Posted On March 21, 2012 by Print This Post

Add Verbs: Creating Characters that Pop Off the Page by Damon Suede

Happy Wednesday, RU Crew! Today, I’m excited to have Damon Suede return to talk with us about a topic he touched on during his last guest lecture with us. As I’m just beginning a new manuscript, I will definitely use Damon’s verb strategy to better define my characters and their conflicts.

Welcome, Damon. The class is yours!

This post follows up on a topic raised in the comments to my last visit to these hallowed halls.

When we ask people who don’t read romance novels for a definition of the genre, they tend to focus from the outside in on adjectival flamboyance: flowing tresses, creamy skin, rampant manhood, and ample everything. Else they offer nouns like “temptress” and “stud” that don’t specify much because (after all) how is this temptress different from every other? Why am I interested in this stud if the other thousand fictional studs bored me to whiskey? Trouble is, nouns and modifiers seem more tangible at first glance, but of course when we tell a story it’s the journey we remember…Not the activities, but the actions.

Not nouns, not modifiers, but verbs.

Characters are not people or things, but arcs of transformation. They do, get, make, and change things to earn that Happily Ever After. Their plots arise from those actions. As the characters grow and change believably, we come to love them and access them. By the same token, characters who remain inert and generic leave us cold. As a storyteller, modifiers encumber, nouns can become obstacles, but by definition VERBS have the power to do anything.

If I tell you a hero is “strong” or “handsome,” I’m hoping you’ll take the descriptor at face value (literally) and dig no deeper. If I assign that hero a noun like “Pirate” or “Firefighter” or “Assassin,” I’m relying on your imagination and history to do the heavy lifting by appealing to generic fantasies about those occupations. But once my hero acts like a hero on those pages, the rest is salt in the gravy. So I always want to pick the most potent, unexpected, specific verb I possibly can…an active verb that forces me to salivate and sweat and shiver.

For me, every project starts with dynamic verbs. Before I commit a word to paper, I will sit down and figure out the verbs…the line of action for my lovers and how those actions produce interesting friction: protect/destroy, purify/debase, reveal/conceal, heal/harm, disrupt/control. Those primal struggles compel our attention because of the verbs that drive them. Try and find a classic romance that doesn’t pivot on that kind of binary opposition, I double dog dare you! We can’t help but rubberneck because the dramatic question goes beyond right or wrong to the commitments and compromises the drive all great relationships. Verbs demand the story get told.

Take your central love story. For us to connect with the character, to become involved in their growth and emotions, their actions must transform them and their actions must evolve over the course of the book. Choose those verbs carefully! Focusing on the verbs also guards against the bland, “running through daisies” problem. If your main characters have verbs that overlap, how will they have any impact on each other?

Again, Austen’s Pride & Prejudice provides a perfect example: Lizzie Bennett’s obsession with protecting her family’s honor and her own preconceptions makes Austen surround her with people who tempt, shame, provoke her worst impulses: a detached father, a silly mother, a slutty sister, an amoral cad, a haughty hero. Those characters provide verbs perfect for making her progress through the story as arduous as possible; their horrible actions force her to earn her happy ending by transforming herself.

Where do these verbs come from? How do you make sure your book is filled with actions and not activities? How can you select the strongest, sexiest verb available that can sustain several hundred life-changing pages?

For my part, I believe the core verb of every character arises from their void…the wound or need within them that drives all of their actions. All characters (and arguably all people) struggle with an empty space or a dark need they cannot resist. The greater that void, the higher the stakes. That motivating lack always creates the necessary verb. If your heroine operates from a fear of exposure and scandal, then her verb might be “to disguise” or “to deceive.” If your comic sidekick’s greatest fear is silence, then his verbs could be “to entertain” or “to provoke.” Whatever your character needs will force them to behave in certain ways.

In turn that leads to your other characters/verbs. If your main character needs “to dominate” every situation then populate your book with a cast of folks who disorder, disarm, ignore that character’s actions. If you have a heroine who lives “to untangle” problems or mysteries, then give her a whole cast of meddling, fumbling, webspinners. As the author, you can solve most of your structural difficulties from the outset by unearthing verbs for all the characters that will produce the most dramatic friction.

Always amplify where possible, and that doesn’t just mean making lurid word choices. Go verb-shopping and give yourself options. This stage of character build for me always ends up as a thesaurus salad. I slosh all the options around in a bowl until I find the one that rings true, clear, bright. If you start out saying that your villain’s verb is “to punish,” you might decide “mutilate” or “torture” feel flashier, but maybe the subtler “mend” or “dissect” creates scarier, less clichéd possibilities.

