As we work our way through Orson Scott Card’s Characters & Viewpoint, we turn our attention to the types of characters available to novelists today. Let’s first look at the hero and the common man.
The hero and the common man
Card discusses Northrup Frye’s hypothesis on two types of characters: Realistic and Romantic. Says Card:
- At first, heroes become more and more Romanic not in the "love" sense of the word, but (idealized, extraordinary, exotic, magnificent) until finally they become so overblown and so cliched that we cease to believe in or care about them. In reaction, the pendulum swings the other way, and our fictional heroes become Realistic—common, plain people, living lives that are well within the experiences of the reader. However, these Realistic heroes quickly come boring because people who live lives no different from our own are not terribly interesting to read about—or to write about. So storytellers almost immediately begin making their heroes just a little out of the ordinary, so that readers will again by fascinated—and the Romantic hero is in the saddle again.
Card turns Frye’s hypothesis sideways and proclaims you must create characters who are both Realistic and Romantic. Your characters must be believable and extraordinary in certain ways to get your readers’ attention. Each author will decide how much of the Realistic and Romantic to include in their characters, which is how characters become original. This, according to Card, is how you find your readership: your readers will be those who gravitate towards the amount of Romantic and Realistic you put into your characters.
Consider how writers nowadays will pull you in with a character who appears just like you and me. He or she is everyman; we could all easily steps into those shoes. But when the going gets tough, our protagonist can accomplish or achieve some pretty amazing things. She uses either intelligence, perseverance, hard work, or a bit of something else that’s just out of reach. She becomes just a bit extraordinary.
Readers want a believable protagonist who has something extra, a power or gift, that ordinary people don't. We still want our protagonists to be better than we are at something. Readers want to discover a bit of extraordinary in their characters that lifts them up and gives them a peek of something more. If you don’t give readers a reason to feel "awe" by the end of your story, you’ll lose them.
- Often when you find yourself blocked—when you can’t bring yourself to start or continue a story—the reason is that you have forgotten or have not yet discovered what is extraordinary about your main character.
The comic character
The comic character must be a balance between a sense of disbelief and belief because he or she usually suffers in some way. Think about the old Abbott and Costello movies. Someone was always getting hurt. What made it funny was our sense of something being wrong or "other" about the character. It made it easier for us to find his situation funny rather than empathize with him.
Your lightheartedness with your comic character must suspend your readers’ belief in him or her just enough to let them laugh at the predicament instead of feeling sorry for them. You can accomplish this a few different ways:
Exaggeration lets you describe the scene, circumstances, or situation with just the right amount of excess to make it comic. Say you write about a situation where your character accidentally hit his hand with a hammer and stated it "swelled up like a boxing glove." You’ve exaggerated a bit to make the situation funny, but don't overdo the exaggeration. Too much, and the effect is lost.
Downplay the scene: take a serious situation, downplay its gravity or potential for harm, and it comes across as comic relief. Let’s say a vicious dog corners your character. She tells the dog, "I’m not who you think I am. I’m your friend, not someone you would want to bite. Here, I have a nice T-Bone in my backpack just for you."
Eccentricity lets you craft a character with just the right amount of oddness that makes readers laugh, but not enough to make them care. The key is to find the balance in an oddness that amuses readers versus too much that makes the character thoroughly unbelievable or a monstrosity.
The serious character
How do you make readers care about your serious character? By adding relevant, thought-provoking details about him or her. Use these devices to keep readers engaged, believing, and interested in your character right up to the denouement.
Elaborate on motive
Let’s say your story has a protagonist presented as a virtuous woman in the beginning. We see through dialogue, thoughts, and her written journal that she loves her husband unconditionally.
As the story progresses, however, things in her past become known making us reconsider her motives. Is she really virtuous or is it an act?
When you keep revealing details and elaborating on your main character’s motive, you continue to draw readers in and keep them wondering about your serious character.
Reveal some attitude
How your character responds to other characters and situations helps readers discover more details about her. Let’s look at a quick example:
- "It was a long day," he said. She looked at him sharply. Did he know what she’d done or was he just blowing off steam?
- "It was a long day," he said. Sure, she thought. I’m the one stuck here with 7 kids all under the age of 5. What does he know about long days?
- "It was a long day," he said. She was relieved to see him. It didn’t matter how tired he was, she would show him how much he meant to her.
Give them a past
Every character comes from somewhere. They have a family, friends, mentors, teachers, bullies, and other people who played a part in who they’ve become. Leak out tidbits of your character’s past through flashbacks, memories, or a quick reference to something that happened before.
Imply at their past
Your main characters shrinks back from someone offering a hand to help her up. Readers will get a sense that something bad happened in the past to make her mistrust others offering help.
You can also reveal something about a character’s past through their habits. Say, for example, your character looks left before stepping out into a London street, almost getting hit in the process. She does so because that’s the direction one looks on New York City streets.
As Card writes in Characters & Viewpoints:
- As a general rule, the more bizarre and unbelievable the character’s behavior and the more important it is to the story, the earlier in the story you have to begin justifying it and the more time you’ll need to spend to make it believable.
Whatever type of character you’re writing, find the balance between Realistic and Romantic, comedic or serious, and make them believable.