The other day, I read a review on a new novel, The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick, author of The Silver Linings Playbook. The reviewer, Alicia Bessette, describes the novel as a coming-of-age story with "a wonderfully weird cast." Among them is the protagonist, Bartholomew, a man grieving for his mother, who died of a "squid-like brain cancer."
The other characters include "Father McNamee, a bipolar ex-priest who spends most of his time drinking and/or praying; Max, a guy grieving over the death of his cat; Max's sister, who is haunted by a painful past and who is the object of Bartholomew's affection; and Bartholomew's grief counselor, Wendy, who despite all her self-empowerment advice is involved with a violent man."
According to Bessett, it's impossible not to love most of these deeply flawed characters.
The book already sounds like a winner to me. Why? Because these characters are bizarre, intriguing and unexpected. They are extreme—as are the most memorable characters in fiction, from Captain Ahab to Hannibal Lecter to any character in a Dickens' novel.
If I could teach you one thing on this website, it would be to populate your book with extreme but believable people. You’ll find they not only linger in a reader’s mind, but they give your story energy and heighten your own interest in writing it. We love extreme people in real life. How many times have you heard someone say with admiration, “She’s such a character”? So, what is an extreme character? It's a person who does things an ordinary person won’t do.
Ask yourself, “Does my character do something I wouldn’t have the passion or courage to do?” Would you risk your life chasing a white whale or endure pain and possibly death rescuing someone you’ve never met before?
How do you go about creating an extreme character? Do you add an extra appendage or two, maybe a hump on the protagonist’s back or an eleventh finger? Will that put life in your novel? Not necessarily.
Building an extreme character is not a matter of tacking on peculiarities the way you would hang decorations on a Christmas tree. You want a fictional person readers can relate to, not a cartoon — unless your intentions are comedic. If you want your readers to believe in your protagonist, his deformity, affliction or peculiarity must be the driving force in your story.
Ask yourself if your characters have extreme qualities. What do they do that the ordinary person won’t do? How hard will they struggle to get what they want? Will the reader understand the motivations behind their actions? You must be able to answer those questions for all your characters.
In my next blog, I'll give you some tips on how to create your own fascinating cast of fictional people.