But a character can’t simple “be” one word. What about variety? Your characters’ actions need to develop over the course of a story. No one wants to read about a protagonist who “flees” everything like a frantic robot. This is where we get into the issue of tactics. With my main characters, I start with a main verb for each and then add a list of potential tactics that I can use over the arc of the novel. If your ingénue’s main verb is “to polish,” that verb can take many forms in the course of the story. Polishing can be as literal scrubbing silver with a brush, as small as rubbing buttons obsessively, or as figurative as demanding plastic surgery. The accretion of those connected actions connects deeply with readers and makes characters feel real.

As another example, let’s take A Streetcar Named Desire; let’s say that Stanley’s verb is “to penetrate.” Over the course of those two-plus hours, that one verb mutates into him shredding lampshades, stripping off clothes, tearing into packaging and people, interrogating and ridiculing his family, and raping a fragile woman. All of those actions “penetrate” his surroundings. In the world of that play Stanley IS penetration, and every character around him has a verb that conflicts directly with his.

By using verbs to construct characters rather than nouns or adjectives, you build actions directly into the bedrock of your project. That motivated flow keeps your characters’ arcs believable because they are consistent without being robotic. By shifting the verb tactically, you get to explore the possibilities of each character’s goals and conflicts.

The next time you’re outlining a story or you find yourself in the weeds with a truculent plot bunny, go verb hunting. Literally list your cast of characters and provide a single verb they will inhabit for the length of the narrative. Identify the void that drives them and the verb that they hope/believe will bring them happiness. Amplify the verb you choose by looking at all the options and picking the one that resonates, escalates and refracts with other verbs in play. And then try coming up with a list of five to ten tactical variations on their essential theme.

Allow verbs to keep your characters coherent and constantly unfolding as their actions change their world and vice versa. Let your characters do, so that they can be.

***

When you begin a new story, how do you get to know your characters? Have you ever used Damon’s technique? If not, will you try it?

Be sure to swing by Friday when romantic suspense author Christy Reece talks with us about crafting a new series after launching a very successful debut series. She will give away books to two lucky commenter!

***

Bio:  Damon Suede grew up out-n-proud deep in the anus of right-wing America, and escaped as soon as it was legal. Though new to M/M, Damon has been writing for print, stage, and screen for two decades. 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 at DamonSuede.com.

Similar Posts:

Share Button

Characterization

Discussion

22 Responses to “Add Verbs: Creating Characters that Pop Off the Page by Damon Suede”

  1. Hi Damon,

    What a great idea. Action not activities. My heroine is unraveling family secrets. She’s provoking and angering people.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | March 21, 2012, 6:11 am
    • Thanks, Mary Jo… That’s exactly it. She’s provoking people, which in trurn givees you THEIR verbs: they insult, deny, defend, ignore her in kind. And someone of them make actually want to be provoked and so they witll incite her and bolster her. All those verbs become a cast of characters!

      Posted by Damon Suede | March 21, 2012, 2:46 pm
  2. Morning Damon!

    I agree with Mary Jo! Great idea…definitely something I’ll try! Thanks for the thought provoking (and hopefully writing enhancing!) post! =)

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | March 21, 2012, 7:44 am
  3. Hi Damon – Thanks for another fascinating blog! I’m taking notes!

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | March 21, 2012, 8:19 am
  4. Wow! Excellent post. I have written ‘Fill your book with action not activities’ on a sticky note and taped it up on my office wall of inspiration/motivation.

    Thank you! (Oh, and I favorited this post so I can return to it over and over!)

    Posted by Wendy S. Marcus | March 21, 2012, 8:38 am
    • That is so cool, Wendy… :) Many thanks for that. I have to tell you when I wrote this and sent it to Kelsey, I was nervous it was a little too weird and abstract as a “lecture” so I’m deeply relieved it resonated. Really glad you found it helpful

      Posted by Damon Suede | March 21, 2012, 2:50 pm
  5. I also “favorited” this post! It put into words what I’ve read and known but couldn’t quite grasp, if that makes sense.
    Your message makes me excited- thank you!

    Posted by Kelly Wolf | March 21, 2012, 9:47 am
  6. Hi, all -

    I know Damon works a day job, so it may be later when he has time to pop by to chat.

    Thanks!
    Kelsey

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | March 21, 2012, 10:45 am
  7. Damon –

    My latest heroine’s fear is “getting stuck” – with a place, job, any situation. Wanna help me brainstorm some potential verbs for her? :-)

    Kels

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | March 21, 2012, 10:49 am
    • Ooh. STuck is a great placeto start.

      I have a secret belief that all romance novels start from a kind of ur-contrast of go/stay. Now that’s a weird sepaarte other topic for another day, but in your case. You’ve chosen GO as her base verb. Inertia works both ways, being stuck can trap you just as much as running, because objects in motion tend to stay in motion.

