How to Write about Guilt, with Damon Salvatore

Posted: July 16, 2012 in How to... (Writing Tips), TV Shows, Writing
Tags: , , ,

As much as I try to explain it to family and friends, they just don’t understand that watching TV and movies is research for us writers. They scoff, they laugh, they even roll their eyes. But it’s true, isn’t it? It’s just like reading a book (albeit in a more visual format). We can study characters, setting, and dialogue to learn what works and what doesn’t.

What I like about TV and movies in particular is that we have to translate the action of the characters into words. Whereas we can read a book all about how someone is lying and see in our minds eye via the words that they wring their hands, don’t make eye contact, and have a nervous twitch in their leg, the visual representation of this is a little harder to pick up. There are subtleties actors use that are almost beyond our perception when we’re focused on the story they are trying to tell. We might not catch their leg twitch, or the shifty eyes, but they’re definitely there. We just have to work a little bit harder to see them.

It’s great practice and not only helps you become a better writer, but helps you become a better sleuth and figure out who the bad guy is a little bit sooner. 😉

I had an idea for a new set of blog posts. I don’t want to call them a series, because they’re not going to be all that related. (I swear I’m getting to Damon soon.) The challenge is to pick a theme and a character and write about how the actor brings these two things to life. I’m not writing this necessarily to teach you guys anything (I won’t pretend I’m an expert on any of this stuff), but I’m writing it to better understand it myself. And, of course, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

I’d like to kick it off with the stunning Damon Salvatore. I’m a little The Vampire Diaries obsessed right now (thanks Debra), and I’m almost done with season 2. (If by any chance you know when season 3 is coming to Netflix Streaming, PLEASE TELL ME.) Damon’s my favorite Salvatore brother (and probably my favorite character) for a variety of reasons I won’t get into here. (Actually, if you check out Debra’s post, her thoughts basically reflect mine.) I think Ian Somerholder is a fantastic actor and his portrayal of Damon is extremely well done. All he has to do is quirk an eyebrow or squint his eyes and you automatically know what he’s thinking. It’s brilliant.

Right, enough gushing. Sorry.

Anyway, one thing that I really like about Damon is that he struggles with guilt just about every day of his existence. If you’re unfamiliar with the show, here’s a quick recap on his character: Damon is a bad boy vampire who just happens to love Elena (who’s human and is going out with his brother, Stephan). He also loves the act of killing. He struggles between his vampiric nature and being the man that Elena knows he can be. Talk about a conflict of interest.

A few episodes ago I saw Damon finally break down. We knew he’d been struggling with the fact that Elena would always choose Stephan over him, as well as the fact that, well, he’s a vampire! He kills things. It’s in his nature to hunt and prey on humans. He’s relished in the hunt for centuries. But, at the same time, he doesn’t fall in love often and when he does, he falls hard.

In episode 12, entitled “Descent,” we see Damon confess a secret to a total stranger (I won’t spoil it here because it’s a beautiful moment) and finally give into his cravings. From now on, he’s hiding the guilt that is slowly eating at him. As writers, we need to see how he portrays this so we can use it in our own writing.

It’s obviously hard to do if your story follows in one character’s footsteps (depending on who is the one being guilty). Television has a little more leeway in that they can jump POVs without it having the same consequences that we would have to deal with.

In terms of Damon, his guilt stems from the fact that he’s hiding a secret. He’ll go to any lengths to keep it a secret because he’s ashamed of it. He particularly doesn’t want Elena finding out. In the following few episodes, he starts acting out of character. He’s a little bit moodier, less sarcastic, more angry than usual.

For Damon, a lot of his guilt is shown away from the other characters. He starts dating a human who he has compelled (brainwashed) to keep his secret: he’s killed a human and has been feeding on (but not killing) this new human. He breaks down at several points and says how badly he hates the fact that he is this way, but that he just can’t help it. He rationalizes his nature – he is a vampire after all. And, because of that, he continues to feed and continues to keep his secret.

