Advanced Storytelling


Exaggerate Your Characters

Read the following excerpt from the book Writing Novels That Sell, by James Bickham. (pp. 47–49)

A character is not a real person. Real people when rendered with total fidelity (faithfulness) on the paper are dull, unconvincing, and vague. A fictional character must, first of all, be a host of exaggerations.

Why? Readers are awfully good at some of the tasks we assume of them as devotees of fiction. But one of the hardest things we ask them to do is to take some symbols on a piece of paper, translate these symbols into words, process the words into meanings, and then sort out and react to both the denotation and connotation of those words (not to mention deep processing of secondary associations!). They must then take all this and imagine a person, believe the person exists in a make-believe world, accept the person as real, care about the person, worry about the person, and invest time in finding out what happens to that person—who doesn't really exist anywhere except in the imagination!

Readers understandably need help to do this. It's as if I were to introduce you to an actual person, but the two of you were separated by a very large pane of smoked glass. I could stand a real individual, in her normal clothing and makeup, on my side of the smoked pane. She would be real in every detail. You, however, trying to see her through the pane, would get only the vaguest, most shadowy and unconvincing perception. You wouldn't see her at all clearly.

What could I do?

In order to make you think you were seeing a real person, I would have to exaggerate her greatly: a bright orange dress and flourescent red shoes; chalking on her skin; great crimson slashmarks around her mouth; inky covering of her eyebrows and around her nose. And, if she were to talk (since it would be hard for you to hear, too), she would have to shout.

Your impression, seeing her through the glass, would be to perceive what now looked like a normal, credible person. You would say, "Great! What a real person this is!

When I use the word character in defining a story, we have this kind of exaggeration in mind. We also remember that characters combine tags and traits, find defintition through self-concept and goal selection, and so on.

We'll talk more about all these things later. The point to be made here, again, is that a character is not a real person, but a contrivance; a character is certainly not an accident based merely on accurate observation and factual transcription.

Further, when I say the word testing in my defintion, I am aware of what a test is all about. It's a confrontation, a crisis, a genuine trying out, and not just an idle stroll through an accidental afternoon. Tests are active, with give and take, and they have serious implications and detectable results, good or bad.

And what about the word conflict?

Many people have trouble with conflict. They spend their lives trying to avoid it. Conflict, for many, is always unpleasant and stressful. "Better to give up or avoid it," you might say.

Not in fiction!


Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.