#SaystheEditor: Got Guts?


Guts. Cojones. Nervy. Courage. Daring. Moxie. Chutzpah. Intestinal Fortitude. Balls. Fearlessness. Gallantry. Valor. Nerve. Gumption.

Lots of names to describe shades of the same thing, no?

But yes, today, we’re talking about that which drives us to do things we maybe ordinarily wouldn’t. The shy man who swallows hard and asks a woman out. The character who picks up a gun for the first time and shoots the bad guy (oy, me and guns). The family who invites themselves to a life cycle event even though they can’t bring themselves to be polite to the hostess. The abused who finds her voice and speaks out against her abuser. The young child who knows he doesn’t fit in the world around him, so he runs away and finds out that he’s actually a prince in another dimension.

And on and on. (and yes, a couple of those are drawn from real life and no, I’m not a prince in another dimension.)

It’s the power of our guts, our courage, our whatever-word-and-shade-of-meaning-you-assign-your-characters that give fiction its fun. When a character acts in a surprising way, when they find their inner strength, their … well, fill in the blank from the list above (and, of course, there’s no way it’s comprehensive) — that’s when a fictional character becomes fascinating. It’s often these moments that let a reader make that emotional attachment to a character that lets the character come alive in the reader’s mind.

If you are struggling because your critique partners and beta readers (and you use them, right? Especially those of you who are working on your first couple of books?) tells you your characters are flat, this is the first place to look, and it’s that emotional tug on the reader that you want to focus on.

It doesn’t take a lot to show a character acting with guts. Anyone can reach for that gun. Commit the entire family for a life cycle event whose hostess you don’t particularly like, even though only your kid was invited. Open your mouth and let the words, “Want to grab dinner?” come out of your mouth.

It’s the wording you use that makes that emotional tie. It’s the blocking, the physical movements (for you non-theater types).

He opened his mouth. Like he’d expected, the words were stuck. He closed his lips, hung his head just long enough to take a breath, and tried again. As he lifted his head, he dropped his shoulders and caught her eye. She had a small smile playing at her lips, and that was enough to make all this easier. “C’mon,” he said. “Let’s grab dinner. I’m buying.”

(He upped the stakes! He offered to buy! You go, fictional dude I just made up on the fly!)

But that’s it, isn’t it? Because you see what he’s going through, his discomfort and his attempt to swallow his fear — and the way in which the girl makes it easier for him — that grabs you. He found his guts.

And now, this story about a young man who’s afraid to live his life takes on more interest. He’s taken a risk. Shown some guts. And we want to know how it ends.

We have lots of names to describe this state of affairs. Take a step back and look at how often around you people show these traits. Someone cuts you off on the highway? “Dude. That took serious balls.”

Your kid cuts school? “Dude. You got some serious chutzpah going on. Why don’t you spend the next three years in your room thinking it over?”

Your best friend goes dress shopping without you. “Dude. You did what?

Showing your intestinal fortitude’s all around us (right now, your favorite metalhead is listening to country music. Why? I’m not quite sure. Daring, baby. I’m living on the edge.). People do it daily.

Make sure your characters do, too.

Oh, and if you come across any alternate dimensions looking for their princess or (God help me, but I’m old enough now) their rightful queen, send ’em my way, will ya?


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