I LOVE Chapter Four of Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass. The title is "Larger-Than-Life Character Qualities." Maass is all for giving your characters these qualities. The "why" is understood. It's because larger-than-life characters are more interesting! Just look at the Prodigal Son. The obedient son stays home and works alongside his father. The prodigal son takes his half of the inheritance, goes off to have adventures, loses all his money, then he comes home, not expecting anything -- and the father kills the fatted calf for him, to the resentment of the son who stayed by his father's side all these years. And why does the father do this? Because the prodigal son is more interesting.

One way to make your characters larger than life is zingers. We love characters who snap off zingers the way we wish we could. Maass gives an example from One for the Money by Janet Evanovich, in which Stepahnie Plum tells the reader how Joe Morelli "charmed the pants off me four minutes after closing, on the floor of Tasty Pastry, behind the case filled with chocolate eclairs."

She doesn't see him until three years later, in front of Giovichinni's Meat Market. He's on foot and she's driving to the mall in her father's Buick. She guns the engine and clips him from behind, then stops the car, gets out, and asks if anything is broken.

Evanovich writes:

He was sprawled on the pavement, looking up my skirt. "My leg."

"Good," I said. Then I turned on my heel, got into the Buick, and drove to the mall.
Now that's a larger-than-life character.

Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase is filled with zingers by the heroine. Here's a passage after she catches the hero with two buxom trollops in his lap:

"When Bertie told me how how much you paid, I thought it was their services which were so horrifically expensive," she said. "Now, however, I comprehend my error. Obviously you pay by volume."

"Perhaps to you the price is exorbitant," he said, while his hands itched to shake her. "But then, I am not so shrewd as you. Perhaps, in future, you would like to conduct negotiations for me. In which case, I ought to describe my requirements. What I like --"

"You like them big, buxom, and stupid," she said.
Not every writer can do zingers like Evanovich and Chase, and Maass mentions other ways to make your protagonists larger than life. In my wip, I started with larger-than-life characters, especially the heroine. She's an alien who comes to earth with special abilities, which she exhibits in a unique way early on in the book.

One of the exercises at the end of the chapter is writing down one thing your protagonist would never do. Then find places in your story where the character would do just that.

In your wip, how are your characters larger than life?

22 comments

  1. Cyrano // May 20, 2009 at 9:21 AM  

    Great post Edie!
    I love, love, love that book too. The workbook is phenomenal. It is so thought provoking and really gets your creative juices flowing.
    Thanks also for the excerpts. You can really tell how the how thing works by reading them.
    Have a wonderfully, bright and sunny day,
    Tamara

  2. Joanne // May 20, 2009 at 10:06 AM  

    Edie,
    I love Lord of Scoundrels and the Stephanie Plum novels. Great examples.

  3. Judy // May 20, 2009 at 10:13 AM  

    Edie, I love that you're giving us all the wonderful reminders and examples. I could never get too many of them. Thanks! Have a great day!

  4. Barbara Monajem // May 20, 2009 at 10:58 AM  

    I'm writing a historical right now where the heroine blurts whatever she's thinking at totally the wrong moments. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's catastrophic. It's definitely a challenge to write.

    Something she would never do, huh? Well, she's already done a lot of that, but why not make it worse? What a great prompt for the imagination! Thank you, Edie.

  5. Edie Ramer // May 20, 2009 at 12:36 PM  

    Cyrano, Maass always gives me something to think of. If someone is stuck (which never happens to us, right?), thinking of something the protagonist would never do or say and then having them say it would be a great way to get unstuck.

    You have a great day, too.

  6. Edie Ramer // May 20, 2009 at 12:37 PM  

    Joanne, I never got into the Stephanie Plum books, though I like her voice and humor. I've been told to read the third one first, and then I'll be hooked. I'm going to give that a shot.

  7. Edie Ramer // May 20, 2009 at 12:39 PM  

    Judy, I love examples, too, when I'm reading. It's showing us what works, and I learn better from showing.

