Here’s a secret writing exercise I only recently learned: If you want characters to feel real for the reader, you have to hint they have the potential to be the opposite of what they appear. Wait, what? The opposite of what the character seems . . . wouldn’t that mean the character is acting out of character? Not exactly. Let me explain.
I had the opportunity to hear literary agent Donald Maass speak at a conference, and it was in listening to his talk on building strong characters that I discovered what I now refer to as the “opposite attracts” theory. According to Maass, there are 3 basic types of protagonists. While there are differences in labels, I call these protagonists types the Ordinary Joe (or Jane), the Larger than Life Heroine/Hero and the Misunderstood Character (or sometimes the Anti-Hero). And he talked about his approach to getting to know your protagonist by showing the opposite is possible.
So what does that mean? In getting to know a character, the first most obvious step would be to figure out who the character is, right? Wrong. Actually, Maass suggested the exact opposite. For each of the three types of protagonists, he said we should look at who the character could be, not necessarily who the character already is.
Ordinary Joe (or Jane) Character:
For the Ordinary Joe character, this means trying to figure out what makes this character inspiring, what pushes him to rise to the occasion. Instead of focusing on how “normal” or ordinary this character is, the writer needs to pinpoint this character’s ability to be extraordinary, even if it’s only in a small way. Sometimes all it takes is a little push, one button that you press to send your character out of inertia and make him or her respond. For example, remember the movie Back To The Future? The protagonist, Marty McFly, often resists getting into fights but all it takes is for somebody to call him “chicken” and he springs into action. With Ordinary Joe characters, you often have to find the equivalent of calling them “chicken,” that breaking point that makes your character go from ordinary to extraordinary.
Examples of Ordinary Joe (or Jane) Characters: Frodo, Dorothy from Wizard of OZ, Harry Potter
To make an Ordinary Joe character come to life, ask yourself the following questions:
- What would it take for this character to “rise to the occasion”?
- What kind of situation can I put this character in that would make him or her go above and beyond?
- What’s this character’s breaking point, that button you can press to make him or her take action?
Larger than Life Heroine/Hero:
With the Heroine/Hero, the goal is a bit different. Sure, this character is extraordinary–maybe even superhuman–but what makes him or her normal? How can the writer show us a hint of this character’s humanity? It’s up to the writer to give the Heroine/Hero character a soft spot, something that brings him or her down from the pedestal and lets the reader think: “I can relate to that.” Movie-makers call this the pet-the-dog moment. The pet-the-dog moment is where the tough guy protagonist pets a stray dog in the alley, smiles and says “Better get outta here, little Fella. There’s gonna be trouble.” That small action shows us the character’s human side and makes him sympathetic to the audience.
Examples of Larger than Life Heroine/Hero Characters: Superman, James Bond, Harry Potter
When dealing with a Heroine/Hero, ask yourself:
- What is this character’s soft spot or vulnerability?
- How can I create a pet-the-dog moment for this character to show this quality?
Misunderstood Character: (AKA Anti-Hero)
Finally, with the Misunderstood Character, you need to show a glimmer of light. This character is wounded, lost, or condemned to suffer (or maybe he’s just whiny, we’re never quite sure), but we have to see a moment where he or she can find hope. This is true for villains as well as Anti-Heroes; in fact, many Misunderstood characters are actually antagonists in the story. Remember, it’s important to give our villains depth by showing the opposite is possible, and not just do that for our protagonists. After all, if a villain is totally evil to the core, then that makes for a flat character, but if we see a hint of goodness in the character it makes the villain come to life. With misunderstood characters, it’s all about seeing that moment when the clouds part and we see a little bit of hope, even if things still end up going down the tubes in the end.
Examples of Misunderstood Characters: Darth Vader, Severus Snape, Holden Caulfield, Harry Potter
(Notice that some characters–ahem, Harry Potter–can fall into more than one category. Interesting…)
If you’ve got a Misunderstood Character on your hands, try these questions:
- What will it take to bring this character out of that dark, dark place?
- What’s this character’s source of hope?
Why does the Opposite is Possible Theory work?
Because it shows the reader the character’s potential for change. We’ve all heard writing teachers tell us that our protagonist needs to change, but rarely do they ever tell us how to do it. By using Maass’ character archetypes and showing hints that the opposite is possible, we show that the character may not be as simple as they seem and that gives them the chance to change. In other words, the ordinary character needs to have the potential to do something extraordinary, the superhuman character must become at least a little bit vulnerable, and the condemned character must discover a glimmer of hope.
Sometimes it’s scary when our characters turn around and do the opposite of what we want them to do. I know when that happens to me, it seriously makes me question my sanity. But the truth is, when our characters misbehave or surprise us, that’s when we know that they’re becoming real.