People Just Don’t Do That

Every author straddles the line between realism and fantasy. In order to give a character depth, you’re better off staying close to your heart. What you feel strongly about communicates to the reader. When a writer strays too far into a personality he is only trying to simulate, the results can seem contrived.

This adherence to truth, however, can lead an author into the trap of being too common. If all fictional police detectives acted the way real detectives do, crime fiction would be a pretty dull world. If all therapists confined themselves to the limits set in their training, psychological suspense would be humdrum. Note that these are fairly exciting professions. What happens when an overworked banker with two kids sticks to her realistic routine? Two big yawns. 

As an editor, I’d like to point out an obstacle that many authors, both fledgling and experienced, have without even realizing it. That is: playing it safe. You want the action to be realistic, but that can also be a way of hiding from the reader. When I suggest to an author that his characters be outrageous, I also mean the author has to throw off the chains that everyday life imposes on us. You too need to be outrageous, to write stuff you’d never do in a million years. I’m reading T. C. Boyle’s short story “Balto” right now, and the lead character not only shares two bottles of wine with his lover for lunch, he then orders cognac. The reader knows that nothing good can come of such unseemly behavior. As a result, we’re intrigued. We want to find out what’s going to happen.

People can do anything you like in a story as long as you back it up with setup material and then dwell in the action to a depth that it seems ordinary—according to its own bizarre logic. But you have to commit to going for broke. If the stuff that pours out seems too outlandish, you can always rein it in afterward. But try to go extreme first, then judge.

Exercise: Review your manuscript for any scenes that strike you as rather dull. Maybe the scene should be struck altogether. But you should also consider if one of the characters could adopt an extreme attitude toward the subject. You might want to set her up before the scene so that she enters it on fire with anger—and she says things she later regrets. If you have a lot of scenes like this, it may be time to make her more eccentric on page 1.

“I put on such a good show, the story is outrageous, and people don't want to hear that I'm basically a reasonable human being. As long as it continues to get me print, I'll continue to perform in an exuberant manner.” 
—James Ellroy

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine 

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