This is just a small snippet of what Damon portrays. Ian’s acting is so subtle and the writing is so well done that I’m even having trouble translating it into words.  I guess you’ll just have to go watch the show. 😛

There are other ways to show a character’s guilty conscious. The more direct ways aren’t nearly as enjoyable, like saying, “He looked guilty,” or “She twisted her hands guiltily.” These tell us what’s happening, but they don’t show us what’s happening. When the clues are more subtle, the readers will either be completely shocked by the big reveal or proud that they were able to figure it out for themselves. It’s a much more rewarding experience.

Think about when you’re feeling guilty – you’re overly conscious about how you’re acting. Are you acting guilty? Are you not acting normal? So then you usually overact. You’re cheerier than usual, maybe more helpful. You’re out of character. If you’re audience is familiar with your character, this will set off an alarm – and you didn’t even have to directly tell them what was going on!

What are some of the subtle things you’ve seen Damon do on the show? What are some good examples of how to portray guilt without being overly obvious about it? Have you ever written a character who had a secret and felt deeply guilty about it? How did you portray that?

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Comments
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  2. EM Castellan says:

    Yeah, a post about Damon Salvatore! Awesome 🙂 I completely agree with you about TV shows and movies being great sources of inspiration for writers. I watch a lot of TV/movies and it’s part of my writing process. If you liked Damon so far, you’ll love him in Season 3: his character has a great evolution and the last episode of S3 is just amazing. I’m sharing this on Twitter!

    • Karen Rought says:

      Thank you! I’ll take any excuse to write about him. 😉 Unfortunately I’ve been spoiled on a few things for season 3 (consequences of being a copyeditor for a site like Hypable), so I sort of have an idea of what’s going to go on. Can’t wait until I’m all caught up for season 4!

  3. i agree wholeheartedly. i think acting and writing DO have a lot in common; studying human nature and expressing it through an art medium. I took an acting class in college and we were encouraged to people-watch and to journal the differences in how people walk, use their hands, etc. i realized in the middle of the assignment that i’d been doing that for years without having a term for it. one of my mentors says that before she writes, she gets very still, very small, and crawls inside the mind of her character. once she can think and feel like her, then she starts to write.when she described it once to someone, they said, “oh, you’re using the acting method”.

    • Karen Rought says:

      That’s fascinating! It also makes a lot of sense to me. I tend to act out a lot of my scenes before I write them down. (Hence why I like being along when I write!) It just helps me get a feel for the specifics of body movement and personality. I’ll have to try that method of crawling inside the mind of my character. I think it would help a lot. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Angi Black says:

    Great post. And now, in the name of research I will watch TVD all day. 😉 In truth though, it is the subtleties of Ian’s portrayal of Damon that makes the character so great. It’s a good case study. The character he played on Smallville had the same eloquence, but to a completely different end. Great actor, great post!

    • Karen Rought says:

      Unfortunately, I’ve never seen Ian in anything else. (Something I’m hoping to remedy soon.) He is such a subtle actor though, and I’m totally on board with him continuing a long and fruitful career. I think he has a lot of add to the industry. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Debra Kristi says:

    Thanks for the link love. Glad I could get you hooked on a show. Love Damon! You are not the only one I got hooked. LOL! This is a great post and covers a topic I have been giving a lot of thought to lately. Damon’s guilt is a wonderful example and I do have a character that may fit that mold to some degree. Although, I really didn’t think of Damon when I created him or wrote for him at all. This is the first time I am putting that together. Hmm. Thank you, Karen. 😀

    • Karen Rought says:

      Anything for you, Debra! You’re welcome. This show is surprisingly incredible. I think the writing is above standard and there have been sooo many *gasp* moments. I really appreciate that in a TV show. I hope Damon can be an inspiration to your character! Good luck with him. 🙂

  6. […] Make sure you check out my first post titled, “How to write about guilt, with Damon Salvatore.” […]

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