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!


Anonymous said...

Fantastic post, Debbie.

My favorite example is also from Anne Tyler: of the family that would come home from the grocery store and put everything in to the pantry, arranged alphabetically. I've never forgotten that.

Maybe one reason is that it felt familiar. I come from a whole family -- indeed a heritage -- of odd people. I write about them sometimes (not by name, though.) In fact, the editor, Andy McGuire, who did such a wonderful job on Latter-day Cipher reminded me that not everybody has to be quirky. However, in my experience, people who wear their belts with the writing upside down or bark like a dog or shudder before speaking are, well... family.

Debbie, I'm sure you and the other NM gals will agree that one of the major failings of manuscripts submitted to us for our Audience with an Agent contest was just what you identified -- the characters weren't interesting. They didn't have to be weird, but unless the reader felt some compelling reason to want to get to know them better, the whole manuscript was lusterless.

--Latayne C Scott

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Unfortunately, I have to agree that was a problem in many of the manuscripts we received. Sol Stein said the eccentricities must "dominate the reader's first vision of them." As writers we need to work on getting that up front and not gradually feeding it to the readers who may or may not stick around to fall in love with the characters.

Lori Benton said...

After thinking on it, I have to say the characters that have touched me most deeply and stayed with me longest weren't what I'd call eccentric or quirky. They were ordinary folk placed into extraordinary circumstances, called upon to find the mettle, or creativity, or grace, or courage, or selflessness, or whatever admirable quality inside themselves to journey through those circumstances. Or they needed to surrender their will to God's. I'm thinking of Christy, Hadassah, Michael (from Redeeming Love), Brother Cadfael, Frodo and Sam (who were ordinary for Hobbits), Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. There are many others but those are most recognizable. And they are (most of them that I can think of) characters from historicals, fantasy, or mysteries. Perhaps this ordinary character/extraordinary circumstances scenario works better in those genres where the setting and story situation can hold their fair share of quirks?

Or maybe what I'm thinking of as quirky isn't what others are thinking of? I do like a character who is somehow different than the run-of-the-mill man or woman of her time and place, but it doesn't have to be outrageous or popping off the page. An otherwise ordinary character who makes a choice (big or small) that sets her apart from the crowd is enough to engage me, all other story and craft elements being equal. I'll wonder why, and expect the author eventually to reveal it.

Unknown said...

You must either write ordinary people in extraordinary situations, or extraordinary people in ordinary situations. I admit, however, that I tend to think that extraordinary people *create* extraordinary situations. I almost inevitably begin with the extraordinary person and discover that the situations will follow!

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I think eccentricities in fiction should be subtle, or understated. Something like a character carrying photos of his pets instead of his children in his wallet. It probably makes a statement about his relationships with his children and his pets. Maybe he has pictures of his pets on his wall. Or maybe he has ONLY pictures of his pets & none of his children on his wall. But that's pushing the eccentricity a bit.

Nicole said...

I love thrillers, mysteries, good suspense with romance thrown in for conflict. One of the most memorable characters in literature is the definitely quirky Bug Man (Nick Polchak) in Tim Downs' novels.

However, I'm with Lori on this one. The conflict in the lives of ordinary people in everyday life can be intimate and compelling. How many of us are in Special Forces or CIA operatives? I disagree that the majority of readers must find quirky, absurd, or tremendous "conflict on every page". I think many readers just want to be pulled into the story, and the enticements for that range from the quirky to the plain, from the subtle to the shouting.

I think, too, that today's writers moreso than readers have been programmed to expect certain types of writing results and are too accepting of certain trends. Bring on the beauty of variety in style, voice, format, and pace. Throw out restrictions and demands. But of course that won't happen anytime soon. ;)

Unknown said...

I think characters tied to a strong symbolic element are characters that stick with us.
Larger than life doesn't have to mean Batman or the crazy aunts poisoning men in Arsenic and Old Lace, but they have some element that ties them to a larger issue, problem, power, or hope.

These symbols define characters and move the plot along in ways that are interesting, compelling, and larger than life - even in stories that are human interest, or about the smaller things in life.

Anonymous said...

Nicole, I LOVE the Bug Man series. Took a while before I ordered the first book, thinking it wasn't for me. But I just ordered #4 & 5. Love these books, love the character.

word verification: andspa. Need I say more?

Kathleen Popa said...

I think ordinary people are extraordinary, if you look deep enough. Most people conform on the surface with their peers, even if their peers are non-conformists. But beneath that, on the level they share with few others, they are unique. God bless the writer who loves that uniqueness, who finds it out and puts it on the page.

Hobbits were ordinary to an extent that made them eccentric, openly frowning on those who went seeking adventures, holding as a high virtue the love of ale and food and gardening. "It is no small thing to celebrate an ordinary life."

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Katy, I think your comments about the hobbits is a perfect example of what Sol Stein meant. Hobbits were considered uninteresting, ordinary folk to the rest of Middle Earth, but still eccentric. :~)

Carla Gade said...

Cathy Harie Hake and Deeanne Gist are great at creating unusual characters. Mary Connelly was recently discussing quirks and how that helps define the characters - that every character needs one, at least one.

Mark Zamen said...

Internal conflict can make for some very distinctive and memorable characters, especially if the protagonist is a real person. An example of this may be seen within the pages of my recently released biographical novel, Broken Saint. It is based on my forty-year friendship with a gay, bipolar, Mormon man, and chronicles his internal and external struggles as he battles for stability and acceptance (of himself and by others). More information is available at www.eloquentbooks.com/BrokenSaint.html.

Mark Zamen, author

Latayne C Scott said...

Mark, I went to your book's site and checked it out. What a fascinating premise -- and undoubtedly a fascinating, though difficult, person to know.

I've put your book on my TBR (to be read) list.....