Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Perfectly Ordinary Characters
I once attended a seminar taught by a Hollywood screenwriter who said that her company was looking for Christian stories, but that, unfortunately, Christian writers usually wrote small stories about small characters. The conflict was generally internal and the story slow on action. Hollywood was looking for big stories with big characters. Small characters and small stories generally do not sell movie tickets or TV pilots.
I was reminded of this while revisiting one of my favorite how-to books, Stein on Writing by Sol Stein. He makes a very sobering statement: "I have seen talented writers hurt their chances of publication because they persist in writing about "perfectly ordinary people"...characters who are seemingly no different from the run of people we meet who do not seem in any way distinctive." He goes on to say that readers do not want to meet or read about the same boring people they know in real life. But what does it take to make characters extraordinary? Since as Christians we strive to insinuate God's truth into our world, shouldn't our characters be as real as we can possibly make them? And the real people that I know are pretty...normal. Maybe predictable. Even boring. (Did I say that out loud?) But come to think of it, while I love them, I wouldn't necessarily want to read about them.
How many times have you tossed aside a book after reading the first chapter or paragraph, because of an uninteresting hero/heroine? You saw a predictable character with no spark of anything that would make you want to follow them around for awhile. To remedy this in our own writing, Mr. Stein points out that, for the most effective characters, "their eccentricities dominate the reader's first vision of them." A great example would be the opening scene of Leif Enger's Peace Like a River when his father performs a miracle at his birth, commanding him to breathe. It is one miracle among many, we find. The dysfunctional family in Anne Tyler's book, The Accidental Tourist, refuse to answer their house phone because it could be bad news. At this point, I would like to point out that Anne Tyler's stories are about everyday people with lots of internal conflict, but they all have wonderful defining traits and quirks that make them memorable. The dog trainer in this story is another superb example.
So, the challenge is to give our characters some defining, eccentric characteristics that reveal something significant about them and also set them apart without presenting them as clownish or over-the-top. This requires that we know them so well that it seems only natural that this bit of information would manifest itself in that way and not seem contrived.
What characters do you remember due to some eccentric quality? What authors are especially good at accomplishing this? Do you have a character in your manuscript that displays an eccentric quality? We'd love to hear!