Filling Mighty Big Shoes

One of those pieces of writing advice handed out so often it ought to be a bumper sticker is, Make your characters larger than life.

Trouble is, most of those sage writing instructors don’t bother to tell us exactly how to do that.

What does it even mean, anyway?

Let’s consider three ways by which you can create bigger characters:

1.  Through appearance.  Whatever physical attributes you plan to give your character, exaggerate them.  So if you’re thinking one of your characters should be tall and extremely thin, take those aspects to an extreme.

Tall?  How tall?  Six foot-five inches?  Six-eight?

Thin?  So skinny that if the guy turned sideways he wouldn’t cast a shadow?  Emaciated to the point that his head is a skull with the skin still stretched over it?

2.  Through goals.  Fiction isn’t about duplicating real life.  Fiction is, in fact, more ordered than much of reality.  So if your protagonist is centered on a specific, attainable goal and keeps striving to achieve it despite oppositional conflict and progressive setbacks, then your character is behaving larger than life by not giving up.

3.  Through actions.  In reality, if we see a problem out there on a big-city sidewalk, are we going to get involved?  Would we even know what to do?  Consider Jack Ryan, the protagonist of Tom Clancy’s thriller PATRIOT GAMES.  Ryan is attending a conference in London.  He’s brought his family along.  The first time the reader sees Ryan in the book, he’s finishing a meeting and intent on joining his family at a park.  Terrorists attack a royal motorcade at that park.  People are screaming and diving for cover.  Ryan’s wife and child crouch out of the line of fire.  A normal guy would cower with his family, hoping for the police to arrive fast.  But Ryan isn’t ordinary.  He’s a book protagonist.  So as soon as his family is secured, he runs straight to the car under assault and takes out the terrorists—saving lives, ending the attack, and getting himself seriously wounded in the process.  His actions have made him larger than life.  His background as an ex-Marine makes those actions plausible.

I can feel some of you squirming out there in discomfort.  You may be thinking, I don’t want my character to be so extreme in appearance.  I’m not gonna write about some clownish type that’s obsessive and ex-military.  No way!  I’ll write about Joe Ordinary instead because if I don’t play it safe and make my character small, normal, and unnoticeable, people will laugh at me.

Actually, they won’t.  Instead, they might blink and take notice of an interesting character who’s so tall he can’t fit in any kind of car other than a convertible and is willing to confront the creep that’s blackmailing his sister.

Do you really think readers are going to care about Joe Ordinary who’s five-eight and could stand to lose 20 pounds, who drives a brown, 4-door sedan, lives in a small brown brick house, walks a small brown dog around the block every evening at 5:32, and visits his mom on Sunday afternoons to mow her lawn?  That’s reality.  And if it’s not a disguise hiding Joe’s true identity as a masked crusader who fights to save the downtrodden and hopeless, you have nothing to offer.  Instead, think about those bestselling Clive Cussler adventures.  Droves of fans love to read about Dirk Pitt, who lives in an airplane hangar, drives antique cars that he’s restored himself, has escaped Cuba by rowing a bathtub to the Florida shores, and works as an underwater salvage expert in between defeating bad guys.

We live reality.  We read about larger-than-life characters who dare to do what we can’t or won’t.

Be brave and don’t fear exaggeration.  It’s fun!

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