Friday, March 09, 2018

Character Alignment: How Authors Keep from Losing Their Minds

By Damon Suede, @DamonSuede

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Keeping all the moving parts of a story together can be rough. One detail gets forgotten or remembered incorrectly, and it can throw off an entire story arc. Luckily, Damon Suede visits the lecture hall today to share some tips and insights and keeping your characters and your stories in perfect alignment.

Damon grew up out-n-proud deep in the anus of right-wing America, and escaped as soon as it was legal. 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.

Take it away Damon...

I want to thank Janice for letting me come talk with y’all about the ways characters drive a story. Next week Verbalize comes out,aka my new craft book on characterization and story-planning, and we thought you might dig splashing around in some of its ideas.

One of the most frustrating challenges any author faces is the sheer volume and complexity of all the moving parts necessary to tell a story: character and plot, theme and thought, voice and vibe, spectacle and worldbuilding. All of those components are simultaneously essential and irksome. Like a hologram, each piece must contain the whole. Every element supports every other, yet contribute its own unique power and impact.

On that tip, Janice suggested I include a brief excerpt from Chapter 3 of Verbalize, about the simplest way for authors to save their sanity…ALIGNMENT.
“Everything is relevant. Making things relevant is the creative process.”
--William J. J. Gordon[i]
If I asked you to carry twenty books across your house, you wouldn’t carry the books one at a time. You wouldn’t try to balance all twenty books at twenty different places on your body and then slide or hop or roll across the floor. I’ll bet any amount of money you’d build a manageable pile to save time and trips. You’d stack them, because alignment conserves energy and concentrates your effort on a single point.

Even the least disorganized person would likely stack them by size for greater balance and stability, larger and heavier books at the bottom where you have more control over them, lighter and smaller books at the top where they make the trip with less risk.

By aligning the books before you pick them up, you can focus your energy and effort on the lowermost book and the stack above comes along for the ride. That alignment is possible because they share a shape and a scale: books are flat, stackable, and dense. Aligning them allows you to complete the task swiftly, efficiently, expertly.

Frankly, a physical book is itself a miracle of alignment. Parallel lines of text, page numbers, and typesetting make it easier for us to do the job of reading them. All those pages need to be bound so they don’t get damaged or disordered. Even shelving books helps us find what we want.

Of course, not everything aligns easily. If you were carrying something precarious and fragile, like test tubes or eggs, you’d carefully place them on something stable and sturdy to protect them and minimize waste. Why do beverages come in bottles? Why do buildings have floors and lists get alphabetized? Why do we bind pages, cook food in pots, and travel on roads?

Alignment keeps effort efficient and effective.

Alignment of your story components maximizes your power and range as an author, cutting down on wasted time and meaningless toil. All the other elements stack and balance to streamline the writing process. Characterization and dramatization (and for that matter all writing) are no different. We focus our energy where it’s most needed, build from a solid base, and the story tells itself. Minor details catch a lift as needed.

Pro tip: if all of the components of your story align, any one of the components will lead you to the others. Ralph Waldo Emerson compared a person’s essential character to “an acrostic or Alexandrian stanza—read it forward, backward, or across, it still spells the same thing.”[ii]

Alignment allows energy to flow through a story and into your audience’s imagination. Knowing any one element can point you in a direction, but the more aligned the effort, the more seamless the process. The first step for a writer is to nail down the foundation that aligns and supports all the emotion that makes books worth reading.

And we’ll discuss that in my next post. :) In the meantime, here’s an exercise you might find entertaining and instructive.

EXERCISE: Story Line

As we dig into the nuts and bolts of verbalizing story and character, let’s work backward a moment. What are the components of an unforgettable story? Who are the imaginary people you can’t get out of your head? Why?

1. Take a favorite fictional character you know well.

2. Make a list of everything you remember about the character that seems meaningful and central to their behavior and experience within the book.

3. With that list before you, draw links connecting the details that seem to align for significant effects. How do the specifics, the traits, the language align with and express everything the character does and is?

4. See if you can spot traces of the author’s revisions: any vestigial anomalies, any convenient reveals, any oddball pivots. Can you discern changes the author might have made to align necessary elements?

BONUS ROUND: Name additional ways the author could have created alignment to support the characterization—additional specifics or resonances. Note any lingering extraneous or contradictory details that might have impeded your experience of the story. What would you change? How? With what narrative repercussions?

Excerpted from Verbalize by Damon Suede.
© Damon Suede 2018. All rights reserved.

If you’d like to enter to win a copy of Verbalize (print or digital) or a story consult with Damon, check out the release contest here.


About Verbalize

Verbalize: bring stories to life & life to stories

Fascinating fiction starts with characters who make readers care. This Live Wire Writer Guide presents a simple, effective technique to sharpen your hook, charge your scenes, and amplify your voice whether you’re a beginner or an expert.
  • Most writing manuals skirt craft questions with gimmicks and quick fixes rather than plugging directly into your story’s power source. Energize your fiction and boost your career with
  • a new characterization method that jumpstarts drafting, crafting, revision, and pitching.
  • skill-builders to intensify language, stakes, and emotion for your readers.
  • battle-tested solutions for common traps, crutches, and habits.
  • a dynamic story-planning strategy effective for plotters and pantsers.
  • ample examples and exercises to help you upgrade fiction in any genre.
Blast past overused tics and types with storycraft that busts your ruts and awes your audience. Whether you like to wing it or bring it, Verbalize offers a fresh set of user-friendly, language-based tools to populate your pages and lay the foundations of unforgettable genre fiction.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound |

[i]William J. J. Gordon,Synectics: The Development of Creative Capacity.

[ii]Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Character,” Essays: First and Second Series (New York: Library of America, 1990), 36.

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