Categories
character legacy wrestling writing

Gimmick talk, round two

Hmm.

Turns out I’m not done talking about gimmicks.

Let’s start with mine.

a work in very slow progress

My Pokemans, let me show you them

Here’s the table I showed off last time, with all of the characters/gimmicks I’ve brainstormed (and stuck on corkboards) for my YA wrestling novel-in-not-really-progress-yet Piledriver.

FACESHEELS
Hardcore veteran at age 18Management’s golden boy
Action bishonenEdgelord ‘Sliding into your DMs’
Internet TikTok daredevilOne true master of submission holds
Guardian of the maskPasifika wrestling royalty
Basketball MVPVideo essay guy
K-pop star stanSk8r boi
Brooklyn toughThe Smiling Assassin
Real freakin’ strongNasty Freaky goth
Trash pandaTrophy collector
‘Fire in the belly’Mean girl
Frenzied fighter‘Big cash money’
Cool nerdEurotrash

Just as the novel is in the germination stages, so are these gimmicks (hell, none of these characters have names yet). As you can see from the strikethroughs, my ideas are still in flux and getting updated daily weekly sporadically. Gimmicks are surface-level concepts but they can nonetheless be surprisingly nuanced, and you can tinker with them for ages before getting them right.

In fact, I think some roughness here makes sense for the novel, which focuses (in part) on the creation and launch of a new, all-teenagers wrestling promotion. Ideas are going to be rough at the start, and there’s good story material in showing the development, refinement, testing and rejection of gimmicks in the early days.

That said, these are all good gimmicks, and I can tell you why. Because I am the King of Gimmicks.

…okay fine, I’m the Prince of Gimmicks, are you happy now

What makes a good gimmick?

An effective gimmick should be…

Easy to summarise, hard to explain: What is a ‘video essay guy’ or a ‘trash panda’ – or, to pick a real wrestler, Mr Perfect? I could tell you in detail but I don’t have to; you already (I hope) have an image in your mind. A gimmick is all high concept, a phrase that unpacks itself in the audience’s imagination; it’s only later, once the hooks are in, that it needs to be fleshed out and coloured in.

Triple H was ‘The Cerebral Assassin’, which he expressed by hitting people very awkwardly with a sledgehammer

Able to hold your attention: But you do need to get those hooks in, and that means holding the audience’s attention. A character is called ‘The Smiling Assassin’ – why? Does he smile (yes)? Does he murder people (no)? How does his ‘sneering killer’ concept flavour his fighting, his promos, his backstage scenes? If a gimmick is just a name or a look, it’s not going to keep audiences interested; it has to have some substance and nuance to inform what happens next.

Adaptable and extendable: Some gimmicks are face gimmicks, some are heel gimmicks, but the best can be pointed in either direction. Similarly, a strong gimmick can morph over time, add to itself, even contradict itself and still remain identifiable. Looking to WWE, Kane and Sean Michaels (‘The Heartbreak Kid’) were a dozen different things over the decades, but were still definitely the same characters and concepts each time. Flexible gimmicks like ‘Guardian of the Mask’ or ‘Pasifika wrestling royalty’ could have the same adaptability and longevity (unless romance and drama get in the way, which they will).

3/16 is also my birthday
I should probably get this as a T-shirt

Expressed in multiple ways: A great gimmick is more than a look, a concept, a finishing move. It’s a catchphrase, an attitude, a vignette, an ethos; it’s something that can be packaged a dozen different ways, all of them available from the merch table. Maybe no-one defines this better than Stone Cold Steve Austin, who turned a ‘tough guy who hates his boss’ gimmick into a dozen catchphrases, a million T-shirts, a presence in pop culture strong enough that someone who’s never seen a moment of wrestling might still understand and enjoy a 3:16 reference.

everything about her is perfect

Deadpan: The Undertaker is a zombie. Kairi Sane is a wrestling pirate. Half the roster of Chikara were various types of humanoid ants. The key to making ideas like that pop is to take them… not seriously, perhaps, but at face value, rather than deconstructing or questioning them. Because when you undercut one wrestling concept, you undercut the very notion that it’s real or a sport or that it makes sense to settle personal disputes by suplexing someone through a table rather than talking to a small claims lawyer. Treat your gimmicks with respect and never wink at the camera – not openly, anyway.

