Bob Markoff, The New Yorker magazine’s cartoon editor, in his book, How About Never—Is Never Good for You?, wrote, “Acting outrageously makes it that much easier to think unconventionally. If you don’t have a silly bone in your body, you’re not going to have a funny bone either. And if you can’t combine mature intelligence with some immature thinking, you’re never going to be funny enough to make a living at it.”
Markoff’s comment is so loaded with insight that it jumps off the page and slaps you across the face. It demands would-be cartoonists to highlight it and commit it to memory. For writers, it demands that we highlight it and commit it to memory.
Thinking unconventionally and immaturely are the character traits that make a fictional character bigger than life and allows him or her to break free from the gravitational pull of paper, jump off the page, and dance across your mind’s visual stage. Too many of us, me included, suffer from bouts of a form of self-consciousness, a subset of the fear of embarrassment, that keeps us from going out on the dance floor and doing the Lindy Hop. Somebody might see us! Though we admire watching others perform, we lack the courage or are too self-conscious to join in. For a writer to join in, his or her fingers first must dance unconventionally, immaturely, and unselfconsciously across the keyboard.
You can’t write a symphony using but one octave. Nor can you cripple the potential range of the thought and behavior of your characters, or their story.
By not interjecting your characters with outrageous actions and a certain level of immaturity, you risk imbuing them, and your story, with the excitement level of Pabulum. Your prose might be accurate, insightful, and reasonably active, but it will lack electricity—the fearlessness and adventurousness that snaps and zaps. That is where your characters’ cunning, wit, and creativity reside, and thus is critical not only to their own survival in the story but the survival of the story in the reader’s mind.
If you think about your favorite characters that have populated your reading history, most likely they are the ones who displayed outrageous actions and immaturity at variously elevated levels. These traits are what differentiate round and full characters from flat, cardboard ones. They empower a character to escape from the page rather become trapped on it and meander around the lines of ink. They are the knotted sheets that the imprisoned character climbs down to escape from the page after setting it afire. Your prose should make them like caged animals squeezing between your subjects and predicates to leap at the reader. It’s like putting jalapeño peppers in the oatmeal!
Without outlandish and immature behavior, characters come across stunted, undeveloped, underdeveloped, and moribund. If your writing does not push the boundaries, your characters won’t. Too many of us hang back and don’t let our characters—or our plot for that matter—reach, push against, and cross the boundaries into the kind of behavior Markoff writes about.
Most of us were not raised by international spies or having toured with the Barnum & Bailey Circus, so our collected experiences are a bit more ordinary, i.e., boring, common, and, yes, dull. As a result we sometimes unknowingly confine ourselves to a real world rather than explore a more outrageous one. As a writer, you do not need to actually act outrageously, but your characters do. To help them do that, you need to at least think outrageously, and visualize that for your characters. Take to the dance floor of your mind, and dance with them like no one is watching.
You’ve just written an action scene and have sat back and wondered why it comes across with the brightness of a nightlight rather than an intense, night-piercing searchlight. It’s probably because the scene, and the characters who populate it, lack outrageous behavior. Fantasy writers have it easy in this regard. They live in the world of outrageousness. Their stories maybe associated with or arise from some aspect of reality, but they quickly jump into a world beyond reality where their characters are not limited by it.
For the novelist or short story writer whose characters live in a world just a few blocks down and over from the one we live on, there’s a boundary where outrageous can become too unbelievable and actually destroy the effectiveness of a story or scene, thus killing its credibility. But that boundary is farther out there than you think. Words on paper have us rooting for humans trying to bring down Godzilla. As long as Godzilla appear reasonably logical in the world where it resides, we’re along for the scaly ride.
As a fun exercise, watch a scene from such a movie, then synopsize and describe it on paper. You’ll find yourself wondering why it worked so well on screen? It’s because the boundary of outrageousness exceeds the more limited boundary of our reality-based, word-grounded, conservative appropriateness. The scene on the screen taps into your imagination, and thus your emotions, from a purely visual angle. That’s the angle you want to try and inject into your writing. (I suggest writing that touches all five of the reader’s senses helps you achieve this same effect. See my blog, “Common Senses.”)
