Characters as Verbs

~ I ________ you ~

I was very fortunate to have the chance to hear Damon Suede speak at the New Jersey Romance Writers Conference last fall. The topic of his talk was character development.

Give Your Character a Verb

One thing that stood out for me was his suggestion that before you decide on hair color or height or even occupation for your main character, you should come up with a transitive verb that represents the internal core of your character. Then you should pick an opposite verb for the antagonist.

Let the Verb dictate the Character’s DetailsUsing a transitive verb like ignite adds pizza to a character

Once we have the identifying verb identified, all of the other features of the character should fall in place. For example, if the verb we choose for our character is IGNITE, then everything about that character will be bright and fiery. A person who ignites might be someone with red hair, sparkling eyes, emanating warmth, sexy hot, and working as a fireman.

With this verb in mind, our word choices and the character’s actions would also reflect this verb. An igniting character might light up a room or send flaming passion through you when they touched you.

Damon even suggested writers could use a different synonym of the character’s main verb as a guiding force for every chapter in our novel.

Wow, this idea really ignited me. So I set out to give it a try.

Identifying Transitive Verbs

Character as Verb Using Actions; The Actors' ThesaurusBut first, I have to admit the grammatical term transitive verb threw me. I mean I knew what it meant – sort of. A transitive verb is any active verb you can use to fill in this sentence and have it sound sensible.

I _____ACTIVE VERB_____ you.

So I ignite you works. I sleep you does not.

Damon suggested we consult a thesaurus to find our character verbs. But for me that involved a lot of “is it transitive or not” questions as well as tedious skimming through pages of non-verbs. So I went hunting for a thesaurus that focused on verbs and hit the jackpot.

Try Actions: The Actors Thesaurus

Actions: The Actors’ Thesaurus by Marina Caldarone & Maggie Llyod-Williams isn’t just a verb thesaurus. It is a thesaurus of transitive verbs, and it has a very specific purpose. It is used by actors to choose how a character will behave when saying each one of his or her lines. This is called Actioning, a technique developed by the Russian actor and director, Constantin Stanislavski.

Usually actioning is done with the whole cast sitting around a table and going line by line through the script. Actors identify a transitive verb for each line as a cue to how they will say it and how they will move. For example, perhaps the line in the play reads: “Would you like to dance?” In concert with the cast, the actor might decide to say this as if “I love you” or “I seduce you” or “I hate you” or “I fear you.” The actor being addressed would then choose a verb representing how they would respond.

Taking it Farther: Using Active Verbs to Spark up Dialogue

Wow. This gave me a brainstorm. Why not do the same thing when writing dialogue? If a character already has a main transitive verb then we can use its synonyms whenever that character speaks. So, if the character is a beguiler (I beguile you) they might amuse, belittle, bewitch, cajole, charm, cheat, coax, court and so on when speaking.

In the WIP I am working on right now, Book 4 Under the Skin in my Skin series, I have chosen I escape you for my heroine and I protect you for my hero. I’ll let you know how it goes.


What do you think of ACTIONING? Willing to give it a try?

Post your thoughts and comments below.


2 thoughts on “Characters as Verbs

    1. Thanks for commenting! As writers we have to keep our eyes open and never stop learning new approaches to our craft. I have often literally “acted out” my scenes. Actioning gives me an even stronger tool to use to add depth to my writing.

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