Great characters are often a little wacky. Some are even more than a little wacky, they're out there on the lunatic fringe.
Readers are charmed by wacky, theatrical characters. Wacky characters are often exaggerated, flamboyant, colorful, ditzy, dizzy, and contrary. When you think of the great characters of literature, who do you think of? Ahab in Moby Dick comes to mind. He's colorful, all right, and a little out there on the lunatic fringe. Zorba the Greek is one of the truly great wackos of all time. The modern novel was born, some scholars say, with the publication of Don Quixote, whose protagonist, jousting with windmills, was as wacky as they come. The English novel, some say, started with Moll Flanders, whose protagonist was a bit wacko, as well as a pickpocket and bigamist. Pierre Bezuhkov, one of the heroes of Tolstoy's War and Peace, is not, let us say, very tightly wrapped. He blunders onto a battlefield looking for philosophical truths.
In detective fiction, there's Hercule Poirot, who sleeps with a hair net and is exceedingly vain about his waxed mustache. Nero Wolfe raises orchids and never leaves his home. A little wacky, that, don't you think? How about Sherlock Holmes? He plays a violin all night and shoots up with morphine.
The creation of wacky characters is fun. One way is simply to take a trait and exaggerate it. A fanatical love of hamburgers, say. Or hatred of snakes, or bugs, or sharks. Or an obsessive love of Edsels, or electronic eavesdropping, or a compulsive need to examine tongues or put clothes on cats. Extremism in anything will serve.
Another way is to give the character a philosophy of life that is somewhat askew. Zorba the Greek believes in living life to the fullest, and damn the consequences. When asked where he worked last, he answers:
In a mine I'm a good miner. I know a thing or two about metals. I know how to find the veins and open up galleries. I go down pits; I'm not afraid. I was working well. I was foreman, and had nothing to complain about. But then the devil took a hand in things. Last Saturday night, simply because I felt like it, I went off all of a sudden, got hold of the boss, who had come that day to inspect the place, and just beat him up ...
When asked what the boss had done to him, he answers:
To me? Nothing at all, I tell you! It was the first time I saw him. The poor devil had even handed out cigarettes.
Don't be afraid of wacky characters, no matter what kind of novel you're writing—even the most serious. Shakespeare made Fal-staff a wonderful, wacky character in his serious history plays, Henry IVPart One and Henry IVPart Two. He's a coward and a drunk who belches skewed philosophy all over the stage. Vardaman Bundren in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying is a wacko: He's constantly repeating to himself "My mother is a fish," because, like his fish, she has just died. How about Joseph, the crusty old servant in Emily Bronte's masterpiece, Wuthering Heights, who's always cursing everyone and prophesying doom? Now there's wacky.
Wacky characters not only add spice to your story, they make a good contrast to your serious characters. In other words, they act as a foil. The use of foils is a literary device for enhancing the traits of one character by contrasting them with the totally opposite traits of another. In Pride and Prejudice, as an example, Darcy, Elizabeth's suitor, is a serious character who is contrasted with Elizabeth's sister Lydia's suitor, Wickham, a wacky con man. Hooper, the serious, scientific biologist in Jaws, is in sharp contrast to the wacky shark hunter, Quint. In Carrie, Carrie's mother is about as wacky a character as you'll find. She contrasts perfectly with the earnest, sincere, vulnerable Carrie.
Edwin A. Peeples in A Professional Storywriters Handbook notes that Charlie Chaplin's use of contrasting the comic with the tragic "reaches an exquisite ultimate because [Chaplin's portrait of the little tramp] appears amid sadness, a sadness made almost unendurable because it is a background for outrageous humor. . . . He gives us short, violent contrast. It is this contrast that makes us remember."
You're taking risks, of course, when you create wacky characters, because they can go sour on you. They can come off as un believable, unsympathetic or, worse, silly. It's difficult to know whether you've put in enough spice, or too much. It's always a risky business.
But novelists, like race-car drivers, are in the risk-taking business.
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