Regular RU contributor, Ruth Harris, talks about creating memorable (but not necessarily likeable) characters and how they can pull you out of the weeds and add dimension to your story.
Welcome back, Ruth!
Scene stealers are the characters who go their own way, do their own thing and don’t give a damn about your plans or your outline. They bust in and take over and they will give your story sizzle and zip and make it pulse and throb with energy (and sex appeal).
Scene stealers come in different flavors: They can be male or female, good guys/gals or bad guys/gals, main characters or supporting characters.
James Bond, the suave, sexy, sophisticated, super-spy, broke the mold of the conventional, handsome leading men of the 1950s. Bond, James Bond, first appeared in the novel, Casino Royale, published in 1952.
He endured over several decades and even into a new century. He is brash, a rule breaker, a gourmet, a drinker, a gambler and he always gets the girl—and the villain and saves the world from destruction.
Realistic? No. Memorable? Yes.
Hannibal Lector, the creepy psychiatrist in Silence of the Lambs isn’t even the main character. In fact, when I reread the book and saw the movie again, I was surprised at how few scenes he was in. Hannibal The Cannibal is an example of the unforgettable supporting character who propels the plot forward and becomes the nemesis young FBI agent Clarice Starling must confront to solve the case.
Jack Reacher, the protagonist of Lee Child’s best selling series of almost twenty novels, is a West Point grad, an ex-military cop, a loner, a drifter, a hitchhiker, a caffeine addict. He travels light, carries only a foldable toothbrush, an out of date passport and a debit card. He has no steady job, is mathematically inclined, a superb shot and fights not to win but to “piss on the other guy’s grave.”
Realistic? Of course not. Unforgettable? Absolutely.
Tony Soprano, main character of the TV series named after him, must cope with two families: a conventional one and a criminal one. He is violent, sociopathic, brutal, an unfaithful husband, a good family man and father who tries to conceal his criminal life from his children. He suffers panic attacks and depression, has a psychiatrist, a vicious mother, a murderous, money-hungry sister. He murders, steals, cheats as he heads up his fractious and untrustworthy crew.
Likeable? No. Lovable? Definitely not. But do we root for him? Do we want to see what he does next? Of course.
Female characters can be just as unlikable, just as Over The Top, just as memorable.
Jane Tennison, the DI in television’s Prime Suspect, played by Helen Mirren, is a “woman of a certain age” as they say in France. Her wrinkles show, her love life is on the gritty side, she drinks too much and looks it, she is flinty—not flirtatious. The men she works with give her a hard time and she isn’t shy about pushing back.
But do you remember her? Do you want her on your side? Of course you do.
Cable television, always willing to break molds, has come up with a memorable female main character, Carrie Mathison, a bi-polar CIA agent. In Homeland, she is single, childless, unstable and has sex with the suspected terrorist she is supposed to catch. She is so wrong in all the right ways!
Mrs. Danvers, the spooky housekeeper in Rebecca, is devoted to her dead employer, the first Mrs. Maxim de Winter. She is steely, intimidating, manipulative and willing to drive the second Mrs. DeWinter to suicide. What’s not to like?
Glenn Close, the murderous seductress in Fatal Attraction has a responsible job as a book editor—and a dangerous secret life. She lives alone, has no family we are aware of, is predatory and psychopathically determined to get what she wants—another woman’s husband. A character like her is a writer’s best friend.
Judi Dench, as M, is the head of MI6 and James Bond’s boss. She is another woman “of a certain age,” blunt, forceful, unmarried as far as we know although in one scene it is clear she is sleeping with a male companion. She does not flinch from ordering JB around and dressing him down when he needs reining in.
I will also mention Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cockoo’s Nest, who employs humiliation and unpleasant medical treatments to control her patients. Add Annie Wilkes, another nurse, in Stephen King’s Misery, who cuts off her favorite writer’s foot with an axe and cauterizes the wound with a blowtorch. I can’t omit Mad Man’s Don Draper, the divorced ad man with a drinking problem, a woman problem and more family problems than Hamlet.
