Frequent readers of Fantasy Authors Handbook know that I am willing to own my own personal biases. Like everyone, I have opinions, many of which can not be supported by facts, but I try to have the maturity to avoid presenting those opinions as rules. Yes?

Okay, then, here’s another one. This week I fully own but at least attempt to explain (and therefor, like a psychic virus, spread) my personal distaste of the word large.

Large is, indeed, a word, and like other words, it often has a perfectly fine place in fiction of all genres. According to my dictionary app it means “of considerable or relatively great size, extent, or capacity.” For me, at least, it’s primary use is in describing the number of fries in an order or the size of a cup of coffee or soft drink. You may have had a large fries and large Coke with your large burger for lunch today. It’s also the clothing size they always seem to have left after all the XLs and XXLs have sold out. Not sure what that says about America, but there it is.

So… yeah. It’s a fine word.

Except when it shows up in fiction to describe pretty much anything else:

The large starship warped out of orbit.

Galen was a large man with an even larger ego.

The monster looked like a large crab with a squirrel’s head.

Large doors opened onto the castle’s inner bailey.

And yes, I have seen variations on these sentences—more than once—and I have always suggested that author find a better word to say the same thing, the same thing being: it (whatever it is) is bigger than normal.

Author John Grisham wrote, “There are three types of word: words we know, words we should know, and words nobody knows. Forget those in the third category and use restraint with those in the second.”

Good advice, in general. I don’t think we should all go down the Lovecraftian rabbit hole and fill our work with head-scratchers just to show off the fact that the same dictionary app also has a thesaurus in it. But still, fiction should come alive. Your writing should have a life to it beyond the obvious qualifier, and “large” is just as obvious a qualifier as you can find. As such, I find it boring and clunky—and I know we’re not going for boring and clunky, so what else then besides large?

First of all, the obvious synonyms:

The massive starship warped out of orbit.

Galen was a big man with an even bigger ego.

The monster looked like an immense crab with a squirrel’s head.

Huge doors opened onto the castle’s inner bailey.

Simple, right? And all four of these match to what Grisham would call “words we know.” But these are words that at least have a smidge more poetry to them.

A “large starship” really doesn’t have much character. Not that making it “massive” is all the description you’ll ever need, but it’s assumed that, though both words are generic in that there is no precise quantity that matches directly to either large or massive, massive is bigger than large. And why can’t your starship be massive? Why can’t the castle doors be huge?

A “big man” fits the idiom better. I’m a good sized guy but no one has ever referred to me as “large.” That just doesn’t sound right. I buy clothes from the Big & Tall section, not the Large & Tall section. In college, my friends used to call me Big Phil because there was another guy in our circle of friends also named Phil and I was physically bigger than him. Things may have gone slightly differently if my name were Marge, but otherwise, it’s going to be Big Phil, Big Jim, Big Pussy*…

Easy enough, but then let’s challenge ourselves to go a level deeper than the synonyms.

When the starship warped out of orbit the planet shuddered in its wake.

This shows the effect of the thing—it’s so big it has a gravitational effect on the planet beneath it.

Galen towered over the others, feeling taller still when he looked down on them.

Here we see Galen being an egotistical prick.

The squirrel-head’s eyes rose five, ten… twelve feet over Bronwyn’s head as the shadow of its crab-like body descended over the whole street.

Now we see the effect of the size of the crab and use a few careful specifics to convey a sense of movement.

War elephants plodded three abreast through the doors that swung open onto the castle’s inner bailey.

Here I’m showing you how big the doors are by providing three things you know to be big fitting through them at the same time.

Showing, being the operative word in all these examples. I’m not just telling you that something is, accurately but dryly, large.


—Philip Athans

*Did I just break a rule from last week’s post? Blame The Sopranos.


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. keithakenny says:

    I share your aversion to banal descriptive words such as “large”, although as your examples show, they can be effective in a relative sense, e.g., the man’s ego being as large as his large self.

    Otherwise they can be vague and misleading. In Stuttgart many years back, I ordered “zwei bier” and was asked “gross oder klein?” I was thirsty but not thirsty enough for the gross bier the waiter brought that came in around two gallons.

    I appreciate that John Grisham would have little use for words nobody knows in mystery writing. You and I write fantasy and science fiction, so occasional exotic speak might flavor a description, e.g., at the Bra’yoh-koh clan council fire, Lear described the invader’s ship descending as gently as a Chen Doe blossom.

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