“So many of our dreams at first seem impossible,
then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will,
they soon become inevitable.”
~ Christopher Reeve ~
Attitude. Christopher Reeve had attitude in spades.
He was a larger-than-life character, both onscreen and off. But personally, as much as I admired the characters he portrayed in his films, I think his off screen attitude was the most impressive…because it wasn’t feigned. He was confined to a wheelchair after his riding accident, his breathing controlled by a machine, doctors telling him at every turn he can’t do this or that ever again. But he always stood as tall as Superman in my mind because he never gave up, he never lost hope, and he turned his own experience into hope and encouragement for others until the day he died.
We’ve all heard that it’s our job to write larger-than-life characters into our novels, but I never truly understood what that meant until Superman taught me.
It’s all about attitude. It’s one of the reasons I’ve devoted an entire section of my character worksheet to the concept. If I can delve deep enough into a character’s psyche to identify his or her attitude toward life, I can find the larger-than-life personality I need for my story. And knowing where to look is half the battle.
There are a number of movie screen characters that have resonated with me over the years, but I’d like to share a few of my favorites to show you what I mean. I’ll stick to movies since we’re all more likely to be familiar with them.
Those of you who’ve taken my plotting workshop will recognize these first two because I mention Gone With The Wind (1936) – and Rhett and Scarlet’s attitudes toward life – on my character worksheet sample. Rhett is a profiteer, out to work the system. He may sympathize with his southern roots, but he’s a “seize the moment” kind of guy and approaches the war on his own terms. He has no problem taking risks in order to reap greater rewards. Scarlet, on the other hand, has a vastly different approach. Every time she thinks, “Tomorrow is another day” she allows problems in her life to slide until she’s up against a wall with nowhere else to go. Then, she comes out fighting…but just enough to make sure her world rights itself. She may not want to stoop to petty larceny, steal another woman’s intended for his money, or lie.but she will if it gets her what she wants.
Another of my favorite examples is the musical, Annie (1982). Annie lives under the thumb of the harsh headmistress of the orphanage, but what’s her attitude? “The sun will come out tomorrow!” She’s upbeat, generous, and has an unshakable faith that everything will be okay. The headmistress is avaricious, unscrupulous, manipulative and treacherous. Daddy Warbucks is a man to whom money – acquiring it, spending it, displaying it – means everything at the cost of his personal life. Can you see these characters? I certainly can!
In French Kiss, the main character, Kate, steps carefully through life, terrified of deviating from the path she’s lined up for herself for fear of losing everything. There’s one scene in the movie where she mentions the only time she stepped off that line and smoked pot and, “of course, the one time I did, I got busted.” Every time I get on a plane now I hear Kate singing in my head, “I hate Paris in the springtime!” Opposite Kate is Luc, the smooth talking con man and thief who is prepared to do anything, including use the naïve Kate, to realize his dream of starting his own
Darth Vader, in Star Wars, is another one. His attitude changes over time. He’s a cocky little boy who grows into adulthood believing he’s better than everyone else, including the Jedi who’d plucked him out of slavery and trained him. Whenever someone attacks that perception, he get more
and more angry and paranoid that someone will take it away.
Attitudes are shaped by our character’s life choices and experiences, their backgrounds, just as those of us in the real world are shaped. We may all be normal (or not! <g>) but you can bet we all have different attitudes that set us apart from each other and make us interesting in some way to someone else. I could be an optimist who believes no matter how bad life is right now, it will get better, while you’re a pessimist expecting life to smack you up the side of the head at every opportunity. I could be selfish and expect the world to revolve around me, while you’re generous to a fault and regularly volunteer to help others less fortunate. I could be determined to get what I want no matter how hard I have to work for it, while you could just sit back and expect it handed to you.
It is these differences that create interest and makes normal characters appear larger-than-life. So, to help you determine what each of your character’s attitudes are look carefully at how you develop them. Uncover whom your characters are deep inside. Make them real and believable, and your larger-than-life characters will stick in your readers’ minds long after they’ve set your book in a place of honor on their Keeper Shelf.