Ins and Outs of M/M Romance: “Characterization, characterization, characterization” by Victor J. Banis

It was always my intent to ask Victor to come back again and again to give newbie M/M authors the benefit of his vast body of knowledge of writing. This post proves what a brilliant strategist I was when I sucked him into promising to be a regular columnist in this series. 🙂 In today’s post Victor offers authors real examples of how to make their characters come alive so that the readers will ‘live’ their stories.

Here’s another gem from the master, Victor J. Banis.

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When Wave asked if I would like to do a follow up to the Author Advice series, I went back to look at what had been offered so far. Gosh, what a stellar bunch of posts they have been, such great advice – Sean’s insistence that we write, write, write; Josh’s suggestions for finding the right publisher; Laura’s pointing you toward your own (and your characters’) sexual comfort zone; Rick’s admonition to look for social relevance in your work; Ally’s hints on characterization. How, I wondered, was I going to follow all that?

I went to bed to sleep on it and I was deep asleep when, at precisely one seventeen in the morning, I said aloud (and so woke myself up): Characters. Yes, of course, Ally had already written a brilliant essay on that subject, but that is a subject that could easily fill an entire volume by itself. And it’s always been my opinion that the number one element in writing fiction is characterization, followed 2nd, by characterization, and 3rd, by characterization. There was plenty more that I could say on that subject.

So, my intent here is not to supplant what Ally offered, but to add to it, hopefully to point the beginning writer in the direction of more fully realized characters. Which of course raises the question, why are some fictional characters memorable, while others fade from your memory almost as you are reading them? And how do you avoid the latter?

The first thing to avoid, of course, is that much discussed one dimensional character, the cardboard cutout, and I should think that surely even beginning writers understand that, but I’ve had writers come up to me after workshops to ask me what it means. To put it in the simplest possible terms, it means, avoid characters that are all good, or all bad. Honey is sweet and delicious, and carbolic acid is deadly, but they are made up of the same basic elements, it is only their proportions and their molecular arrangements that are different. So it is with people. All people, real people, share the same wants and needs, the same basic elements, as it were. Everyone, e.g., wants approval in some form, wants to be right, wants to feel some sense of achievement. It is how they seek to satisfy those needs that make them different, and complex, some of them sweet, and some of them deadly.

Real people are made up of endless contradictions. You will give your fictional people dimension and make them far more interesting by giving them contradictions as well. A hero who is plagued with doubts, a villain who loves his mother, will engage your reader’s interest. In short, do not make your protagonist a saint. In Maugham’s novel, The Razor’s Edge, the narrator explains at the beginning that he is going to tell you the story of a remarkable man, Larry. Larry is a saint; but of course, Mr. Maugham was too clever a writer to do what he tells you he’s going to do. The result would have been a boring book indeed. What he really does is to show how Larry’s near perfection affects the people around him, for the most part disastrously—because those people, true to life, are not perfect—any more than you or I. That is not to say your hero can’t be a good guy, but if he is, he’ll work better for you if you let him be a jerk for a page or two. Or, if he is a jerk, give him a chance to be really good, at least once.

In E. M. Forster’s story, Albergo Empedocle, a fictional character steps back in time, in his mind at least, to ancient Greece, and is never able to return to the present world. You don’t want to go to quite that extreme, of course, but as much as possible you want to live in that world as much as you can, to observe the world through the eyes and ears, all the senses, of your fictional character.

When I wrote my cowboy novel, Longhorns, I was literally possessed, as if by voodoo, by my two lead characters. I was in their world. I did not even have to think about what they would say or do, because they were dictating the story to me. There is a cattle stampede in the book and so completely was I immersed in that fictional world that when we had a thunderstorm one night, I sat up in bed thinking, “Oh, no, the cattle will stampede.” Of course, I live in town, and have no cattle. I had all but lost touch with the world in which I lived. And, yes, at one time I began to get a little worried—would I be able to return from their world when the book was finished, or would I, like Forster’s character, be forever trapped in nineteenth century Texas? It was a scary experience, but thrilling too, and the result was that the characters became real to readers as well. I even got one intended bad review in which the individual expressed his unhappiness with one of the leads – never quite grasping that in complaining at such length about Buck’s “personality,“ he was treating him as if he were a real person. He meant to pan the book, but I took that as a compliment to my characterization.

I’m not saying you have to go into a zombie state to create memorable characters, but the more fully you can immerse yourself in them, and their world, the better the result will be. The point is, you do want to try to get to know these people, not as simply characters in a book, but real people, like your co-workers, or even those who live across the street, or that you ride up in the elevator with. Even the most minor of characters in a book is the star of his or her own story. You can’t tell all those stories, but you must be aware of them. You must know, when the waitress walks across the stage, that she is worried and preoccupied, and if you know that, the reader will as well, without your telling him what it is that is worrying her. You will show it in her stance, in her walk, in the way she holds her coffee pot—and on a subconscious level, your reader will understand, and she too becomes real for him.

As writers, we tend to want to express emotions through dialogue. That is a good thing and important to the writer (and another subject worthy of a book all its own.) Be very wary of producing long pages without dialogue. Readers tend to groan inwardly when they see them, agents and editors shun them.

We express our emotions in ways other than words, however, certainly with our bodies. How we walk, for instance, or stand or even sit. If your character sits down on the edge of a chair, it tells you something about what he is thinking or how he is feeling without your spelling it out to the reader. If he drums his fingers on the table, or chews on a fingernail, or fidgets with the pleat of his pants, we get a glimpse into his mind.

