A guest post from Marjorie Reynolds.
And in case you think I’ve been on a beach popping bon bons… check out my own guest post on the Writers Digest site, called “Confessions of a Story Coach.” If you only knew.
Name three memorable characters from great literature.
Which ones did you choose? Captain Ahab, Scarlett O’Hara, Jay Gatsby? Blanche DuBois, Hannibal Lecter or the ladies in Arsenic and Old Lace? Or, maybe a character out of William Shakespeare or Charles Dickens?
What significant trait do these characters have in common?
They are all extreme.
If you want to write a novel that readers will remember decades or even centuries later, learn from the masters and populate it with one or more extreme characters. You’ll find they’ll not only linger in a reader’s mind, but they’ll give your story energy and heighten your own interest in writing it. As novelists, we quickly bore ourselves with bland, one-dimensional characters.
When I suggested to one of my students that she push her protagonist, an ordinary young woman with no special traits, out to the edge, she returned to class a week later, her eyes gleaming.
“I’m really excited about writing this novel now,” she said. “My character is so much more fun.”
We love extreme people in real life. How many times have you heard someone say with admiration, “He’s such a character”?
So how do you go about creating an extreme character? Do you add an extra appendage or two, maybe a hump on the protagonist’s back or an eleventh finger? Will that put life in your novel? Not necessarily. An abnormal trait should be significant to your story.
Creating an extreme character is not a matter of tacking on peculiarities the way you would hang decorations on a Christmas tree. You want a fictional person readers can relate to, not a cartoon — unless your intentions are comedic. If you want your readers to believe in your protagonist, his deformity, affliction or peculiarity must be the driving force in your story. With a secondary character, it should at least have some significance.
Remember Tiny Tim, the crippled boy in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? His handicap is important to the story because, at the end, Ebenezer Scrooge, the miser (also an extreme character) who has learned his lesson about the perils of parsimony, generously provides the money for corrective surgery.
In The Phantom of the Opera, the phantom’s disfigurement dominates the story. His fear that he will frighten off people, especially the woman he loves, causes him to hide in the bowels of the Paris Opera House and wear a mask. How many people like that do you know.
Not all extreme traits show up physically. Some are on the inside. Remember Raymond, the idiot savant in Rainman, and McMurphy, the mentally ill rebel in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest?
An extreme character does not have to be extraordinary in every way. With the exception of his one extreme trait, he might be as normal as your next-door neighbor (assuming your next-door neighbor is normal). A good example would be the character, Elwood P. Dowd, who befriends an invisible, six-foot tall rabbit in Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Harvey. Dowd appears to be an intelligent, respectable, conventional man – until he introduces Harvey.
In the myth-based Hero’s Journey story, described by Joseph Campbell in his book, Hero of a Thousand Faces, and popularized as an unbeatable story structure by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey, the protagonist is a hero with universal appeal. A hero, by nature, is an extreme character. He may not start out that way, but eventually he does what an ordinary person won’t do. He goes beyond the point where the average person (meaning you and me) would stop. He’s the fireman running up the stairs in a burning building when everyone else is running down. She’s the supervisor of an all-male homicide squad at Scotland Yard who won’t give up her hunt for the killer when everyone else insists she’s tracking the wrong suspect (Jane Tennison played by Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect). A hero may even be willing to break the rules or live outside the laws to get what he wants (Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade). In cowboy movies and detective stories, we’ve seen many a rogue protagonist. Sometimes he’s so flawed, he’s considered an anti-hero.
When you create a heroic character, there’s a real temptation to make her perfect. She’s exceptionally brave, she has the IQ of a genius, she can leap tall buildings. Unless you’re assembling Batwoman or a female Spiderman (both cartoon characters, please note), we won’t believe she could possibly be real.
A hero is not a perfect person who conquers all. He makes mistakes. He usually possesses a tragic flaw (hubris or stubbornness, for example) that makes him vulnerable to his enemies. A hero is someone with all the faults of an ordinary person but with the strength of character to struggle to the point of death. He won’t give up.
He may not have the physical prowess of his opponent (think David and Goliath), but he employs the strengths he does have, usually intelligence and cleverness, to the maximum of his abilities so that he can overcome the enormous tests and obstacles that you, the author, will throw at him. He must work hard. We don’t admire people who get what they want too easily.
To win at the end, he must struggle and push himself beyond what he believes he can do. He must go beyond the point where we would stop. You don’t have to tell us he’s a hero. We can see he is.
As the author, you may be tempted to list your hero’s strengths (she’s smart, beautiful, brave, etc.) and her weaknesses (she’s self-centered, untrustworthy, haughty and cruel). Resist that temptation. Show us through her dialogue and actions what she’s like and the lengths to which she’ll go. Don’t tell us. We won’t believe you, anyway, until we see it. By the way, did you notice the character I just described could be Scarlett O’Hara? Not a likable woman but certainly fascinating and extreme. Despite the ultra-extreme qualities of Dickens and Shakespeare characters, they become real to us. We remember Falstaff, Hamlet, Uriah Heep, and Fagen because they have enough truth in them to be believable and because they are vivid and alive and extraordinary.
