Get Wild

Think of your favorite characters from recent books and film. Were they self-effacing and dependable? Did they wear beige and hate to tell a lie? I’m guessing not!

Why is it then, that we’re writing these folks into our stories?  I’m reading a book by a famous author who is not selling as well as he used to. His major character this time is rather bland. True, he has a rebellious streak. Yawn. It’s not enough.

You have boring friends. Sorry.

We may write bland characters because these are the ones we know. You and I have friends who are real estate agents, teachers, landscapers, programmers. They may also be avid rock climbers, devoted to their children, and belong to Friends of the Library. We don’t, most of us, know felons, revolutionaries, people who have survived airline disasters, flamboyant dressers, egotistical artists, cynical priests, or gifted loners who have lost their entire family. But why let that stop us? Part of our talent as writers is to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes for awhile.

But you say that you want readers to believe the story? Everyday people are surely more believable than outlandish characters. I see your point, but I think it’s misguided.

The cliche of ordinary people

Perhaps an everyday person is what’s called for in your story. But is it really? I believe you if you insist–but might this actually be merely the first type who comes to mind? (Once again, Steven King is excused to go off and do what he does.) For the rest of us, often our first impulse in story development is a cliche. We’ve seen so many movies; we think we know how it’s done. Relying on such instinct, we take the default setting when deciding story issues. That tack can kill your story.

The power of weird

Writers who still have their creative edge move past the obvious choice and dig deeper. What would happen, for instance, if the character you are drawing talks too much, perhaps constantly, witlessly. Jess Walter used a character like this in Citizen Vince. A minor character, but one who enlivened every scene he was in. What if the main character has an erotic longing for his tormentor (Sweetheart, Chelsea Cain) or is so petty and mean that we break into a sweat every time she comes on stage? (The Devil Wears Prada.)

The real world is full of the differently shaped, strangely driven, unjustly–or justly– outcast. We are fascinated to read about people who are different than ourselves and sometimes stronger than ourselves–people who by virtue of quirks, outlandish talents, or dark histories draw the plot lines toward themselves to experience more interesting events than would ever happen to me. It’s worth extending our powers of empathy to see if we can include people different than ourselves. Even if we don’t like them very much. The truth is we don’t have to unreservedly like the characters. We just have to admire something about them.

If you choose a wildly unique individual for your leading character, you will be taking on a  challenge, that is true. We must establish empathy with the main character. She must be believable. So perhaps that outlandish personality is best bestowed on a supporting character–and yet . . . give us something out of the ordinary. Distinguish your protagonist in some way. Avoid the tame, the bland, the seen-it-all before, too-nice, too earnest, too familiar hero and secondary characters.

Let them wear Prada or an orange mu-mu or those loud T-shirts of Gregory House. Give them the snarky dialogue you’ve always wanted to use. Deform them mentally or physically.

Get wild.

6 Responses

  1. Lisa Forgan says:

    So true. I do find that it is easy to go boring with characters if you depend too much on the bland qualities. It is definitely a good challenge to seek out those unique personalities. But, is there a specific quality that should stand out from the others? For instance, a character who acts out wildly/unreliable takes on a role to act like a leader.

  2. Tony Singleton says:

    Is there going to be a 5th book in the Entire and the Rose series? I sure hope so!

  3. Kay says:

    Yes, a specific quality or two are needed so the character isn’t an improbable mix of quirks. If your story has an internal story arc (how the character changes… and not all stories do… witness how James Bond never changes) then you have to decide whether the unusual quality they have is something that makes them stronger or weaker. If weaker, then you have created a “demon” quality that shows up early, getting in the way of their life. This quality or several should come to bear at the midpoint of your story when your protagonist is now fully engaging the story problem. How she/he overcomes their own demons is then part of the story. (On the other hand, the quirk can be both good and bad: Gregory House. The writers of this series are playing that one like a find violin.) If the quirk makes them stronger, you might want to show them using that quality to overcome the opposition. If the character is not the protagonist, you might just use that weird quality for dramatic effect. But if you give that secondary character a POV, then normally you will want to give them an internal story arc, only not as profound, of course, as the protagonist’s.

  4. Kay says:

    Tony, I don’t have plans right now to right a fifth book. Many requests. I’m thinking of writing some short stories in that universe and making them available on my web site. I know this doesn’t quite make up for a novel! I sort of miss the Entire, though, so you never know. . .

  5. Tom Hopp says:

    Another great insight, Kay. Crafting characters is always the hardest part, at least for me. In Dinosaur Wars the central figure, Chase Armstrong, is a Yellowstone Park ranger. If that isn’t the definition of a bland personality, then it’s close. Mr. Nice Guy. Good with kids. Kind to animals. It’s interesting that you mentioned James Bond. After much searching, I’ve decided to take Chase in that direction in the series of short stories I’m now crafting. He doesn’t change much, but he travels on a rich CIA budget to exotic locales where one dino or another is causing trouble. He’s become irresistible to women and rather rakish, a playboy. Not the humble park ranger anymore.

  6. Kay says:

    No more Mr. Nice Guy! Good decision, Tom; should be a fun direction.

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