  8. Edie Ramer // May 20, 2009 at 12:40 PM  

    Barbara, your book sounds like one I'd love to read! I hope you'll let me know when it's published.

  9. Toni V.S. // May 20, 2009 at 12:47 PM  

    How are my heroes larger than life? let me see? Sarkin Trant in Three Moon Station springs to mind...an orphan and an unwed father at age fourteen, he not only chooses to raise his son alone but works for a rancher until he has enough money saved up to buy three horses and start his own ranch. At age 34, he attends a wife-auction where he buys a young woman to protect her from a vicious killer, then spends the next year convincing her to love him. Or there's Logan Redhawk in Jericho Road...a halfbreed mohawk doctor, he's assigned to a Middle Georgia hospital in the middle of the segregation-laden '70s, where he promptly falls in love with the daughter of the town's leading bigot. On the distaff side, Rebeka Spearman of Earthman's Bride marries the leader of the alien invaders who've conquered her planet in order to gain his confidence and then kill him, only to discover that she and her alien husband have much more in common than anyone realizes. I could go on and on but space doesn't permit.
    Isn't making up characters such fun?

  10. Edie Ramer // May 20, 2009 at 12:51 PM  

    Toni, those are definitely larger than life characters! Like you, I like to begin with great characters -- and then go on and make them greater.

  11. Mary Marvella // May 20, 2009 at 1:17 PM  

    Thanks, Edie.
    Looks like I need to do a little revising. I do have characters who are outrageous but a couple of them just wanted to be. Gonna let 'em loose.
    Although, when I let my 40 year old virgin leave her controlling daddy's funeral and get a makeover and a man for the night, some folks sputtered and threw rocks at me. She could NOT be a virgin and she wouldn't have sex with a handsome man.

    SAW WHAT? SHE NEEDED IT!

  12. Mona Risk // May 20, 2009 at 1:19 PM  

    That book is in my bookcase, the perfect reference. I can still hear D. Maass's voice at a workshop saying: raise the stakes. Characters larger than life are what makes us remember a story when we forget the title.

  13. Edie Ramer // May 20, 2009 at 1:19 PM  

    Mary, your 40-year-old virgin needed it for sure! It worked for whatshisname from The Office. Why not work for a woman too? You go!

  14. Edie Ramer // May 20, 2009 at 1:21 PM  

    Characters larger than life are what makes us remember a story when we forget the title.Mona, absolutely! That's why out of all the March family members in Little Women, we remember Jo the best. She was larger than life.

  15. Cindy Procter-King // May 20, 2009 at 2:38 PM  

    Sounds like a great book. You know, I went and checked, and I have it on my bookshelf. I have a bad habit of buying how-to books and then never reading them. I just like to know they're there, LOL. I might have to read his book now, though.

    And I remember reading part of your story in an on-line contest. It's very unique. Go for it!

  16. Edie Ramer // May 20, 2009 at 2:43 PM  

    Cindy, you should definitely read this. I know you'll get a lot out of it.

    Thanks for remembering my beginning!

  17. Karin Tabke // May 20, 2009 at 5:33 PM  

    Edie, one of these days I'm going to buy this book!

  18. Edie Ramer // May 20, 2009 at 6:20 PM  

    Karin, I'll bring it to Green Bay and you can look at it during your down time. If you have any!

  19. Lee // May 21, 2009 at 1:44 PM  

    I've heard of this book, and keep telling myself I'm going to get it. I hope one of my characters is larger then life. You've given me some ideas.

  20. Edie Ramer // May 21, 2009 at 2:20 PM  

    Lee, I've only mentioned a portion of what Maass talks about in his book. The Workbook is worth getting.

  21. lainey bancroft // May 21, 2009 at 6:21 PM  

    Great post, Edie. Hmm, I have the Breakout book, guess it's time I invested in the workbook too.

  22. Edie Ramer // May 21, 2009 at 7:19 PM  

    Lainey, the two books are very similar, but I think the Workbook is still worth getting. It goes a couple steps further than the novel.