Make sure you give your extreme character enough motivation to justify his behavior. Give him a history that explains how his wants and needs and goals developed. Even Batman has good reasons for his actions. The ruthless enemies he pursues killed his parents.
In The Accidental Tourist, Macon Leary rigidly structures his life beyond anyone’s bounds of normality, but we understand why. He’s afraid that, if he doesn’t maintain complete control, he will drown in the well of grief left by his son’s death. The first time I read Anne Tyler’s beautifully crafted novel, I thought Macon was a passive character. Then I realized he’s amazingly proactive and strong. He fights his grief harder than any real person I’ve ever known. The depth of emotion and strength we see in well-drawn characters helps us identify with them.
Whatever their extreme qualities, protagonists are most effective when they are admirable. Villains and secondary characters should at least be understandable and can benefit from some redemptive qualities.
For a reader to admire your protagonist, the character must try to overcome or rise above her handicap. She may not win but she must try. A novel is a journal of your protagonist’s struggles against adversity, and a “woe-is-me” character who takes no action to change her situation soon bores us. If she’s suffering from past wounds, she should try to suppress her pain. Initially, it may seep out in small ways, but eventually it will rush out in a torrent she can no longer contain, forcing her to change. Your job as the author is to put pressure on your protagonist in the form of obstacles, misfortune, setbacks, and inner torment so she doesn’t get what she wants too easily. What results is the character arc that agents and editors expect in a novel these days.
In my recently released collaborative mystery written with two other women, Murder at Cape Foulweather has an abundance of extreme characters with attributes designed for comic effect. My fellow authors, Martha Miller and Susan Clayton-Goldner, and I had great fun writing about five women friends, fortyish, fast and full of hell, who attend a writing workshop at a remote lodge on the Oregon coast, each hiding a secret she’s afraid to spill. The first night, a destructive storm hits, all power is lost and one of their classmates, Orchid L’Toile, meets a fate they consider worse than death: bloody murder without adequate makeup while naked in the bathtub. They must find the killer or become victims themselves. I can guarantee each one of those characters is extreme.
Ask yourself if your characters have extreme qualities. What do they do that the ordinary person won’t do? How hard will they struggle to get what they want? Do we understand the motivations behind their actions? Do they have the emotional depth that will cause us to feel what they feel? By the end of the book, do they gain some wisdom we all value?
After pondering these questions, you may find your characters aren’t extraordinary in any way and don’t do anything the average reader wouldn’t do. You understand the concept but you don’t know how to go about energizing an ordinary character. Here’s a tip: make him obsessed. Take his desire for what he wants and push it out as far as it will go. He’s so obsessed he’ll risk destroying his relationships with lovers, family and friends to find the murderer, rescue his daughter or save his country. He may not always be likable but he’ll be fascinating. He’ll be a character that you and your reader will want to spend time with.
THE PROFILE OF AN EXTREME CHARACTER
1. An extreme character does things an ordinary person won’t do.
Ask yourself, “Does my character do something I wouldn’t have the passion or courage to do?” Would you risk your life chasing a white whale or endure pain and possibly death rescuing someone you’ve never met before?
2. An extreme character has a clearly defined goal.
Ask what your protagonist wants. Does she want to save her family home? Does he want to find his wife’s killer?
3. An extreme character has strong emotions that trigger his goals and actions.
With Santiago from The Old Man and the Sea, that emotion is pride. With other characters, it might be anger over an injustice, a desire for power or a love stronger than they’ve ever experienced before.
4. An extreme character has a history that drives her and motivation for her actions in the present.
Something significant or traumatic in her past provides the impetus for her actions. She may have been abandoned or abused as a child. She may have lost a beloved parent or suffered a disfigurement. She has a good reason to behave the way she does. Ask why your character doesn’t just quit when she encounters adversity?
5. An extreme character will stand alone or break the rules if he has to.
He believes so strongly in his goal that he will do whatever is necessary to achieve it, even if it makes him an outcast. Remember the sheriff in High Noon.
6. An extreme character takes action and won’t give up until she reaches her goal or is defeated.
Extreme characters are not passive. They take action and struggle to achieve their goals. We admire Santiago because he endures sharks, exhaustion and injury to catch a fish that will save his pride. He is willing to die before he will give up.
7. An extreme character is often unusually flawed.
Don’t make the mistake of creating perfect characters.
Marjorie Reynolds is an award-winning author, speaker and writing instructor. She taught advanced popular fiction for several years at the University of Washington Extension in Seattle.
She and two friends, Martha Miller and Susan Clayton-Goldner, recently published Murder at Cape Foulweather, a collaborative novel by the Sun City Sluts available on Amazon. William Morrow & Co. published Marjorie’s two novels, The Starlite Drive-in and The Civil Wars of Jonah Moran, in hardcover and Berkley released them in paperback. The American Library Association selected The Starlite Drive-inas one of the Ten Best Books of 1998 for Young Adults, and Barnes & Noble chose it for its Discover Great New Writers program. It was a Literary Guild alternate selection and a Reader’s Digest Select Editions book. Rights were sold to seven countries. Her novels have received praise in The New York Times, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and Booklist.
Want to get storyfix posts delivered by e-mail? Sign up here:
Prefer to use an RSS reader? Subscribe here.