Recently, a young agent on my staff requested a really good manuscript. She wanted to represent it. Naturally, so did a number of other sharp-eyed agents and thus my young colleague found herself in a so-called beauty contest, a familiar competitive event in our profession.
To back up my young colleague’s bid, I arranged a phone call with the equally young, appallingly talented young writer of the manuscript in question. I told her about our agency, our orientation to career development, our long experience and the staff who would support her work. The young writer in turn assured me that she really liked my young colleague and knew my company’s reputation, and mine. She said, “I mean, like, you’re a legend and all.”
That stopped me. A legend? Now wait a minute. I’ve been doing my job for a long time. I’ve written a couple of influential books on fiction technique. I teach fiction writing. All true. But legend? B.B. King was a legend. Jackie Robinson was a legend. Ernest Hemingway was a legend. But me? Even taking into account the casual hyperbole of young people, I don’t qualify. Believe me, when I’m scraping the breakfast plates or vacuuming our car, I don’t feel like much of a legend.
This mildly unsettling moment came to mind when over the holidays, when we took our kids to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Without spoiling too much, the future Jedi knight Rey seeks out reclusive Luke Skywalker to persuade him to return to the beleaguered Resistance, which according to Rey needs “a legend” for inspiration. Luke however dismisses her, scoffing at his outsized status. After some delay scenes, Luke reveals that he—as he sees it—failed in his training of Ben Solo, who succumbed to the Dark Side of the Force and transformed into murderous Kylo Ren. He spits out the word with ironic contempt: “Luke Skywalker…legend.”
Characters’ backstories come in many varieties, but fairly often authors default to past events that are tragic, hurtful and secret. Protagonists live under a cloud. They’re shadowed, haunted, tormented and burdened by misfortunes or mistakes. Nothing wrong with that, but the prior lives of protagonists can also be built on a foundation of towering reputation, past achievements, high position, notorious crimes or other notoriety that equally complicate their lives.
Some may have established reputations as heroes. Sherlock Holmes. James Bond. Nancy Drew. Conan. Kvothe. Some may be (or become) legends for their achievements. Katniss Everdeen. Martin Dressler. The Mambo Kings. Others may be automatic legends by dint of being rich or patriarchal. Olive Kitteridge. Christian Grey. Smaug. Miriam Raphael (Crescent City). Others may be legendary for their obsessions or ambitions. Becky Sharp. Jay Gatsby. Captain Ahab. Captain Nemo. Others may be legendarily alluring. Scarlet O’Hara. Holly Golightly. Others may be notorious. Boo Radley. John Galt. Harry Flashman. Hannibal Lechter. Others may be legends in their own micro-realms: Evelyn Couch (Fried Green Tomatoes). Harriet Welsch (Harriet the Spy). Bigwig (Watership Down).
Famous or notorious pasts can lead quite quickly to reverse chronology stories, such as Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow or Jeffrey Deaver’s The October List, but that is not automatic. Great characters can have gigantic reputations, pasts that in the present make them revered, feared, self-doubting or targets.
Enormous pasts not only shade characters, they can propel plots. Destiny can be unavoidable, and I’m fine with that, but what happens when a destiny is chosen? Ask me, it becomes that much more compelling. Nothing wrong with an Everyman and Everywoman thrust into extraordinary circumstances, mind you, but what about heroes and heroines who willingly leap into dire conditions or bravely face danger?
In talking about larger-then-life characters, I don’t mean stereotypes like those hilariously cataloged at TV Tropes. I mean those whose lives and actions are detailed, credible and carefully constructed. Readers do not reject big characters; they desire them. We cheer for Scarlet, Sherlock, Forrest and Hannibal, right? We love to be swept away by characters larger than life, so why not put those same dynamics at work for you, too?
Here are some practical approaches:
What is your protagonist’s greatest past achievement? How did that make your protagonist famous? To whom is your protagonist a hero or heroine? In what way is that reputation deserved? In what way is it overblown?
What don’t people know about that great achievement? What did eye-witnesses at the time over-estimate or overlook? What does your protagonist discount? In what way has that great achievement grown bigger than it was? In what way was it actually more amazing, courageous and exceptional than now known?
What great destiny is inherited, bequeathed or imposed on your protagonist? What is expected of him or her that is not expected of anyone else? For whom is your protagonist responsible? Who depends on him or her? Who has unwarranted faith in your protagonist and believes in a reputation that is not yet earned?
What would make someone a legend in the world of your story? What qualities are lacking in this world? What example is yearned for? If your protagonist could stand for something that this world sorely needs, what is it? What is the biggest test?
In what way can your protagonist be braver, more alluring, more self-assured or more commanding than the rest of us? Who cheers, emulates or swoons over your protagonist? Who is your hero or heroine’s own hero or heroine? Who is your protagonist’s impossible, out-of-reach love?
What did your protagonist do to become notorious? Of what is your protagonist ashamed, or careless about, or perversely proud of? What is good about being bad? Who admires your protagonist’s rejection of convention, rules or law?
Give your protagonist occasions for wit, sneering contempt, unwarranted compassion, high generosity, startling insight, quick thinking, and fearless action. Anchor your protagonist in high principles. Let your protagonist flaunt convention, break a rule, or go out of bounds. For what good reason?
What would make your protagonist a hero or heroine to himself or herself? What must be done? Why is that impossible? Do it anyway.
Legendary isn’t an accident. It’s a destiny embraced and a reputation earned. It’s not only a call to greatness, but greatness inborn. Strong characters are terrific, but equally strong can be characters whose history, position, principles, and reputations demand from them the utmost in human potential.
It’s great when characters struggle. It’s even greater when they struggle with greatness itself. We need things to live up to, and the examples of people who do. To be legendary is within your power—on the page, if nowhere else.
Legendary works on scales both big and small. How might your protagonist become legendary? In what way? What will that mean for your plot?
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