We all know that reading fiction is a form of escapism, except the writer must remember it’s not so much where you’re escaping from that counts as where you’re letting your readers escape to. That is what allows the writer to push the boundaries of normal behavior well beyond normalcy; your readers put their trust in your hands. Don’t disappoint them.
Readers simply want to believe, and as a result they allow the boundaries of normalcy to be stretched and expanded. John Grisham did it on smaller scale with his character Theodore Boone. (Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer). Really, a middle school legal whiz? It worked because Grisham took familiar behaviors and assigned them to unfamiliar territory. He’s written a sequel, Theodore Boone: The Abduction. The plots, the characters—they’re simply outrageous. Delightfully so.
The outrageousness of Grisham’s Theodore Boone pales in comparison to the characters in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. It opens with a brutal murder of a family and won a Newberry Medal. Gaiman artfully blurs the boundaries between the worlds of fantasy and reality, but because he writes in the tone of reality the reader doesn’t notice, or care. Gaiman simply cuts lose and pushes aside the limitations of normalcy and makes it all seem rational.
How can this be achieved? Therein lies the rub. There exits no formula and it’s easy to take the readers too far, miss the target, and lose them in the process. There are hidden and undefined mine fields, and if you step into or onto one, you’ll blow up your characters’ or your plot’s credibility.
Readers love heroes who have a human side, flawed by little weaknesses or beliefs . . . or big ones sometimes. They also love them to display traits we can only dream of. And that is what the writer needs to feed—not the realities of the readers’ minds but the unrealities—the stuff they dream of and willingly buy into. Everybody is his or her own Walter Mitty. As a writer, you have a duty to feed their Walter Mittys.
A novel is not unlike a car race. We go to races to watch the speed and daring of the participants, but we love the occasional smash-ups and spinouts and flying debris and flames and smoke, and the screeching of tires, and the crunch of metal on metal. Why do you suppose traffic slows to a crawl as it passes an accident scene? In part to see what might be there to be seen, even if it grosses people out. Your writing needs smash ups, and it’s the outrageous behavior of your characters that causes them and slows the traffic down so the reader can strain to see the carnage.
Every character needs his or her strengths, but also their Kryptonite. In all the outrageousness, you don’t have a character lose all human traits, especially ones that are foundational to a character’s philosophy and ideals and to which their humanness is anchored. It’s what makes them fundamentally credible and provides the WOW when contrasted against their more outrageous elements. Finding (creating) and maintaining the balance between these two seemingly diametrically opposed states is the writer’s territory. Characters can’t be indestructible; otherwise there can be no credible conflict because there is no risk. But they can miraculously survive by not just luck, but cunning, incredible quickness, unbelievable bravery . . . The list of descriptors goes on.
Take away Kryptonite and Superman becomes just another indestructable super hero. Much of the potential for conflict and tension disappears. Where would the thrill be if you took away Jimmy Stewart’s crippling fear of heights in “Vertigo”? In Stewart’s case, his weakness is the heart of his character and the story. Don’t forget, characters can be called upon to overcome both external and internal conflicts. Real tension arises when they have to do both, at the same time. Otherwise, the temperature of the conflict (scene) would drop to something approaching zero in much the same way it would if Kryptonite had no deleterious effect on Superman.
You can see how the outrageousness of behavior is the key element in conflict.
In the original “Die Hard” movie, New York police detective Bruce Willis, in LA at Christmas to visit his estranged wife and two children, takes his shoes off and wiggles his toes in the plush carpet to relieve the tensions of his cross-country flight, only to find himself barefoot and running across broken glass in a hail of bullets to save himself and his wife and her colleagues from alleged terrorists. Similarly, Harrison Ford, in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” speaks of his phobia about snakes only to end up in a pit filled with them and armed with a dying torch, and, well, that whip.
Both situations are simply outrageous, if measured from the normal end of the continuum of human behavior, but they work, and work very well, because we want them to. Readers willingly suspend several levels of reality and dismiss normal skepticisms as the outrageous behavior logically moved toward the far end of the behavioral continuum.
Don’t be afraid to feed you readers a bowl of outrageous behavior. Just put some jalapenos in the oatmeal.