Making Your Characters Extreme

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by Larry Brooks on September 8, 2013

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

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Kerry Boytzun September 9, 2013 at 7:59 am

Extreme characters are what everyone is afraid of in real life.

In real life, people do their very best to be “compliant” and “obedient” to society. Such people make very boring characters and are NEVER heroes.

At work, people keep their heads down so as not to be noticed. Even God won’t help you today, as if you go to the Church for a loan you will quickly learn that the money only flows in, and never OUT (that’s verified).

People in real life don’t want to be “offended” and ironically are so easily offended as I’m sure many would be about my comments of the tight-fisted church.

Thus, in fiction, if you want your character to stand out, then just make her or him the opposite of the kind of people you work with: outspoken, offensive, take matters into their own hands, not compliant, breaks the rules. That’s all behavior.

As for appearance, choose someone that is annoying to look at: dresses funny, is odd looking, eats raw garlic.

Frankly, the behavior is much more interesting to me than the look, the gimp, the limp, or the sway. Darth Vader was half machine, but who really thinks of that? Virtually no one, as Vader was terrifying and a menace you should run from before he had the chance to lay his eyes on you. Why? Because of his behavior, his over the top personality. Nobody owned Vader, and even his Emperor mentor learned that fatal mistake.

Kerry

Normandie Alleman September 9, 2013 at 10:02 am

Great post! I wish every book I wrote or read had extreme characters. Life’s too short to spend time on the average. Thanks for profiling what makes an extreme character.

Marjorie Reynolds September 9, 2013 at 12:29 pm

You’re right, Kerry. We’re taught to be well behaved and to avoid conflict, just the opposite of what our characters should do in our novels. Just because we’re nice people doesn’t mean our story people should be. You make a good point when you say behavior is more interesting than appearance, although an attractive body can make an interesting contrast when it masks a serial killer such as Ted Bundy.

Joel D Canfield September 9, 2013 at 2:10 pm

My hero, Jake, isn’t extreme. He’s different, he’s not average, but he’s not extreme.

But after reading this, he will be. And it will elevate some of the other missing elements in my book.

Martha September 9, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Great post! Great things to remember when writing, no matter how far along one gets in a manuscript.
Thanks, Marjorie Reynolds, for pointing this out, making it clear. And thanks, Larry, for inviting Ms. Reynolds to contribute such helpful information.

Marjorie Reynolds September 9, 2013 at 6:54 pm

Joel, Normandie and Martha,
I’m happy to hear my post has helped you look at characters differently. Once you turn your protagonist loose, you’ll be surprised at how dynamic your novel becomes.
Marjie

Please visit my website: http://marjoriereynoldswriter.com/
where I offer a weekly blog on the craft of writing.

Larry September 9, 2013 at 7:13 pm

@ Marjorie — just wanted to add an amen to that. And thanks again for this great post. Larry

Marjorie Reynolds September 10, 2013 at 11:01 am

Larry, thanks for giving me the opportunity to post.
Marjie

Jason Waskiewicz September 10, 2013 at 10:04 pm

I used to be terrified of this. I have written 9 lackluster novels that weren’t worth a rewrite. I’m now editing #10. It may turn out not to be publishable, but it is worth a rewrite. I learned many lessons in those first nine novels, and this is one of them.

I looked back at which characters stuck with me, and it wasn’t my mild, boring heroes. It was the extreme characters. One of my favorite characters was an old lady who was truly an “old bat.” She was unpleasant, even to family, and maybe a bit senile. But, she was so extreme, that she worked, and I don’t usually use female heroes. Usually my heroes lean toward the quiet and boring personality: just like me.

So, in #10, I knew my hero didn’t fit in well, had been gone a long time, and that was about it. Now he’s seriously crippled, had a horrific childhood (which is when he became crippled), and his parental origins really mess up his prospects in the story. I managed to keep him quiet and shy, but now these traits work because so much about him is larger than life. He has a quiet, shy man’s way of accomplishing things and leading people that is really larger than life.

As I developed my hero, and layered on the complications in his life, I realized that the hero was not the only one who needed to be larger than life. He needed huge problems. The resulting story went from a mild tale of a boy growing up poor in an unpleasant place to a tale of revolution in a true hellhole.

I don’t know if it will be publishable. But, I know that my extremes really made it better.

I want to close by noting that “extreme” can mean many things. John Le Carre created George Smiley: a mild, quiet character. He works because the mild and quiet traits are taken to the extreme. The man is a doormat to his horrible wife. He’s also an amazing character. “Extreme” means many things.

Robert Jones September 11, 2013 at 10:47 am

People aren’t just afraid of extreme characters, they’re afraid of not being “well-liked,” or offending others. And this carries over to writers. Doubt it? Well, if you’ve been writing for longer than a few hours, I’ll bet the majority of people who want to write have discarded some tid-bit under the excuse that it will turn readers off, or make them dislike their character–possibly even dislike the author.

