Crazy Characters Work Better

So I thought it might be talk about creating fictional characters as we head into the weekend. On that note, when writing about folks I prefer boiling unpredictability into characters, or a little bit of crazy.

When reading or watching stories, I prefer main characters who screw up, make bad decisions, flip flop, and do other things that generally drive people a bit crazy. They are human, and we can identify with or simply doubt them.

Developing a character or screenplay in a novel requires tension and conflict. And there is no greater conflict than the one that lies within. We think we know how folks will respond, but then they do things contrary to expectations. This is true character development to me, reflecting what we experience in reality.

Tensions exists because we lack certainty about how protagonists will act. It’s the quintessential trust issue. Perhaps that is more a reflection of my own expereinces with people.

Invariably, man or woman, people will always let you down at some moment. This is the human condition. But principles never do, and that creates tension between doing right and wrong.

Favorite Crazy Characters

frodo

This crazy factor is why Cervantes’ Don Quixote is perhaps the most brilliant of early novels. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are maddeningly nuts (chase that windmill!). They don’t make characters like that anymore!

In the modern tough guy vein, Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs evolves and matures over time. Morgan’s work created a series that I could not put down, and desperately hoped would continue. Like so many characters though he does seem to fit into a stereotype, the anti-hero tough guy that survives and eventually conquers, albeit in a never-clean fashion. You kind of always know how Kovacs is going to respond to things.

In Lord of the Rings, Frodo is a sweet young man who faces terrible challenges. His character is pretty straight forward, and in that oh so English way, he continues because he must. Frodo does succeed, but the journey bludgeons him, killing his spirit. In the end as he sails off to Valinor in an effort to find peace.

While I loved Kovacs and Frodo, I’m not sure they’re really human. Because both protagonists are heroes, they rise above the normal foibles we all seem to muddle through.

A better tough guy is the comic character Batman, who is just nuts, as all of us familiar with the movies know. The underlying gritty subversiveness of the Bruce Wayne/Batman character reminds me of the duality of ideal versus humanity.

This same character tension was played out subtly and brilliantly in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. Through narrator Nathan Zuckerman’s recreation of the Swede we saw how really crazy and subversive people are regardless of their outward presentation.

Exodus features an anti-hero character, Jason. I actually named him after Jason of the Argonauts, because that Jason seemed too perfect to me. I thought a little more perspective on a young “hero” was needed. Several of the characters are named after Greek legends, an intentional ode and post modern riff on epic tales.

In Jason’s case, the fundamentalist threat alluded to in the novel’s teaser text provides external conflict, which in turn forces his internal crisis by thrusting a great responsibility on his shoulders. This is a classic character development technique.

Most novels make you wonder how the hero will succeed. Me, I wonder if Jason can handle it or if he’ll go nuts. His process is very much what I think happens in real life as opposed to the archetype of yeah, we know he’s going to make it, it’s just a question of how and when.

What do you like about your favorite characters?

9 thoughts on “Crazy Characters Work Better

  1. I love flawed characters who are put in serious moral and ethical dilemmas that require them to choose between doing what’s right vs. being led by their base instincts the way everyone around them is. Batman is one of my favorites! Or how about Skeeter in “The Help”?

    I also get into deeply wounded characters who just want to be left alone with their demons, but end up in situations requiring them to “let people in” for some reason. My absolute favorite character of all time is John Rambo, especially the last film (2008). Great struggle there. Another one is Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) in Million Dollar Baby.

    Chomping at the bit for the release of Exodus: Book One, Geoff. Aug 26th can’t come soon enough!

    • It’s coming! I’m finalizing the manuscript this week, and we go to press next week at some point!

      Eastwood’s character in Million Dollar Baby was awesome. And Batman is the quintessential flawed character.

      I really think we like these folks because they show us that being flawed is not the sole terrain of our own minds. And that is a good, good thing in my case ;) LOL!

  2. A couple of my all-time favorite characters come from movies.

    First, there’s Sam, as played by Robert DeNiro, in Ronin. He’s a jaded ex-spy, signed on as a freelance mercenary to steal a mysterious case from unknown entities. Through his interactions with the other freelancers on his new team, and his reactions to setbacks along the way, you get the sense he’s seen it all, but doesn’t speak about it unless it’s absolutely necessary. There’s a sense of honor, too, as he generously helps others who show him common decency.

    Second, there’s Brian O’Connor, as played by Paul Walker, in the Fast and Furious franchise. Aside from how I jokingly identified with his “cover” in the first installment – my name is Brian, I live in Arizona, and drove a Mitsubishi Eclipse (albeit nowhere nearly as hideous) – he’s since matured, finding a sense of family in the ragtag bunch of automotive misfits with whom he’s shared so many adventures.

    My own band of misfits and automotive adventures are nowhere near as illicit as his in the film, but I’ve seen firsthand how the machines bring us together beyond racing for slips or drifting or whatever. And that’s exceedingly rare in film. Someday, I’ll write a book about it. Someday…

    • I loved DeNiro’s character in Ronin. Generally, that’s one of my favorite crime flicks overall. Thoroughly enjoyed it!

      And any character that goes from cop to criminal must have some serious hedging going on inside. The series is becoming a bit of a lampoon these days (I was meh on 6), but it’s been a fun ride.

      I’d love to see that book when it comes out!

      • Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt. That’s the first thing they teach you. Wisdom of Sam right there.

        As for FATF, 1 and 6 are my favorites. The first is so quotable – I owe you a 10-second car – and the 6th is special because it brings all the characters back together again. Of course, the whole Jason Statham angle is going to jam me up, as it’s hard to picture the Transporter – a good guy – doing harm to “friends.”

        I’ll get started on the book as soon as I’m not publishing 25,000 words a month in a magazine almost entirely by myself! :P

  3. I think I only read one of the books w/ Kovacs – how many were written? Eric Lustbader has had a couple of these fallible heroes – Nicholas Linnear and he also took over the Jason Bourne franchise. Daniel Silva has a good one in Gabriel Allon.

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