Characters are not real people – but readers have to experience the slice of life you portray in your book as if they are. So how can you bring your characters alive?
In this article, Damon Suede outlines how to use character action and strong language to lift your characters off the page.
One of the odd myths of fiction is that characters are just like people, only imaginary… as if Darcy and your mailman differed only in their fame, wealth, and relative eligibility. That’s nonsense, of course.
Characters share some characteristics with people but only enough to help them fulfil their function: to extract satisfying emotion from an audience.
One of the most obvious differences is that characters have to earn belief, while actual people get the benefit of the doubt. If we can see them and talk to them, then we assume they exist.
Characters have to convince an audience to believe. Characters don’t feel. Characters aren’t born. Characters don’t actually disobey their creators, although at times it feels like they do. The feelings are real. The characters are not.
Bringing your fictional characters to life
- they’re always pursuing their version of happiness
- taking action for good or ill; and
- dealing with the fallout in full view of the audience.
Because of the way our brains process language, readers experience those actions just as they would observed actions in their lives, from real people. Because we evolved as pattern-hungry primates, we see a problem, devise a solution and close the cognitive gap. Yay, neuroscience!
- Millions of people love Lizzie Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, but can you actually tell me the color of her “fine eyes”?
- What do we know about Ebeneezer Scrooge’s actual business beyond his parsimony?
- Lady Macbeth doesn’t even get a name, and she’s one of the most famous women in world literature.
None of that is relevant.
What matters is not how characters seem, but what they do.
Audience imagination extrapolates from their actions and fills the significant gaps.
The characters aren’t real, but the emotions are. Our brains grasp that a story is artificial, but the feelings slip past our defences because that’s how we’re wired.
We bond with them, relate to them, empathize with them…or not.
Shoddy characterizations leave us inert and annoyed.
Adjectives vs. Adverbs
Adjectives and adverbs demand belief from readers, even if it isn’t earned. For this reason modifiers are the least and last option for character development.
If we see a noun like duke or merman or assassin, our education and imagination have to extrapolate character based on generic assumptions. Readers who know the word can infer resonance. Nouns can only suggest interpretations which we weigh against other tangible evidence.
But the second we watch a character purloin or shun or inveigle, we know who they are and why it matters because actions speak louder than words.
The real power of any characterization comes from actions, the verbs which reveal what characters make and take and break and fake.
- Edmond Dantès avenges.
- Cleopatra seduces.
- Dracula drains.
- Katniss Everdeen hunts.
- Odysseus tricks.
- Auntie Mame embraces.
Characters are their actions, which means their characterization starts with verbs. Verbs show where modifiers tell and nouns can only suggest.
Verbs will always provide the thrust of a scene or a story with the other parts of speech adding garnish and spice as needed.
Characters are not faces but forces
So when you’re spinning that yarn, the smartest thing you’d best dig deep into that verbal landscape to unleash the real power of your people.
Verbs make everything happen. Time spent shaping and honing your verbs will have the greatest impact.
Young writers can get seduced by the juicy tangibility of nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, because they are visible, but without verbs they remain paralyzed and inert.
Energy is what makes matter matter. An author has to direct the flow of energy through the story via the characters and their actions. What audiences remember about the journey is the flow of emotions, not the trivia along the way.
In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, saying “Gollum” doesn’t actually bring that character to life or make him memorable. Tolkien uses modifiers like “old,” “hungry,” “mad,” “lean,” “miserable,” “small,” or “pitiable.”
For nouns he gives us “creature,” “villain,” “thing,” and “agony.”
But it’s in the verbs expressing Gollum’s actions Tolkien really gives it to us with both barrels: “slink,” “curse,” “thieve,” “cheat,” “sneak,” “strangle,” “hiss,” “murder,” “shriek.”
Suddenly we know who he is because he shows us, without needing to tell us.
The nouns and adjectives just set up an inert picture; those verbs steer Gollum through the story and shape the story thereby.
When in doubt look to the actions: what your characters make, take, break, and fake to achieve happiness. Once you know what they’re doing, and why it matters the story will write itself. Therein hangs every tale.
Modifiers are inherently passive and parasitic and nouns literally cannot do or make anything on their own.
Verbs are the fire in the wire, the spark in the dark that keeps everything burning. When in doubt, always look to your characters’ verbs and your story will blossom under your hands.
“All fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences. They make sentences move.” F. Scott Fitzgerald
EXERCISE: Strong language
How would you describe one of your characters using different parts of speech?
Don’t be afraid to incorporate language that also evokes the world and vibe of their story, context, and genre.
- Choose a character from one of your projects, either planned or published and list 5 modifiers intrinsic to them.
- Upgrade those modifiers to 5 nouns that convey the descriptive content of those modifiers as concrete people or items.
- Upgrade those nouns to 5 verbs that activate the solid clarity of those nouns as dynamic expressions of the character’s behavior during the course of the story. What does this language capture? What does it miss?
- Add another 5-10 supplemental verbs that seem especially appropriate and evocative for the character and their scenes.
Push your vocabulary as far as possible, absorbing new terms and tone-appropriate slang to capture the character clearly. Try to capture the fascinating energy that originally drew you to the character.
[Exercise excerpted from Verbalize]
Damon Suede 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.