      Here are some possibiities: flee, burrow, mutate, dissolve, demolish, float, fantasize

      How active is she? If she’s a powerhouse you may want to look at more overtly aggressive “outward” verbs like demolish or flee. If she’s more introspective, how about morph or fantasize?

      ANother way to choose between the options is look at the tactics: if she’s demolishing throughout, she can wound people, destroy property, wreck plans, explode preconceptions. If she’s fantasizing, the tactics are more internal: hallucinating, denying, insisting, deceiving, disrupting.

      So I think it comes dowen to how she feels as a characetr. What do you see her doing and what thread connects those ACTIONS. That’s your best verb! :)

      Posted by Damon Suede | March 21, 2012, 2:57 pm
      • I did a little brainstorming this afternoon after reading through your post for the second time. I wouldn’t say she’s overly introspective, because then she’d have to own up to her behavior over the past decade or so. She’s always been on the move, geographically, so I can see her being on the move physically as well.

        Here are some possibilities I have on paper right now: escape, run, avoid, avert, bolt, retreat, detour, circumvent, dodge, wander, divert, roam, drift, circle, search, skirt.

        Honestly, this is fun and I can totally get how this will help me create challenges for her.

        Would you say the hero’s verb needs to be in direct opposition?

        K-

        Posted by Kelsey Browning | March 21, 2012, 3:27 pm
        • Hmmm,

          I think it helps if the hero has an direct opposition. I don’t know that it has to be binary, but the more direct, the more primal/potent their friction. Sparks will fly, etc. :P

          It sounds like all your verbs their relate to escape or fleeing, so the near synonyms might be tactical options for different points in her arc. For my main verb on a character I always try to pick the boldest and clearest one for maximum impact. And then the gradations become tactical actions.

          The funny thing is, the right verb makes itself known almost immediately because it motors the entire book. The main Verb becomes this tremendous ENGINE In every scene. Once it’s in place, the character always has something to be doing to get to that HEA. And whenever my writing stalls or the character goes inert, the verb is the first place I look.

          Posted by Damon Suede | March 21, 2012, 5:49 pm
  8. Hi, Damon and welcome back. Fabulous post! It’s going right into my plotting binder. And, since I’m outlining a new book as we speak I’m going to try your technique.

    I do something similar where I pick one word that describes my character that can be both a positive and a negative. For one of my characters the word was loyalty and I came up with all the reasons why loyalty can be a good and bad thing.

    I love the idea of dueling verbs that represent each character though. Gotta try it!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | March 21, 2012, 12:06 pm
    • Hey Adrienne,

      Dueling nouns is a great seed for characters. For me the trouble is always keeping nouns active. If I say “loyalty” then I’m designating a state of being, and a character can only “be” loyal in a series of concrete actions. The abstraction of it doesn’t give me enough traction to move forward always. But a VERB (by definition) makes stuff happen.

      So in a way, maybe you could try wedding that approach with the verbs. What central ACTION is created by the virtue of loyalty?: to defend, to nurture, to conceal, to sacrifice… And then how can those verbs manifest in negative ways. So the loyalty helps you isolate the actions, but the actions force you to specify the binary possibilities in a dramatic way. Know what I mean?

      Posted by Damon Suede | March 21, 2012, 3:03 pm
  9. Hello Damon!

    When I’m writing,Thesarus.com is my best friend.

    I read a lot and the same verbs and adjectives I’ve read books are the first to pop into my head. I try hard not to use silken tresses and steely arms. It is a challenge to come up with that verb and not every synonym will fit the rhythm or evoke the image I want the reader to have. I really like the idea of coming up with a list of five to ten tactical variations.

    Thanks for joining us again!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | March 21, 2012, 3:04 pm
    • S’funny… the tactical shifts keep me on my toes and keep the actions escalating always. The book can never plateau if the character keeps trynging new ways to express that basic energy that drives her/him. And since the verb comes from the void (by my reckoning) the more they learn about the strengths and weaknesses of their main approach, the more they come to terms with the pain/lack they carry. Instant character growth! LOL

      Posted by Damon Suede | March 21, 2012, 5:52 pm
  10. What an awesome idea. I’ve adapted it to the characters in my WIP and it’s already helped me break through some road blocks. I know more about the hero/heroine now that when I first started.

    I’ve added a section for their verbs to my character sheets.

    Posted by kittyb78 | April 2, 2012, 11:34 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] I LOVED this post by Damon Suede. It’s a great tool for characterization. Instead of thinking of an adjective or noun to describe your H/h, what is their verb? Add Verbs: Creating Characters that Pop Off the Page by Damon Suede [...]

Post a comment

Upcoming Posts

  • Apr 25, 2014 Lessons Writers Can Learn from American Idol by Kelsey Browning

Subscribe

Writer's Digest: 2013 Best Writing Websites (2013) Top 10 badge 2012 100-BEST-WEBSITES-2014

Follow Us