My point is that the “impossible,” “unbelievable,” “over the top” character can—and will—do the shocking, the unexpected and, as a consequence, will give your story an immediate jolt of energy and add sizzle and wow! plot twists. He or she will live in the “wrong” neighborhood and have sex with the “wrong” partners. He or she can be adulterous, murderous, will drink too much, be unemployed and/or more than half crazy.
What more can a writer want?
He or she will never do the expected or the conventional: they can be stubborn, pathological, repellent, murderous but they can—and will—rescue you from the plot blahs and bail you out of an impossible situation.
I know this because a holy terror named Charlotte Howard propelled THE CHANEL CAPER forward. She is Blake’s (the protag & narrator) worst nightmare, a relic of the 1980’s and a Martha Stewart wannabe trying to make a come-back.
Here’s our first meeting with Charlotte:
These days Charlotte Howard dressed to overkill.”She wore a pin-striped gabardine suit of razor-sharp cut (Dolce & Gabbana? Versace? I could only guess. Julia would know for sure.) with the shortest, tightest micro-mini I had ever seen. The plunging V of her jacket revealed an expanse of bare skin and a glimpse of a red lace balconette bra. The Jackie Kennedy bouffant I recalled from the photo on her book jacket had been replaced by a messy-on-purpose $800 Sally Hershberger rock-n-roll bob.
As I crossed the open floor to confront her, I saw that the combination of rigid diets, plastic surgery and über-white brite-smile teeth made her seem older than she really was. Moving even closer, I was assaulted by a weapons-grade blast of tuberose-drenched Fracas and heard her reprimand her two helpers.
“@✩#!!,” Charlotte snarled, rattling her stack of gold bracelets and taking a menacing step toward them. I wondered what godforsaken Third World country they’d escaped hoping to find the blessings of freedom and democracy (or maybe just the chance to make a halfway decent living) only to end up face-to-face with the Dowager Queen of Gracious Living.
“@✩#!!,” Charlotte repeated, hurling another potato to the floor. “I have got to have Purple Peruvians. They’re crucial to my vision—”
Let your imagination go wild. The OTT character can—and will—provide someone all the other characters will have to cope with and, in the process, make your book come alive.
Have you created larger-than-life, over-the-top characters in your stories? Who are some of your favorite OTT characters?
Handsome Hansel returns on Wednesday, July 10th.
Here’s a blurb on Ruth’s latest, THE CHANEL CAPER.
JAMES BOND MEETS NORA EPHRON. OR IS IT THE OTHER WAY AROUND?
Blake Weston is a smart, savvy, no BS, 56-year-old Nora Ephron-like New Yorker. Her DH, Ralph Marino, is a très James Bond ex-cop & head of security for a large international corporation.
As the book opens, Ralph is about to hit the Big Six O and he’s not happy about it. Not that Blake is exactly thrilled about the prospect, either. Especially now that she suspects Ralph might be cheating on her with Melanie Bradshaw, a flak-jacket-wearing, gung ho war zone correspondent with a humongo pair of 36 Double D’s. Blake and Ralph survived (barely) the seven year itch but she wonders why no one warned her about the twenty-seven year itch.
Chick Lit for chicks who weren’t born yesterday, The Chanel Caper, is a romcom mystery-thriller. The story is about the ups and downs of long-term relationships and addresses two of the most important questions of our time: 1) Is there sex after marriage? 2) Is sixty the new forty?
Bio: Ruth Harris is a New York Times bestselling author whose books (with Random House, Simon & Schuster, and St.Martin’s Press) have sold millions of copies in hardcover and paperback, been translated into 19 languages, published in 25 countries and selected by the Literary Guild and Book-of-the-Month Club.
Ruth started out in publishing right after she graduated from college. Her first job was as secretary to a textbook editor, an unpromising start if there ever was one, but she was soon promoted to copyediting—much more interesting.
She’s been a copywriter, assistant editor, editor, editor-in-chief and, eventually, publisher at Kensington.
- James Bond Meets Nora Ephron. Or Is It The Other Way Around?
- The Songs We Sang, The Clothes We Wore, The Way We Made Love—And The Books We Write with Ruth Harris
- How To Turn Real Life Into Bestselling Fiction with Ruth Harris
- Weekly Lecture Schedule: April 1 – April 5, 2013
- Five Sex Thrills No One Talks About with Ruth Harris