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:
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.
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.
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.
|Hardcore veteran at age 18
|Management’s golden boy
|True master of submission holds
|Guardian of the mask
|Pasifika wrestling royalty
|Video essay guy
|The Smiling Assassin
|Real freakin’ strong
|Fire in the belly
|‘Big Cash Money’
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.)
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.