This week I’d like to talk about passion. Not the kind of passion you have as a writer. We’ve written about that before. You can see some of it here and here. The kind of passion I’m talking about today is your character’s passion. This is the spark that makes them live and breathe. It’s the intangible quality that endears them to your readers and makes your audience CARE.
Without that spark, you have nothing but a robot moving through a series of events.
Character Passion Starts With Author Pain
In your head your characters may be absolutely fabulous, but when someone else reads it, that fab factor just isn’t coming through. How can you write that heart-wrenching scene and bring tears to your readers’ eyes instead of a yawn? How do you get them to simultaneously hate and love your baddest baddie? What will make them roll their eyes each time the hero forces himself off the beaten path when it’s clear he shouldn’t be going that way?
You do this by putting a little piece of yourself in there. This isn’t always easy. Sometimes it’s quite painful. Sometimes you find yourself looking in a mirror and baring your heart and soul right there on the page. You’re naked, vulnerable…but the scene is beyond fantastic.
This is no different from any other kind of art or performance. Actors have to dig deep within themselves to evoke strong emotions. Painters and musicians put their hearts on display for your enjoyment. Look at this past week’s Dancing with the Stars. Each of the couples were asked to pick a song that meant something to them. Each dance expressed a personal story.
The one dance that stood out above all the others was the one danced by JR Martinez (watch the video in sidebar or here for the full story). He took a piece of his life and expressed it in such a way it brought tears to everyone’s eyes. When you watch him dance, you feel his passion. It’s so strong it’s a tangible thing, like you’re holding his heart right there in your hand.
Artists in general are a paradox in many ways. On the one hand we want people to notice us and shower us with attention and on the other, we’re reclusive and isolated. We reveal ourselves through our characters in subtle ways. Sometimes it’s so subtle we don’t even see it for ourselves.
While writing Uncivil Wars, I’ve had a few moments where I’ve been writing and smacked upside the head by one of my characters. Sometimes it’s a feeling of “Where have I seen this behavior before?”, and other times it’s just this uncomfortable poking at the back of my consciousness that says “You know, you act just like this sometimes.”
I see it in Diego’s anger and denial as things around him start falling apart, or in Michael Carratello’s finger-pointing and blaming everyone else for his predicament (which I used to do a LOT of in my younger days). They’re little things that most readers would never know and only I would notice. But that little bit of reality infuses the story and readers can relate to it. We’re never the only ones to experience any one thing at any given time. There are many situations and emotions commonly shared by others. It’s this familiarity that grabs your audience. Once they can relate to your words and your characters, you’ve got them hooked.
It Ain’t Easy, But It’s Worth It
Looking in the mirror and taking assessment of ourselves isn’t the easiest thing to do. It’s painful, stressful, bothersome and confusing. But, if you can face it and use it, it’s the most enlightening thing in the world.
This isn’t to say use your characters for therapy. While they can provide a catharsis, you don’t have to spill your guts to the world each and every time you write. Chances are though, if you’re squirming uncomfortably in your seat and can’t figure out why writing a certain scene is so difficult, you’ve hit on something deep and true. Analyze it, pick it apart and use it. I guarantee you it’ll be the best performance of your life.