By Damon Suede
I want to thank Kobo Writing life for letting me come talk with y’all about the ways characters drive a story.
I come to romance fiction from showbiz, 20+ years scripting for film/TV/Theatre/comics. Because I’ve spent a lot of time in various sectors of the entertainment industry I come at character with an idiosyncratic pragmatism. Only in fiction does an author get to decide things like physical appearance and heritage, tics and traits. The ultraviolent action movie you write for Keanu Reeves may end up a children’s cartoon starring a talking radish for Nickelodeon; your political webcomic could morph into a snarky videogame bible. At core, your characters have to DO something fascinating rather than simply looking or acting a certain way.
That means that I showed up in fiction with a strange bag of tricks which sidestepped a lot of perennial crutches and bandaids that weaken fiction. Scripting a story means you can’t rely on all the little trivial details to shore up characterization
Characteristics are not character.
All virgins are not innocent, all heroes are not handsome… prom queens can be geniuses and crooks can be saints. Of such silliness is prejudice promulgated. We know this, we’ve learned this lesson repeatedly in our lives, and yet as authors we cultivate a kind of stubborn amnesia . . . as if by insisting on a series of quirky specifics we can fool the audience into believing in all our imaginary friends.
People don’t fall in love with a book because of a character’s haircut or eye color. The details we apply to characters only prop up the essential core that makes them compelling. That core expresses their energy in a series of intentional actions motivated by their wound, their internal void, and aimed at their ultimate goal.
Characters are created by their actions. We see them struggling toward happiness, having an impact, so we project on to them and form opinions about them and develop relationships with them . . . just like people in our real lives.
Even though your heart tells you otherwise, characters aren’t alive. That’s the magic trick of fiction.
Characters are built of fascinating gaps.
What you leave out can be as important as what you include. There is no such thing as a three-dimensional character because stories are sketched in a few telling strokes, not atomic detail. They move us because they are created inside us, compelling devices built from the raw materials the author provides.
Characters are storytelling tools designed to extract satisfying emotion from your readers.
A character in a story is an action figure . . . a fun, functional component necessary to a story. Just like literal toys, characters have pieces and joints, edges and options, a fixed appearance and range of motion that begs to be played with.
Of course that means that your job as an author is to create actions worth figuring. This is why simply saying “he’s hawt” or “she’s a kickass CEO” fails so spectacularly as a narrative strategy. Instead of telling people what to feel, you have to show them action that elicits feelings. Pinpoint the action and you’ll nail the character every time, because as Aristotle teaches us, “Character is habitual action.”
Audience don’t want real people on those pages, they want someone they can play with, someone who’s sturdy and striking enough for them to enjoy in many situations: action figures.
This is where that inner wound, that personal void becomes so essential to characterization. Once you can pinpoint the pain or need that drives them, the action identifies itself . . . it is the intentional behavior which this character believes will heal the wound, fill the void, ease the need. Building that void is almost mathematical: problematic emptiness that sucks + past origin + resonance/significance + persistent influence = motivation
Once you know what essential thing your character lacks, you can figure out what they’ll do to acquire it. The action unpacks that character’s baggage, making clunky exposition and backstory dumps unnecessary. Because that action is inherently motivated by personal distress, everything they do on the page will be anchored in real difficulty and relatable conflict. That figure will turn up on page ready to take action.
Even better, by giving your audience action figures they want to play with, they learn to trust your ability to entertain them, to show them unexpected kinds of fun. With the right group of action figures, drafting, crafting, revision and pitching become way easier and more enjoyable. Fun for you, and even more fantastic for the fans.
Damon has earned his crust as a model, a messenger, a promoter, a programmer, a sculptor, a singer, a stripper, a bookkeeper, a bartender, a techie, a teacher, a director… but writing has ever been his bread and butter. Though new to romance fiction, Damon has been writing for print, stage, and screen almost three decades and just released his first craft book: Verbalize, a practical guide to characterization and story craft. He’s won some awards, but counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive Muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year. Get in touch with him on Twitter, Facebook, or at DamonSuede.com.