Commercial genre fiction is not for the timid, or the mousey, or the quiet, retiring individual.
As a writer, you can be any or all of those things in real life, but when you put your fingertips on the keyboard, you should channel whatever inner flamboyance and verve you possess. Feed it right into your characters.
Your characters need to leap off the page. They need to be sharp, vivid, bold, exaggerated, and unpredictable.
“But I’m not any of those things,” you may be protesting. “That’s not who I am. How do I identify with that kind of artificial, clownish character?”
Ah … perhaps the key word here is “artificial.”
When did it become the norm to believe our characters are anything BUT artificial constructions?
The so-called “realistic” character is too often an excuse to hide behind when we lack the nerve to write anything that’s flamboyant.
When I sit down to read fiction, I don’t want characters that are modeled closely on real life. Real life is boring, mundane, filled with endless banal tasks, the drudgery of chores, and meaningless small talk. I chat with my next-door neighbors maybe twice a year while picking up the newspaper or rolling out the garbage Polycart. The topic is never earth-shattering: the new recycle pickup schedule, or can I recommend a plumber … that sort of thing. Not the stuff of fiction!
When I was a child, one of my favorite cartoon characters was Snaggletooth. He was some kind of cat or tiger–which is probably why I gravitated to him–and his main distinguishing tag was when he would stand on one foot, poised in the direction he was about to run, and he would announce grandly: “Exit stage left!” or “Exit stage right!”
For all I know, that cartoon may have taught me right from left. I don’t remember anything else about the character except those vivid departures. Yet, despite the murky mush of childhood memories, Snaggletooth has never been forgotten.
How does one of your characters enter the story? How does she exit a scene? What does she do while she’s stage centered on the page, involved in the story’s action?
Is she making ANY impression on readers?
If not, why not?
One of my favorite old-movie actresses is Bette Davis. You may or may not have seen any of her films, but you’ve probably heard of her.
Even in her earliest films, when she was just a studio player and miscast in little roles of flighty society girls, she carried a presence with her. She knew how to walk, how to carry herself, how to move about so that she held the audience’s eye. That’s stagecraft, and she learned her acting from the stage before she ever went to Hollywood.
All actors of that era were trained to do that. They weren’t trying to be natural or realistic. They were driving the story action forward and doing their best to make you remember them.
One of my favorite film entrances of a character is in the William Wyler film, THE LETTER, based on a short story by Somerset Maugham. The audience is shown the moonlight shining down on a peaceful rubber plantation. All is quiet. The workers are sleeping in hammocks under thatched sheds. Then a pistol shot rings out. A man bursts from the bungalow and staggers down the porch steps. Bette Davis follows him.
She’s wearing an evening gown. She holds a pistol in one hand. Her arm is extended and rigid. She fires into his back. And fires again, emptying the revolver into his dying body. As she shoots, she descends a porch step, then another, until she’s standing over him.
The camera zooms in on her face. She’s intent, cold-blooded, lethal. There’s no hesitation in her, no fear, no regret. She knows exactly what she’s just done, and it was precisely what she intended to do. She has shot this man down the way I might destroy a rabid dog.
Then, as the plantation workers wake up and run toward her in alarm, the predator in Bette vanishes. She pulls on a mask of teary weakness and begins to lie about what just happened and why.
But the audience has seen the truth and can settle in to watch what she does next in trying to trick the police and the prosecutors.
“Realistic?” Not at all. Vivid and effective? You bet!
A vivid character doesn’t have to possess superhuman powers in order to compel reader attention.
Just ask Mr. Dickens. He created some of the most memorable characters still in print, and they have been in print a mighty long time.
Is Ebeneezer Scrooge “realistic” or drawn closely from real life?
He’s such an exaggeration of miserly behavior that his name has been absorbed into the English language as a label for a tight-fisted, grouchy individual who values money over human kindness.
Was Edgar Allen Poe trying to share the mundane, everyday details of ordinary human existence in his stories?
Instead, we have a madman creeping through a possessed house in “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
Would Sherlock Holmes continue to fascinate us were he more ordinary?
This man has extraordinary powers of observation. He keeps his pipe tobacco in a Persian slipper on the mantel. From time to time, he celebrates his patriotism for his queen by firing bullets into the wall in the shape of her initials.
[If I want to be realistic about Holmes, I would be thinking about his landlady and asking myself why didn’t she throw him out. But who cares about realism? We LOVE Holmes just as he is, flaws, quirks, peculiarities, and all.]
Even the current book du jour–THE BOOK THIEF–which is pretty darn mainstream and literary–has vivid characters. Death is its narrator and the book features a little girl who is struggling to learn to read while stealing books ordered burned by the Nazis. A realistic character wouldn’t be defying a Nazi edict. She would be staying home, helping with the laundry, and doing exactly as she was told.
Characters have to be exaggerated in order to ignite readers’ imaginations.
Whether it’s a little boy who mysteriously eludes destruction by the evil Voldemort, or the three musketeers cheerfully taking on Cardinal Richelieu’s guards despite being outnumbered, or Eliza Bennett refusing to dance with the handsome and fantastically wealthy Mr. Darcy … these characters capture us and enchant us because they are boldly drawn and anything but realistic.
The desire to avoid the bold, seemingly unnatural character is understandable. It’s also fatal to a story’s success.
Quiet nonentities go flat on the page. They scan as B-O-R-I-N-G. They’re too careful, too shy, too prudent to move the story forward. This type would be the hobbit that stays home, unlike Bilbo Baggins.
I happen to be an introvert. Over the years, I have forced myself to be able to mingle in a crowd, to socialize, to lecture, and to interact, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. At the end of such occasions, I’m usually drained. My first instinct, whenever I’m invited to any public function, is to refuse the invitation.
Beyond that, in real life, I avoid confrontations. I don’t like to get into arguments. I don’t like to witness conflict of any kind. Ugly or angry behavior stresses me.
That’s my real nature.
But when I write, I recognize that my characters are NOT me. They cannot live or survive in their story world if they are shy, avoid social interaction, or elude conflict.
Their functions and responsibilities as fictional characters are far different from mine because I am a real person in a real world.
The character must not be built or evaluated on a real-world model.
The character must instead fit a fictional model and do what the story requires of him.
Stories–particularly genre fiction–are not realistic. They are entertainment, and they are structured in certain ways to fulfill that function.
That’s why fictional characters need to be exaggerated into creatures that are weird or wild or zany or colorful or predatory or just more darned courageous than anyone else.
They aren’t–and never will be–real.
They’re not–and shouldn’t be–intended to be real.
Make them as bold as you can, and as vivid as you dare.
And then push them a little farther out there … way past your comfort zone.
Just ask Janet Evanovich, who creates old ladies who carry Glocks strapped to their walkers and monkeys that escape research laboratories wearing little hats made from aluminum foil.
Silly? You bet.
And she laughs all the way to the bank.