by Ruth Harris
Male or female, good guys or bad girls, famous or infamous, VIPs are the Very Important Persons who go their own way, do their own thing, make their own rules and don’t give a damn about your plans, your ideas, or your outline.
You create them but they have a life of their own. They bust in and take over and they give your story sizzle and zip and make it pulse and throb with energy and reader appeal.
They can be realistic or fantastical, aspirational or ordinary, nuts or normal. The VIP can be the protagonist or antagonist, a sidekick or bff, or the bit player who’s a scene stealer. The VIP can be a toy, an alien or an animal, a vampire, a wizard, a zombie.
They live in a penthouse or the hood (or even be homeless). They hang out on the “right” side of town or the wrong side of the tracks. They have too much/not enough sex with Ms. or Mr. Right (or Wrong). They can be adulterous or monogamous, gay or straight, drunk or drugged, billionaires or unemployed, on the make or on the lam. We’re talking the housewife-spy, the accountant-assassin, the foul-mouthed teddy bear, the superhero in tights.
VIPs never do the expected or the conventional. They can be the foundation of a long-running series or a larger-than-life character in a standalone. They can be aspirational, admirable, too-good-to-be true, psychopathic, repellent, murderous but they can—and will—rescue you from the plot blahs and bail you out of blocks, glitches and dead ends.
You know who I mean but, to name names:
- · Mrs. Danvers, the spooky housekeeper with no first name 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.
- · Bond. James Bond is the suave, sexy, sophisticated, super-spy who always gets the girl while he is busy saving the world from yet another megalomanic villain.
- · George Smiley, is the spy as a mild-mannered civil servant with an unfaithful wife and a prodigious memory who works in the grey areas of British intelligence and compels his Russian nemesis, Karla, to defect.
- · Jane Tennison, the DI in Prime Suspect, is a “woman of a certain age” as they say in France. Her wrinkles are in plain view, her love life is on the gritty side, she drinks too much and it shows. The men she works with give her a hard time and she returns the favor while she solves a crime.
- · Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), the murderous seductress in Fatal Attraction, lives alone, has no family that we know of, is predatory and psychopathically determined to get what she wants—another woman’s husband.
- · Hannibal Lecter, the creepy psychiatrist has only a few scenes in Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs. This oddly sexy cannibal is an example of the scene-stealing bit player who becomes the nemesis around which the entire story revolves.
- · Jack Reacher, the protagonist of Lee Child’s best selling series, is a West Point grad, an ex-military cop, a loner, a drifter, a hitchhiker, a caffeine addict. 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."
- · Tony Soprano murders, steals, cheats as he heads up his fractious and untrustworthy crew. He is violent, sociopathic, brutal, an unfaithful husband, a good family man and father who suffers panic attacks and depression. The women in his life include a psychiatrist, a vicious mother, a greedy, murderous, sister and a complacent wife who sees-no-evil.
- · Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest employs humiliation and unpleasant medical treatments to control her patients.
- · Annie Wilkes, the nurse in Stephen King's Misery, cuts off her favorite writer's foot with an axe and cauterizes the wound with a blowtorch.
- · Frank Underwood, the sleaze-ball politician in House Of Cards, and his flinty, ambitious wife are Washington VIPs who lie, kill, cheat and connive to get what they want: power and the presidency.
Realistic? Uh-uh. Unforgettable? Absolutely. Likeable? Sometimes but not always. Relatable? Mostly not. Admirable? Only now and then. But are we interested in them? Do we want to know what they're going to do next? Of course we do.
Memorable, vividly drawn characters like these are the VIPs who create the forward motion that makes a book a page turner. They are the writer's best friend and there are, obviously, no hard rules about how to create them. How can there be when they are distinctive and original and, sometimes, even the opposite of each other?
There are, however, guidelines that will help you get started to create characters readers can't get enough of.
- Here is a long list of hero types from aliens to angels, masterminds to mentors, wanderers to zombies that might give you a starting point.
- Author and film producer Rebecca Tinkle, lists six hero-types. These positive role models include the teacher, the warrior and the leader along with their super power and super flaw.
- Not sure exactly what your VIP should be like? Writing a letter to him or her will help sharpen your focus. Here are examples of real-life letters to give you some ideas.
- Writing a superhero? Whether you’re writing a novel, a comic or a graphic novel, here's advice about how to name a superhero, how to write a good sidekick, day jobs for superheroes, and superhero flaws, fights and gadgets.
- The script lab suggests 10 rules with expanded explanations about creating your VIP, his or her dreams and goals, the differences between sympathy and empathy, and growth vs change.
- Since every good guy/girl needs a bad guy/ girl, writing the villain is as challenging as writing the protagonist. Here are 9 examples of the villain archetype that includes an interesting discussion of the internal and external villain.
- Brian A. Klems at Writer's Digest does another take on archetypes, male and female, heroes and villains from the messiah to the matriarch to the mystic and beyond.
- When it comes to villains, just being crazy isn't enough. From Gordon Gekko to Darth Vader, their backstories, motivations and psychological profiles are what make them believable—and memorable.
- Here's some wisdom from sci-fi author and editor of Fiction Factor, Lee Masterson, about how to create villains people love to hate.
- When evil has a friendly face: NYT bestselling suspense novelist, Lisa Gardner, tells how to develop the diabolical villain.
- Novelist, screenwriter and game designer Chuck Wendig pulls no punches in his list of 25 things (including a voice, a look, and secrets) that a great character needs.
- David Corbett's advice on the how-to of creating a compelling character includes an excellent list of suggestion about where and how to begin.
- They can be friends, family, coworkers, roommates or classmates, but the well-written sidekick can move the story along, give the reader deeper insight into the protagonist and/or add intriguing sexual tension.
VIPs can—and will—do the shocking, the unexpected and, as a consequence, will give you—and your story—an immediate jolt of energy.
You bring them to life, you fret about them, you get them into—and out of—trouble, you bail them out when necessary and save them from their own stupid mistakes but there is one thing above all you must remember about VIPs: they will never, ever, not once, say thanks. ;-)
by Ruth Harris (@RuthHarrisBooks) March 27, 2016.
What about you, Scriveners? Do you have a VIP in your WIP? Have you ever had a character march into your story and take over?
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