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: [Read more…]