from using just two adjectives? What ideas, sounds, and feelings are formed by juxtaposing these words?

How Many Adjectives

Two adjectives can be powerful, primarily when they work in unison to create a bigger meaning. But what about three or more? Is it a good idea to use a string of negative adjectives to demonstrate how bad something is? Not necessarily.

If you use too many adjectives, you risk going over the top, seeming excessive and repetitive. Those effects are often reserved for comedy or camp. Choose your negative adjectives wisely for the most impact, but in this case, more is not necessarily better. Choose quality over quantity.

The Power of Negativity

Knowing how word choice impacts tone, consider how word choice further takes your reader along for the ride. If you consistently use negative adjectives to describe things, the reader will come away with a heavy impression that the book was dark.

Alternatively, they might call a book with many positive adjectives a delightful and light book. It is a matter of the reader’s outlook and the other factors an author employs when writing.

Using negativity, like many things, is a storytelling tool. However, you do not use a hammer to insert a screw, so it is best to know when negative adjectives work best and not overuse them. When you overuse things, you diminish their power and impact.

Use negative adjectives precisely when you want to show something in a negative light. That might seem obvious, but consider how it might affect a letter or story that you had not intended to be so negative. Choose your adjectives wisely.

Mastering Contrast and Tone

How your work feels will play a part in the reader’s experience. What is the effect you want to have on your reader? You are the architect of the world where you lead them through. So what kind of world will you build?

Contrast and tone are powerful parts of any story. The tone sets the mood and is often crafted by the story’s setting, character, and action. The tone of a children’s book is very different from a horror novel. The words and structures you use will play a big part in your storytelling, so use them accordingly.

Contrast is a craft person’s tool. What happens when something is so utterly dark when you shine a light on it? Or vice versa? There is power in contrasts, so consider this when choosing adjectives.

The lonely house stood on the hill.

vs.

The bright house stood on the hill.

There is only one difference, but you can see a significant contrast and meaning. The tone is also vastly different with a single word.

Negative Personality vs. Positive Personality Adjectives

It is entirely possible to use a variation of positivity and negativity in your work. After all, that is how the universe works, yin and yang. Balance is good in life, and balance adds range to your work.

You might have a negative personality like the miserable Grinch, who is comically opposite from the positive cheeriness of the Whos. Demonstrating such a stark contrast between the personality types creates a higher level of tension and drama and a more extensive catharsis when Grinch’s character carves the roast beast.

It can also make for great drama when you think of Laurel and Hardy, Batman and Joker, or widely contrasting personality types.

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The Grinch vs. The Whos

Dr. Seuss demonstrates the power of words with negative adjectives and bad feelings in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Here are some examples:

sour, tight, unpleasant, fake

Not surprisingly, Dr. Seuss uses negative adjectives to describe the Grinch.

Here are the positive adjectives associated with the Whos:

sweet, merry, warm, close

Despite the balanced contrast of sweet vs. sour in this story, the tone is shrouded by the Grinch’s misery. But the persistent use of negative adjectives and actions heightens the drama at the climax when the Grinch finally sees the light.

Contrast Creates Drama

As every story is driven by conflict, it is good to create conflict or contrast where possible. Like using a negative adjective against a positive adjective, you can use other tools to help the reader understand what you wish to convey.

Contrasts do not necessarily create conflict; instead, they add details to the story, such as light and dark, good and evil, and happy and sad.

Famous Contrasts

  • R2D2 and 3CPO
  • Jekyll and Hyde
  • Snow White and her Stepsisters

Use contrasts where you can, including with the adjectives you use.

Real-World Adjective Examples

If you watch or read any form of news media, try an experiment. Look for any editorial style pieces that include adjectives, and look closely at what those adjectives are saying. You will see how it affects the tone of the entire article.

In marketing materials, look at how products are described. What difference can one positive or negative adjective make? How big of an impact do these small words make?

In Conclusion

When a writer uses negative adjectives to describe people, they sometimes go beyond the task of giving one more shade to that character. They also help to create the environment and the tone of the work. 

The English language has some powerful, efficient tools, and understanding their full potential will result in better writing.

Negative adjectives can be used as splashes of color and, when used in contrast, heighten the drama of your story. They can also moderate or dominate the tone of your story, so use them to foster awareness, care, and precision.

Used together, they create a tag team of power that can add new layers of depth and complexity to your story when used effectively. When the right balance of tone is struck in a story, that is the most compelling story.

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