Back in June, I mentioned that characters can be built through four elements: appearance, speech, action and thought. We looked at appearance in June and I touched on dialogue in July and August, which means that it’s time to look at action.
In the ‘show don’t tell’ world in which we live, action is probably the best way to introduce a character. However, action in erotica doesn’t always have to be vigorous passion and Olympic sexual aerobics. In the opening to one of short stories below, the action is relatively static.
“He treats us like slaves,” Sarah hissed.
She had whispered the sentiment into her mobile phone but the words echoed around the haberdashery shop as though they had been bellowed through a megaphone.
Monica glanced at Sarah in surprise.
Old Mrs Higgins closed her eyes and shook her head in dismay.
Green, his eyes unreadable through his dark glasses, regarded Sarah with an expression that was thin-lipped, inscrutable and unsmiling. It was a moment that transformed the mood of the day into something lethargic and heavy with the threat of impending disaster. Each passing minute dragged like slow-motion footage of an inevitable car crash.
Monica’s chest was tight with the sense of anticipation.
An aeon later the church bell chimed six times to indicate it was the end of the working day. In the stillness of Greens’ Haberdashery the sound was like the champagne cork-popping promise of a long-awaited armistice.
Monica took a step back to watch developments. Old Mrs Higgins reached for her coat. Sarah was rushing to the doorway with unseemly haste.
“Wait!” Green snapped the single word as Sarah placed her fingers on the door handle.
Monica is our narrative perspective in this story and the tension builds from her perspective. She glances at Sarah in surprise. Her chest tightens with anticipation. She is giving the readers cues for how to respond to the action in the story. As a narrating character she is going to remain relatively undeveloped in this story but we’re already aware that she’s someone trapped in an uncomfortable situation and, as readers, we’re trying to work out whether it will be best if she simply observes the action or becomes a participant.
Admittedly, I’ve got a couple of pieces of dialogue in this, so the example isn’t all action. However, the majority of character development comes from the action.
Old Mrs Higgins, closing her eyes and shaking her head, is clearly a been-there-done-that individual who has seen it all. She’s not going to be surprised by any development in this narrative – and I think it’s fair to say we all know someone with similar collected composure. We’re not told that Old Mrs Higgins is cool under pressure. But we can see that’s how she’s responding to the situation.
Green, is motionless – the antithesis of action – yet we get a sense of his character. We’ve heard Sarah say, “He treats us like slaves”. If we associate that phrase with this inscrutable, unsmiling individual in the dark glasses, the individual who seems to be causing the tense atmosphere that’s tightened Monica’s chest, we have enough action from this inactive character to understand that he is a powerful and dominant individual.
And then there’s Sarah. Sarah is the one who made the remark that’s caused the tension. Sarah is the one who spoke more loudly than intended. Sarah is the one who breaks from the pack and runs for the door. Sarah is clearly in a state of panic and dread: but there was never any need to mention that to the reader. The use of action has told the reader all they need to know about this character, just like it is action that has defined each of the other characters at the start of this story.
Action in erotica doesn’t have to be overblown descriptions of passionate interludes. As the example above shows, it’s relatively easy to introduce characters through their actions, even when they’re relatively motionless and trying to avoid the impending perils of one character’s wrath.
As always, if you have your own examples of introducing characters through action, I’d love to see them in the comments box below.