Advanced Storytelling


Building Characters

Read the following excerpt from the book Writing Novels That Sell, by James Bickham. (pp. 136–139).

Exaggeration is the first step toward vivid characters.

We talked about this much earlier. But it is so important. Time after time I have been confronted by new writers whose novels were peopled with characters who were flat, dull, unclear, uninspiring, uninteresting, and plain old boring. Time after time I have confronted such writers with the bad news: "Your characters simply aren't interesting and realistic enough to engage a reader."

Almost invariably the writer has looked shocked and replied, "But how can that be? These characters are all real people I know!"

This leads to the obvious conclusion about story people that we mentioned much earlier in this book, in our overview: Good characters are not real people; they are better than real people.

They are exaggerated.

They are more goal-oriented.

They are more consistent, with tricks used to make them appear complex.

They are engaged in more dramatic circumstances than most of us ever encounter in day-to-day living.

They are closer to symbol, myth and metaphor—the stuff that makes religion sometimes uplift, and makes the best literature approach the status of religious experience.

So in both this chapter and the next we'll look at some fundamental techniques and ideas that may help you build characters who are bigger and better than life. For nothing less will do. And if you detect a repetition of advice given earlier in other contexts, maybe you will get an insight into how every technique fits with every other—how the richly textured fabric becomes a whole.

Earlier I explained that fictional characters must be bigger than life—broadly exaggerated in many respects—so that the reader, viewing them as through a smoked glass, can see their salient characteristics. This is fundamental. The real person, translated to paper with total fidelity, will never be seen in the reader's imagination as vivid, clear and unforgettable. So the wise novelist makes the loyal character almost unbelievably loyal, the cruel character horribly cruel, the witty character outrageously brilliant, and so on. Great fictional persons stand on the brink of caricature. And since they are so exaggerated and almost outrageous, the reader sees them through the veil of the reading process as lifelike.

Want a textbook example of exaggeration in character? Go back to the classics, if you wish. There is not better teacher of this technique than Charles Dickens in one of his best works, Great Expectations.

If you happen to go too far in exaggerating in your own work, really making your story person too much of a good thing, it is usually possible to tone that character down when the error is pointed out to you. But if you err in the opposite direction, and get far into your book with flat or insipid story people, it's much harder to beef them up. So as you write, it's wise to overstate your story people in the early going. You can always tone them down later if necessary, and chances are good that they may end up just right anyway.

Another advantage to exaggeration of your characters as you write is the fact that the act of exaggeration may stimulate your own imagination in unexpected and wonderful ways.

Many years ago I was writing a western novel that worried me. Halfway through the book, its pace and my own interest seemed to be lagging. Having noticed (and logged the observation in my journal) that my interest in a novel often perked up when a new character came onstage, I decided to introduce a new story person solely for the purpose of adding zest to the tale.

Adding a major character more than halfway through a novel isn't recommended procedure. But I was desperate. So, throwing caution to the winds, I had my marshal riding along a ravine, hearing a great commotion on the far side of the hill, and looking to the hilltop to spy a clamorously exaggerated character.

He was well over six feet tall, that cowboy up there, astraddle a red roan horse and unsteady in the saddle. He was wearing red pants, green shirt, yellow vest, a blue 10-gallon hat, lizard boots with the rowels of his big silver spurs painted purple, and there were crossed shellbelts over his chest. As my marshal stared in disbelief, the cowboy up there tumbled out of his saddle, and he and the horse came down the hill A over T to crash to a halt in a dusty pile right at the marshal's feet.

An ordinary person would have been killed. But my new character jumped up laughing, and a pint bottle fell out of one of his back pockets. He was built like a wedge, with flaring wide ears, carrot-colored hair, and an alarming gap in his face where two of his front teeth should have been. He had a big Colt strapped on, and a stick of dynamite in the top of one of his boots. Nobody had ever been like this guy.

After getting over my inbred English department embarrassment at having created such an exaggeration, I found myself chuckling at this weirdo. He started talking, and he was totally outrageous. My interest in him—and the novel—soared. It was a struggle the rest of the way to prevent his taking over the story entirely.

I was still working as a student with Dwight V. Swain when this happened. I took pages of the novel to him for critique. I can still see him sitting up straighter behind his desk when my new character appeared, then beginning to read more intently, then starting to chuckle.

"Bickham," he chortled, slapping the pages with the back of his hand, "this is great. This is crude. Great barnbrush strokes. This works. We may get you over your experiences in the English department yet!"

That novel sold. My character still fascinated me. I decided to try a comic western starring him. When that one was submitted, Tod Dardis at Berkley Medallion wrote to accept the book for publication, and suggested a series about him!

That was how Wildcat O'Shea was born, and eventually he starred in fourteen novels. I still remember him with great fondness. No, he was not great literature. But he brought me, and a lot of readers, fun and pleasure.

And he taught me that the key to characterization is exaggeration, not only for the reader but as a goad to the writer's imagination.

Try it!


Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.