We especially express ourselves with our hands. Think of the ways in which you use your hands—the way you hold a lover, or the way you hold a baby, or hold a gun – same ten fingers, but oh so very different—and revelatory. Sometimes we “see” with them. Try feeling your way across a darkened room. It will give you a new understanding of those who are sightless. We wave with our hands to show not only recognition, but affection. We seal a bargain, literally or figuratively, with a handshake, shake our fists in anger or threat, or, yes, give a careless driver the bird. The way your protagonist holds a cocktail glass, a teapot, his hat, a deck of cards—all bring a scene to life. Think of Lady Macbeth, endlessly “washing” her hands. Was ever murderous guilt more brilliantly captured? In so very few lines, Shakespeare reveals her inner torment, without ever having to talk aside to his audience.

When you are writing a scene, watch what your character does with his hands. Try to feel the same in your hands. If he clenches his fist, yours should clench as well. Then convey that in such a way that your reader will clench his fist too, at least on a subliminal level.

When your character is angry, be angry with him, or afraid, or laugh with him. When he has an orgasm, feel the physical sensations he is experiencing. Don’t cheat him of the thousands of things we feel and experience each minute of every day simply because he’s only someone you’re putting on paper. Let him live through his feelings and emotions the same as you do. Share them with him, and you will share them with your readers as well.

Don’t just plop your heroine down on a boat. Stand on the deck with her, brace your feet against  the rise and fall of the swells, see the white flecks of foam as the waves roll, feel the salt spray in your face, hear the ocean’s roar, smell the brine. Get seasick with her if you would. This is how it would be if you were on that boat, and it’s how it should be for her, too.

Eudora Welty said a story is not about the things that happen, it’s about the people they happen to. The better you get to know those people, the more you can become one with them, with their every experience, the better your writing will be. Your characters will make or break your writing. In the end, if they come to life for the reader, they will sweep aside all other considerations of plot or style. No one has ever quite been able to sort out the story of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, but he gave us the unforgettable Philip Marlowe, and lines like, “She tried to sit on my lap while I was standing up.”

What plot would not pale compared to that?

Author

Born in Pennsylvania, raised in Ohio, lived most of my adult life in California (20 years Los Angeles area, 20 years San Francisco. 160 plus books, and counting.

16 comments

  • Great post, Victor, as always. Concise, to the point, with meat on its bones. Just like your stories! Are you sure you’re a real person and not somebody’s character who just got out of hand and stepped off the pages? Well, if you weren’t real, we’d have to invent you.

    Reply
  • Victor, this is an awesome post! I’m just sitting here nodding myself dizzy 🙂 To me, it’s particularly hard to create a well-rounded, human villain. I think I’m bad to let mine lapse into “evil” territory. But it’s SO worth it to put that extra effort into making the bad guy sympathetic in some way. Makes the story much more interesting.

    You know what I’d love to see more of — and try more of myself, if I wasn’t kind of afraid to — is the unreliable narrator. I find it fascinating to read a story from the point of view of someone you can’t trust to tell the truth, or especially someone you can’t trust to even KNOW the truth. It’s been a looong day and I’m blanking out on specific examples right now, but I know I’ve read those and it’s wonderful when it’s done well.

    Reply
  • Fabulous post, Victor. I couldn’t wait to get home and see what you had in store for us today. I love Tuesdays now, thanks to this series. Thank you for your words of wisdom, and thanks also to Wave, for bringing them to us new writers via this site.

    Reply
  • Thanks, Victor! I’m glad I’m going about things the right way – it can get exhausting feeling all your character’s emotions as you write, and it makes the angsty scenes utterly draining, but I guess it must be worth it to bring them to life.

    And like you, it’s always the characters I remember for longest, particularly the flawed and contradictory ones.

    Reply
  • thanks all – and, yes, Jordan, it really is the characters we remember. You may forget the plot details of Gone with the Wind, but no one could forget Scarlett – same with Natasha in War and Peace – one could go on and on. My characters are so alive to me, they’re like old friends. Even the stinkers.

    Reply
  • Great advice, Victor. I remember the characters I love far longer than I remember plots. I think my brain does a shift where a really great character becomes indistinguishable from a person I’ve met in RL, and I think I’ve actually met them, or I know them.

    It’s easier to do on TV, to bond with these characters, because we have the actor to associate with the role. But I just love it when it happens with a character in a book, that my brain decides that person is real.

    Reply
  • Great piece. Your passion for your characters and writing just shine through. I can always tell when I’ve read a book that shines, it’s when I go to type up my mini-review and I don’t have to look back at the book to find their names. Too often the names just float away on a sea of endless men (in my reading, not real life LOL) but the ones that really stick in my head, those characters I don’t forget their names.

    Thanks for sharing your advice.

    Reply
  • Superb post, Victor! Your words are always entertaining whether they’re in fiction or a post like this. I love the way you describe how we should immerse ourselves in the character and his/her surroundings, and the examples you use are perfect. It’s what I admire in your books – that I’m dropped straight into that world and I find myself living it.

    In my own writing, I call it my ‘method acting’ approach LOL. And it’s also why you’ll find me – and probably many other writers! – pacing the floor at home and speaking dialogue aloud, for all the characters concerned! The written words need to ‘feel’ right for the character, not just ‘cos I say so, as author.

    And, to be honest, I think that quest for involvement is what makes writing such fun, and worthwhile. It gives the author one of the best rewards in the world – to live that life for a brief while :).

    Reply

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