Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Protagonists Without Limits - Making your characters extreme

"All good heroes are insane." This was a surprising statement from one of my Clarion Workshop teachers, Algis Budrys. After his lecture, I asked him what he meant, and he explained that, in real life, anyone as obsessed with a goal as any of the heroes who captured us with their stories would be odd and disturbing to be around. Real people think about more things and are more aware of their environments. We detour from our goals to make sure we get sleep, meals, and a coat if it's cold.

Brief references to the minutiae of life can add verisimilitude to a story, but any writer getting to close to realism will drive readers away. We want our quirky, crazy protagonists, even when they just seem normal.

Why? Jack Bickham provided an explanation when he said we need to exaggerate our characters so they appear clearly through the medium of the printed word. I think it's a little like the bigger than life acting required in the theater, where tone and expression needs to reach the cheap seats.

In a wondeful BBC article, about the heroines of the Brontë sisters, Samantha Ellis provides on observation from Virginia Woolf. Woolf "thought that Charlotte Brontë was one of those writers powered by 'some untamed ferocity perpetually at war with the accepted order of things which makes them desire to create instantly rather than to observe patiently. This very ardour, rejecting half shades and other minor impediments, wings its way past the daily conduct of ordinary people and allies itself with their more inarticulate passions.'"

I like two things about this: The bias toward action and the insane ardor. For commercial fiction especially, these seem to be essential to getting readers engaged in the story. But it's not easily accomplished. Many writers are naturally true-to-life and moderate -- and that isn't helpful. (Nonfiction writers are particularly restrained because of their training.) To my surprise, even making one, specific change, like giving a deadly sin level flaw to the protagonist, is painful for most writers. I have to remind them of their favorite stories and make it clear that those protagonists they love most really do have major flaws.

In addition to looking at your own favorites with an eye toward big flaws and obsessions, here are three things to try to make your heroes and heroines crazy:
  1. Write a scene that would get him or her arrested. A murder is not out of the question. Motivate it and write it with complete sincerity. You don't need to put it into your work in progress (unless it fits). But use its tone and feeling to create a scene that elevates your writing. Usually, this means dialing the action back, but don't get overly cautious.
  2. Look at the scenes you have written and see if moderation can be removed. Don't be afraid to make their thoughts extreme and unfair. Dare to make your hero or heroine unlikable. Above all, be unreasonable. Once you've done this exercise past your comfort point, you can retreat a bit, but keep as much of injustice, mischief, and unfairness as you can stand.
  3. Give your protagonist something horrible to react to. Think of five crushing blows. Write them down. Make each one worse. Then give your character the power to react without restraint.
There are other things you can do, such as experiment with each of the seven deadly sins. Putting that nice little flower shop girl into the role of dominatrix might be just what you (and she) need. But whatever you do, don't let yourself off the hook. If you haven't made yourself squirm, you're not done.

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