Okay, that’s a lot of talk about gimmicks and how to craft them.

It’s time I knuckle down on applying my own advice to my character roster, fill out these index cards, finish the outline and start writing this book.

…unless I get distracted by a new puppy. But that would never –

PUPPY ENTRANCE MUSIC HITS

MAH GOD!

Categories
character legacy wrestling writing

Ya gotta have a gimmick

‘Gimmick’.

It feels a bit grubby just to type the word. Gimmicks are cheap, nasty things – foil covers and decoder rings and celebrity endorsements, things of that nature, I think we can all agree.

Don’t take my word for it – let’s see what the Collins Online Dictionary (which I’ve chosen because I’m not giving my home email to Oxford or Macquarie just for one bloody screenshot) has to say:

Hmm.

This is an interesting definition, because it’s loaded with this weird, classist subtext. How dreadful it would be to attract attention to something! What an unnecessary thing to do, when you could simply win the approval of your peers by working quietly on your dictionary for two hours a day from the comfort of your family’s estate before snooker with the chaps from the fox hunting lodge.

Am I reading too much into this? Almost certainly, but I don’t see why that should stop me. Because I come not to praise the definition but to bury it. Folks, here’s the skinny, the straight dope, the 411, the truth that Mr/Ms/Mx/Viscount Collins can’t handle:

Gimmicks are good, actually.

Especially when creating fictional characters.

The Disney silhouette

Team Collins makes one solid point – a gimmick is a feature designed to attract attention. As fiction writers/creators, we crave attention like a Coalition politician craves government funds illegitimately rorted from community programs. I don’t mean for ourselves (although hello yes here I am notice me love me validate me) but for our books, games, shows, Bayeux Tapestries etc. – and even more importantly, for the characters within those stories and give them life.

Animators understand this, which is why Disney animated characters always have distinctive visual designs, not just in terms of colour but shape and the silhouette that that shape creates. A unique and flavourful character silhouette ‘allows a designer to produce striking iconic shapes that will stand out among multiple characters or creatures.’ It’s an unusual feature that attracts attention, as Collins et al disapprovingly explained earlier.

Five distinct shapes, five distinct character gimmicks – Fighter, Thug, Party Pirate, Ol’ Surly Bastard and Racist Stereotype

The silhouette principle is just as important in text. If your characters don’t have an immediate point of distinction from everyone around them, if they don’t have a unique conceptual hook to catch readers’ attention – a gimmick – then most readers will move on and never discover the complex character depths you struggled to write.

Yes, gimmicks are surface elements, but you don’t get to have depths without surfaces to hold them together and squish them down. That’s just science.

Only wrestling is real

Why am I bringing this concept up right now, and being so weirdly insistent and borderline preachy about it? Because I’m writing a novel set within the world of professional wrestling, the King of Sports, and wrestling has always acknowledged the power of the gimmick – the immediate conceptual hook that makes the audience think, ‘yeah, I wanna watch this guy/girl fight someone’.

Which is not to say that every gimmick is good or effective – a cursory review of wrestling history reveals a lot of bad creative decisions. In the ’80s, everyone was defined by their job (Isaac Yankem, wrestling dentist), an ethnic stereotype (The Iron Sheik) or just some fuckin’ bullshit (the Gobbledy Gooker, obviously). But still, I think that was better than the ’90s, when most wrestlers were just variations on ‘edgy dude in jorts’ and the few exceptions got over simply through a sense of relief.

Any discussion of bad gimmicks is legally required to include mention of the Gobbledy Gooker – but damnit, this is Héctor Guerrero, show some respect

This is the difficult aspect of gimmicks – you need them to attract attention, but it needs to be the right kind of attention. They can be funny, they can attract a little ridicule, but they still need to get folks watching matches and appreciating the performer inside the gimmick, rather than driving folks away.

So with that in mind, here are the gimmicks I’ve developed for the 24 teenage wrestlers on the roster for Piledriver.

