“Imagination is intelligence with an erection” —Victor Hugo
Characters are the heart and soul of any fiction, erotic or otherwise. You can have a great plot, vivid descriptions, nuances up the wazzo, but if your characters act like sock puppets, spouting endless clich’s, doing stupid things for stupid reasons, and in general acting nothing like real people, the reader’s disbelief is not suspended and the story doesn’t work.
So how do you breathe life into a character? In my experience as an editor, I can tell you straight off that “stiffness” instantly shows in a poorly written character. What is “stiffness” you ask? Well, one of the best examples I can think of isn’t in writing, but in movies and TV. You’ve seen it: an actor or actress intentionally giving a bad performance, being off stilled, monotone, with no inflection. On the page, that shows up when a character thinks, does, or says something wooden, lifeless, or obviously forced to get the author’s point across. My favorite example is from a popular science fiction novel (which one I won’t say) where a character actually thought: “Even though I’m a lesbian I’m sexually excited by that man.” (by the way, the quotes are for convenience, the usual rule is that internal dialogue is in italics).
(Shudder) I hope you see what I mean. No one on this planet (unless they’re a disguised alien) actually thinks that way. It’s just plain awful. So what went wrong? First off, it’s obvious the author was lazy, not moving the story along through slow progression or real insight. Want to build sexual tension? Do not have a character just think “I want to have sex with him.” Jeese! Even if it weren’t inner voice, it still would be bad writing.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Do you know how to make a character live on the page? It’s kind of scary, which is why I suppose a lot of writers don’t do it, and it shows in their work. You ready? You REALLY ready? Honestly? Okay, here goes: look inward, my child.
Thank ewe, thank ewe — just put some money in the basket on the way out. What, you want more? Sheesh! Okay, kidding aside, my favorite way of adding depth and — well, call it “humanity” to a character is to get into yourself, your own emotional landscape, your own history. Do you — honestly — look at someone and think: “I would like to have sex with him or her?” Nah. What really happens is much more primal, base. It’s like your subconscious takes over and snaps your head around, or you find yourself absently daydreaming, imagining what sex with them would be like. Your imagination runs wild.
Let’s say you’re straight (I’m so sorry), you don’t know what gay sex is like. Fine. But you do know what sex is like for you: the nervousness, heady arousal, the way your mind races, your senses go rocketing, and so forth. The rest is just mechanics. The problem with this, and the main reason I feel why there are so many bad characters out there, is that it means exposing yourself on the page. Adding yourself — your feelings, emotions, and so forth — to a character is like a voodoo spell. Your fictional shade becomes connected to you. If the story gets rejected, it hits really hard: it’s like a part of yourself being turned down.
Still, I think it’s the way to go. But what if you’re describing someone who doesn’t share your experience? Let’s say they are in mortal danger, or in jail, or unstable, how the hell do you make that character real? What I do is close my eyes and put on that person, walk awhile in his or her shoes. Are they frightened? You know what fear is like. Angry? You know what being pissed off is like. What draws their attention? What are they looking for and why? Not just plot points here, but perspective — how the character relates to the world and themselves. Even characters that are supposed to be disliked need this kind of thing to make them look real as opposed to being soulless puppets there just to move the story.
“Reality, of course, um, you know, er, can go a bit — no, a tad — or is it bit? Damned if I know, you know — .” Okay, my point is that too much reality, especially in dialogue can be just as annoying as a wooden character. We all talk with a bunch of ums, ers, ahs, and so forth – adding that kind of thing, or vocally exact phrasing, might be “real” but it also makes you want to throttle the speaker, not sympathize with them.
So, like a lot of things in writing, it’s a balancing act. On one side is having characters that act as well as Kevin Costner (okay, except for Field of Dreams) and on the other is having dialogue and characters whose ‘reality’ makes them confusing and frustrating (think David Mamet).
“As a writer, I hope that they liked this article I just wrote,” M. Christian thought.
“Confessions of a Literary Streetwalker” © 2005 M. Christian. All rights reserved.