What makes a character believable? How can we create a person for our stories that is way off-center, all the while making him or her someone who the reader could actually buy?
Are there people out there who would kill you for your shoes? People who would take any life for $5? Sure. There probably aren’t as many as the movie companies would have us believe… but I’d say there are a lot more of them than we would like to believe. The really scary thing is you might know one.
Not all sociopaths foam at the mouth, have furtive eyes, sweat profusely on a cold day, or talk to themselves. How often have we heard during the mop-up of a horrendous murder case that the perpetrator was “so nice, so quiet. He wouldn’t hurt a fly.” Perhaps he wouldn’t hurt a fly, but then, it was people he killed.
In some ways it is easier to create a murderer than someone who is intense and colorful in other, less lethal, ways. Think about “Pookie Adams“, the wonderfully odd character in John Treadwell Nichols “The Sterile Cuckoo“. If you know the story (hopefully from the book, not from the less than satisfying movie with Liza Minnelli). Pookie is intense, quirky, and if you think back, you probably knew someone like her back in the day. I know I did.
Can I tell you how to create an outrageous, yet believable character? Maybe. Maybe not. But I can certainly tell you what not to do.
Do not use the rule of opposites. If good is like this, do the opposite. If normal is like this… do the opposite. Rather look for minor differences in people you know and consider exaggerating them.
Habits, facial tics, trendy sayings or beliefs can work for you, but they cannot be the foundation of the outrageousness, they can only be one minor symptom. If you’ve read (at least) the first volume of the “Sword of Truth” by Terry Goodkind, you will know that arch-baddie, Darken Rhal has the odd, and rather off-putting habit of licking his fingertips and smoothing his eyebrows with his fingers. Odd, and for me more than a little disturbing, but that was not what made Darken Rhal the character he was. Nope. It was what he was after and what he was willing to do to get it.
Today’s challenge is something I come back to often. In a single paragraph, three or four sentences long, describe an outrageous, but ultimately human character. Give us an idea of how the character looks and acts, but most importantly—as with all successful characters—display your knowledge of what the character wants.
Tough one? Yes, but doable, and I promise… quite useful.