FACESHEELS
Hardcore veteran at age 18Management’s golden boy
Action bishonenEdgelord
Internet daredevilTrue master of submission holds
Guardian of the maskPasifika wrestling royalty
Basketball MVPVideo essay guy
K-pop star stanSk8r boi
Brooklyn toughThe Smiling Assassin
Real freakin’ strongNasty goth
Trash pandaTrophy collector
Fire in the bellyMean girl
Frenzied fighter‘Big Cash Money’
Cool nerdEurotrash

Bit of a mixed bag, I know – almost as if significant thought went into some of them, while others are tissue-thin nonsense based primarily on early morning free association and whim.

What can I say? I have my methods, and for this book, my methods involve writing down ideas as I get them and then fleshing them out down the track, rather than spending months fussing over each individual concept until it’s perfect and no-one cares any more. Plus, I have the advantage of these being in-fiction concepts – if some are weak, then characters can address and improve them as part of the story, when they’re not fighting monsters or making out with their co-workers.

(Also, go to hell, ‘video essay guy’ is a brilliant gimmick.)

Your turn

Not all of us are writing stories about professional wrestlers – which is probably for the best, ‘cos I want to sell this book – but almost every work of genre fiction can benefit from the writer thinking about distinct, engaging hooks for their characters.

(It’s not as big a deal outside of genre fiction; I don’t think readers are attracted to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich for his distinctive character silhouette.)

You can call it something else if you want – high concept, character premise, archetype – but a gimmick is what it is, and it’s something readers need and enjoy. Accept it. Embrace it. Live it.

I’ve got mine – well, I’ve got them for the in-ring personas, but I still need to work them out for the actual characters. What are yours? How would you sum up your main character’s whole deal in one easy-to-digest phrase? And how long could they last against the Gobbledy Gooker?

Let’s talk more about this next month. I still have opinions.

Categories
character legacy

Fifty and fighty

All right, first things first.

I turned 50 years old today.

I think I’m finally letting go of my hopes of being a child prodigy.

But I’m still here, still giving it a go, and that’ll do.

That’ll do.

So what am I doing in my fifty-first year?

For one thing, I’m still trying to learn new tricks, even when it comes to writing. I’m in the prep-and-research phase of a new novel project, and I’m doing something I’ve never done before – planning.

…okay, I haven’t actually planned the book’s title yet, but let’s called it Piledriver as a shorthand for now.

Raven’s Blood and the Obituarist novellas were all written the same way – I sat down with a premise, an opening scene, a finale to aim towards and some ideas for bits in the middle, and then haphazardly wrote my way into the story until I got to the end, which may or may not have resembled the ending I’d originally envisioned. I’m not going to abandon that approach, ‘cos it aligns nicely with my laziness creative instincts, but it’s high time I gave the whole plotting and outlining business a try.

But first, characters. Piledriver has an ensemble cast of, mighty fuck, twenty-four characters, all of whom need to be unique and clearly distinct from the others. How am I going to manage this Herculean task and (frankly, stupidly over-large) cast?

With a character stack.

The stack contains 24 index cards, each showing the core information of a specific character. Let’s zoom in on the most complete one, which is for the book/series’ main protagonist.

The important points you can immediately tell:

  • this is a book about professional wrestlers
  • yes, I’ve named the main character Jack Fetch
  • yes, he’s Jack the Giantkiller, wrestling is not a world of subtlety
  • my handwriting is fucking atrocious
  • I haven’t worked out some of the details yet

(Why is there a B in the top right corner? I’m gonna keep that detail under wraps for the moment.)

Other cards are sketchier still – no-one else has a name yet, and things like gimmicks, style and persona are mostly vacant. But the joy of the stack is that I can just grab a card and fill in a detail when it occurs to me. Some of those will get nailed down during the outlining, others as I write, and this will help me keep things consistent. Another positive of using physical cards is that I can also pin them to a corkboard to map out relationships, group them into factions, spot who needs some screen time and (eventually) array them for a big ol’ tournament.

I might have so much fun doing that that I don’t bother writing the book. We’ll see.

Anyway, that’s how I’m kicking things off in my life as an Official Old Dude. Check back in occasionally over the next 365 days to see how the planning (or indeed writing) of Piledriver is progressing.

For now, though, bugger doing any more work tonight.
Come on, it’s my birthday.