This is one of my favorite posts. It was originally published on March 9, 2010 as part of a blog chain (which seems to be defunct now, alas). The only thing I've changed is I embedded a different video of "Holding out for a Hero." Also, since I wrote this post, Across Two Universes has been published as Twinned Universes, and "Move Over Ms. L." has been published as Lyon's Legacy.
Yep, the Blog Chain post is making its first appearance on my blog this month. Eric posed this question:
Do you create characters that are larger-than-life or are your characters more like the average Joe?
discussion purposes, let's use his definition of "larger-than-life" as
meaning exceptionally talented. It doesn't have to be a supernatural
talent--an Olympic athlete would be larger-than-life.)
In his book Characters and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card discusses how these two types of characters go in and out of fashion. Most of my esteemed fellow Blog Chainers, from Eric to Kate,
have been on the side of the average Joe or Jane. I think some of this
is due to genre. A few people admit their characters have a slight
supernatural twist, but for the most part, larger-than-life characters
are considered too perfect, too hard to relate to, or even too cliched.
We're at the end of the chain now, and there's only one person left to
champion the champions: a short, overweight, almost-middle-aged
speculative fiction writer. In other words, me.
Let's cue some music for our discussion:
of my protagonists have had some extraordinary gift. My first two
books featured magicians, as does my short story "A Reptile at the
Reunion." My NaNoWriMo book from 2007 had a pair of shapeshifting sisters. Paul, the hero of Across Two Universes,
lives in a science fiction universe, but he has a "quantum quirk" of
his own. The only protagonist who might be considered an "ordinary Jane"
is Paul's mother, Joanna, in my novella "Move Over Ms. L." So, how do I
avoid the previously mentioned pitfalls of larger-than-life
First of all, I don't think a
larger-than-life character is necessarily perfect--or should be. Many
legendary characters had flaws as big as their virtues. Hercules was very strong, but he wasn't above using dirty tricks in battle. Lancelot was in love with his liege's
wife. Modern-day larger-than-life athletes like Michael Phelps and
Tiger Woods have shown what I'll call lapses of judgment. Even my
beloved Beatles have done drugs, had affairs, made poor business
decisions, and otherwise proved they're not perfect. Having an
extraordinary talent doesn't mean you're invincible either; just look at
Achilles and Samson.
I could go on, but the point I want to make is that the
larger-than-life characters may be good at what they do, but if they're
too good, then the story loses any suspense factor. Struggle is at the
heart of all stories, so your characters have to face challenges that
force them to stretch themselves. Heck, much of the time my characters
struggle just to get along with their allies!
concern writers have about writing larger-than-life characters is how
to make sure the average reader can relate to them. It's not as if most
of us turn into animals every full moon or perform magic and read
others' minds. Here, I think the key is to focus on emotions or
experiences that can be universal. Many larger-than-life characters in
speculative fiction face problems readers can relate to; for example,
Carrie Vaughn's werewolf Kitty has a mother dealing with cancer. A
classic Star Trek episode, "The Devil in the Dark,"
features an alien that's basically a sentient rock. Yet this creature
is also a mother trying to protect her young. How can any parent not
relate to that? If you can relate to a rock, magicians and other
larger-than-life characters ought to be easy.
whether or not larger-than-life characters are cliche, I think anything
can become one. It's not always easy to find a unique spin on a
subject, but it can be done.
Going back to Eric's
question, why do I prefer larger-than-life characters? Part of the
reason is escapism and wish fulfillment. I live in Midwestern suburbia,
and I like taking mental breaks from it with my fiction. Having
high-powered characters means you can demand more of them; they buy you
a seat at the high-stakes plot table. But there are other reasons for
enjoying larger-than-life characters and speculative fiction. By
looking at the extremes of the human condition (or even examining
non-humans), we can learn something about the ordinary parts too. And
while ordinary characters in extraordinary situations can do
astonishing things, extraordinary people can inspire us to transcend
the commonplace and reach for something we never thought possible. Our
future depends on how far we can see and our drive to try new things.
If we work at it, what was once considered extreme or even impossible
can become part of our mundane reality.