Writing Extraordinary Characters
Why write extraordinary characters? Readers crave characters that jump out at them in unique ways. Readers want larger-than-life characters that are unforgettable.
Writing Tip for Today: How can you take your character from OK to Oh my!? Here are a few tips:
Some writers think a quirky character—a person with odd habits, a strange occupation or other unusual qualities—makes her extraordinary. While quirky can be extraordinary, unforgettable qualities arise more from the character’s beliefs, goals and actions than from always wearing red, for example. Instead of concentrating on strangeness, give your character some larger-than-life qualities. Where average people might give up, the extraordinary character perseveres. When average people feel sorry for themselves, this character doubles down effort or finds a new plan.
Donald Maass teaches that great characters don’t just suffer but strive. They don’t practice patience, they act. They don’t merely survive, they endure. They think deeply and have self-regard. They possess strength. These inner qualities are what can lift a one-dimensional character into a larger-than-life, memorable character.
Great characters don’t always do what readers logically think they will. To inject your fiction with this idea of unpredictability, put your character in an awkward position and then have him do the opposite of what is expected. If you are a rigid outliner or plotter, let go a bit and see if you can surprise yourself in the story. By turning on their heads predictable thoughts, feelings and actions, you can explore more deeply your character and the story world.
And when you are composing your cast of characters, use the same idea by contrasting the secondary characters with the main character. By making them different from your protagonist, you increase chances for tension and conflict in your story. Contrast also helps your protag stand out against the background of the supporting cast.
A Life in Fiction
Fiction is not life. Readers want realistic stories and characters, enough to be believable. But readers read fiction not only to see themselves. They read fiction to imagine themselves as they might be. Writing stories from actual human experience is worthy. To take them to the unforgettable level, writers must identify the extraordinary qualities of ordinary people.
According to Maass, “Great characters rise to the challenge of great events.” But how do you construct such a larger-than-life character? Start with a larger-than-life goal. I’ve written before about high stakes in the novel. A great character doing nothing will likely miss the mark. Give your character goals that matter, with adversaries that are formidable, and your character can become extraordinary.
One way to increase the stakes (conflict, tension) is to place a time limit on the goal. Remember the K-Mart Blue Light Special? If your character must perform under time pressure, tension rises dramatically.
Another trick is to keep secrets. By withholding information, foreshadowing and planting clues, you essentially force readers to keep reading. A third method is to make a personal goal (let’s say cure for the character’s disease) wider. If the whole community begins to suffer the same way, the story gets bigger. Concentric rings of people and institutions affected by the stakes makes them matter more to readers.
What are other ways to make characters extraordinary?