Monday, February 23, 2009

Extreme Characters

By Cricket McRae

One of my writing teachers spent an entire lecture extolling the virtues of extreme characters. According to her, readers respond to and indeed expect protagonists to be extraordinary in at least one major way. Readers want their fictional heroes (and heroines, of course) bigger and better than they are.They want to aspire to be them.

Is this actually true?

Well, my favorite Star Trek series (with a tip of my hat to the original since, in addition to being a geek, I'm a nostalgic sort) is Deep Space Nine because everyone is a freakin' super hero: the Prophet, who's a god to an entire culture; a trill who's practically immortal as it moves from host to host, retaining all their memories; a shape changer; and a doctor genetically enhanced to be intellectually and physically superior (not to mention he's painfully cute). That series even had Nurse Ratched playing an evil priestess.

Speaking of Nurse Ratched, if you have an extreme protagonist, like, say, R. P. McMurphy, you'd better have an antagonist who's up to snuff. Loiuse Fletcher certainly gave Jack Nicholson a run for his money in Cuckoo's Nest.

Which, because One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest won five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Actor, brings us around to the subject of Oscars. See how I did that?

I actually watched them last night, and I fall into that category of folks who have fallen off in their appreciation of the Oscar ceremonies. It was gratifying to see people who had worked very hard awarded notice by their peers. And I'm glad good movies are still being made, and that people are going to see them.

But back to extreme characters: mine aren't.

I was just playing around with the idea of Sophie Mae Reynolds, small town soap maker and amateur sleuth, when I was taking that writing class. My instructor was very frustrated by how very ordinary I was willing to make my main character.

"You're planning a series with her in it? It'll never work."

"Um, have you ever read a cozy?"

"I don't know."

"Agatha Christie? Dorothy Sayers?"

"Huh uh."

"The characters in those books are strong, but not extraordinary in the ways you're talking about. They're ordinary people with personality and curiosity thrown into extraordinary circumstances."

"I see. Well, couldn't you give her a prosthetic leg or something?"

Anyway. Contemporary cozies may mention sex, allow a little swearing, and admit there are such things as extramarital affairs, suicide, depression and a level of stupidity in the world that is sometimes, if you cock your head just right, amusing. But overall, they are rather gentle reads.

Often times readers love a character because she (or he) is very much like them, foibles and all. We don't necessarily aspire to be the characters, we just want to have them over for dinner.

Which is a remarkably sloppy segue into my news that the third Home Crafting Mystery, Spin a Wicked Web, is supposed to be released in March, but I was in Barnes & Noble yesterday and saw a nice pile of them already displayed. Also, I've learned Sophie Mae will be able to continue her antics in a fourth book, currently scheduled for release about this time next year. It's tentatively titled Something Borrowed, Something Bleu, and features artisan cheese making.

Are your characters extreme? Or just the circumstances in which they find themselves? Oh, and any comments about the Oscars?


Jessica Lourey said...

That post has me smiling, Cricket. I don't know if it's because of its meth-addict rambling or because I followed every lick of it.

First, yay that your next book is already out! That is such an exciting time. I haven't had a book out since last June and I'm nostalgic for the rush, which I won't have again until September. Congrats also on signing up for a fourth in the series.

As to extreme characters, I much prefer an ordinary character who rises to extreme challenges, and I think it takes more skill to write that character and keep her interesting. Finding the superhero within is harder than strapping a cape on the person to begin with.

p.s. I'm a Star Trek: Next Generation gal. Is it because all the characters were mundane? Even the mind-reading counselor Deanna Troi was pretty blue-collar: "I sense you're sad," she'd say to the crying Klingon.

G.M. Malliet said...

Congratulations on Spin a Wicked Web's being out (wicked title, by the way). And on the 4th book (also love that title).

I stayed up to watch the Oscars, which is rare. I thought the show moved along at a nice pace - the critics didn't seem to like the dance numbers much but I did. (People dancing up and down stairs--how do they do it, without even looking down?)

Steve Martin was great with "Sarah Palin."

I picked most of the winners, too (I did want Meryl Streep to win for her scary nun role, but Blanchette seemed to be hands-down favorite).

Keith Raffel said...

Cricket, Congrats on the book being out! And even more on the next one. Terrific.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Congrats, Cricket, on your new book!

As for protagonists, I get letters all the time from readers saying they love my Odelia Grey character because she's so much like them and they can relate to her.

Hooray for the ordinary who rise to become extraordinary!