Saturday, June 30, 2012

Bigger Stories 1 – Larger than life characters

Sherlock Holmes is everywhere. Not just in the wonderful stories that Conan Doyle created, but in a whole new world of Steampunk Holmes (Downey’s movies), in contemporary London Holmes (Sherlock, with a twitchy Benedict Cumberbatch) and in a contemporary U.S. Holmes (Elementary), not to mention the wonderful Mary Russell books (by Laurie R. King) that begin with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.
What does this have to do with a writer’s productivity? The equation for productivity is not words over time, it is audience reached over time. (This could translate to fame and fortune, but might not. We write to communicate. But I will accept finagle factors reflecting intended audience.) Create a character like Holmes (or a powerful concept or a page-turning plot) and more people will read your words. In other words, don’t go mild, go strong. Push what you have as far as it will go.
Note 1: Bigger is not always better. Subtlety has its place. So does reason. The clowns of talk radio and TV’s battling ‘bots of BS are plenty BIG, but they do not serve public discourse. I would prefer that they not be as big as they are. Your character should, in the final draft, be sized to your intent.
Note 2: If you go too far, you can always pull back to something that is more reasonable. Going the other direction, from a reasonable character to one that is striking or even epic, isn’t likely to happen. Dial down, not up.
In one of my all-time favorite writing guides, Writing Novels that Sell, Jack Bickham, wrote about how characters are seen through a glass darkly. They only come across the way the writer sees them if you exaggerate. One of his most successful characters emerged when he pushed a description to ridiculous levels to make the point to a class.
In a draft, you can’t go too far (because no one has to see it but you).

·      Would I notice my character if he/she walked past me on the street?
·      Is his/her fatal flaw remarkable and painful?
·      Does my character’s humor or absurdity make me chuckle as I write?
·      Would any other writer love to write a story featuring my character?
·      Is my character the best/worst at anything?
Of course, once you have a hero/heroine that lights up the room, you need to work on the villain. In fact, the villain may be more important than the protagonist. (Here are some nice tips on creating the antagonist.)
The first step to a Bigger Story (and making your writing time really count) is creating larger than life characters. Don’t be afraid to go too far.


  1. An interesting set of rules, with you as the protagonist. I love the first one.

  2. More on remarkable characters