Or maybe it was a friend or collegue who read something you wrote and couldn’t get past a certain scene, a bit of foul language, or a discription they crickled their nose at.

Which is why writers shouldn’t show a work in progress unless they can smile at such things and realize they’ve just created a strong emotional reaction in the reader. A plus.

Just how extreme is extreme, however, when someone else does it?

My wife likes the TV show “Bones.” Yet, the main character, temperance brennan, is cold, rude, self absorbed–all masking the fact that she just doesn’t want to get hurt emotionally, so she relies on facts. Even if they totally hurt others at sometimes. Naturally, there are friends and other cast members who point this little mistakes out to her and she usually rectifies her errors. That’s TV for ya’! It’s also the mark of some TV excec who doesn’t want to turn the audience off. Even while the characters are cutting up human remains so realistic that this would’ve been banned from public TV not too many years ago.

But what if the main character didn’t always apologize? She’s saving lives and crime with her skills. She’s a certified genius who is clearly not living on the same plane with most people. And realistically, her friends would be few, and collegues would probably be afraid of getting fired if they pointed out her flaws. Would that necesarily mean viewers would tune out?

No one is apologizing for the news. I know I’ve used this example before, but how many people with “so-called” higher moral and delicate sensiblilities watch that crap? How many swallow those reports, hook, line, and TV set without even questioning the facts presented?

As writers, we all have lives that consist of family and friends who tell us many things based on their own moral, standards, and how they view us. Many of us, quiet, like Curtis, decent individuals in search of a story that will please people, characters an audience will fall in love with. Which is fine. But even those characters that fight for the greater good have villains who aren’t so nice.

Once we close the door to our present reality, a writer needs to slip inside the characters we are writing about. What would those extreme characters tell our best friends, or the polite neighbore who never misses church on Sunday and has every episode of “Little House on the Prairie” on DVD, if they stepped up to them and said, “I’m offended by you actions, your language?”

If a writer has to take both sides and make a convincing hero and villain, both good and bad seeming credible within each character’s mind, at the heart of their being, then a wrier cannot afford to be offended by the offended.

If you write a best seller, I guarantee your friends and family will still like you. In fact, some will conveniently replace their previous statement of, “I was totally offended by the killer doing (whatever),” scene, with, “I always said you’d make a wonderful writer one day.”

And if you don’t believe that one, think it can’t apply to the nice normal people you know, then you just know people as well as you might.

Robert Jones September 11, 2013 at 10:49 am

Just “don’t” know people, rather…in a hurry :)

MikeR September 12, 2013 at 5:08 pm

We need to be sensitive to the fact that our readers might be stuck on the taxiway in preparation for a five-and-a-half hour flight which is full of howling babies and Valley Girls. (I was there, once. Seriously. Fortunately, they never found the bodies.) ;-)

Our job is to Transport Them Far Away From All This, at least for a few hundred pages. (And then, just before lights-out, to begin to ease them out of [or as the case may be, into], their well-deserved hotel-suite hangover.)

There are many ways to do that. They might or might not want to read about a psychopath … that’s your call and theirs. But they most-certainly don’t want to read about their next-door neighbor. Or, for that matter, about you.

We’re creating both “fictional characters,” and “fictional settings,” and “fictional(?) reasons for them to be running like hell.” All for the entertainment of the buying public. One of those characters is The Star Of The Show, and another one is Nemesis. And no matter what happens, the Star must always Star, and in his own inverted way, the Nemesis must do the same. Lots of other interesting things might be going on in the meantime, but at the end of it, this is what the Customer wants. Serve it to them with relish. Or else.

In a book about screenwriting for the original “Star Trek” series, there were writer’s guidelines and this was one of them: no matter what, “Captain Kirk does it.” Why? Because “Captain Kirk is the Star.” At the end of the day, and even though it comes at the extreme cost of giving William Shatner yet another soliloquy to totally bollux-up … ;-) … this was a ground-rule that would partly determine whether or not you sold your script or outline.

Rachel September 16, 2013 at 1:24 am

Extreme characters definitely give readers more emotional bang for their money.

However, I think you have to be careful not to let your character turn into a stereotype, in your quest to make him as extreme as possible.

Readers get to know a character not from how he looks, or because he has some special tick; they get to know him or her through his actions – just like we get to know people in real life. This doesn’t mean that you can’t make your character extreme in looks or dress, but it does mean that his extreme behavior must tie in with the the need and desire he has to accomplish in the story.

So for example, if he wants to “get the girl,” but he’s an arrogant, chauvinistic, blankety-blank, to the point of ridiculousness, then his need (to be caring, think of others, etc) becomes even more clear.

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