Friday, January 21, 2011

Finding the Extraordinary

For those who missed it yesterday - since I normally don't post on Thursdays - we had a guest. The lovely and generous Christine Sunderland shared with us a bit about her writing process. She's also giving away free copies of her books, so click here to learn about how she writes a novel and get yourself (potentially) hooked up.

Let's talk more about main characters today. More specifically, let's talk about how to connect our readers to our main characters.

We make them extraordinary.

"I believe it is possible to fashion breakout novels from the stuff of actual human experience. It just requires identifying what is extraordinary in people who are otherwise ordinary." - Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel.

That "extraordinary" word seems a bit daunting, doesn't it? Particularly if you write the more "quiet" kinds of stories like I do. ("What's my book about? Um, well there's this girl ... and she's in high school ... and life is kinda rough for her, because ... well, there's this guy...")

But what makes someone extraordinary doesn't have to be tremendous wealth or an unbeatable right hook. They could have an extraordinary passion for life. Or be extraordinarily generous. Or have an extraordinary sense of adventure. Or blow everyone away with their smarts and wit.

So take a look at your main character and figure out an extraordinary quality of theirs. In the project I'm editing, my main character has extraordinary skills with words. She's a writer. In the project I'm writing/plotting, my main character is extraordinarily comfortable with who she is.

If you're working with a finished manuscript, flip through and see if you can find places to highlight your main character's extraordinary quality. Especially in the opening, since you're hoping to attach your reader to your protagonist as quickly as possible.

Think of ways your main character can display this quality even in opposition. Is your main character a super generous person? Have her give at a time where she's feeling financial strain. Is your main character extraordinarily honest? Have him be honest at a time where it really costs him something.

And this is a great thing to do with your secondary characters as well. Beefs up their personality.

Are you completely stumped for extraordinary qualities you can give your main character? I had the privilege of taking a class from Donald Maass, and he suggested we think of someone in our life whom we admired, in whom we recognized and extraordinary quality, and try applying that to our main character. So give that a shot.

Hope everyone has a wonderful weekend. Just a few more days to get your writing prompts in!


  1. I'm not sure I'd pinpointed my heroine's extraordinary quality yet . . . the lie she tells herself is that she is nothing special, but in fact she has an extraordinary ability to combine spirit with modesty. Not exactly a one-word quality, but it's what leads to her taking a stand, first for herself and then for others.

  2. If you don't mind sharing, how is Skylar extraordinary? Is she extraordinary in the same way in all three books? Do main characters in series usually have the same extraordinary qualities throughout?

  3. I get excited reading these posts, because I can't wait to create something out of them! ...better get started on my prompt, I've been away but there's still time:D

  4. Jordan, sigh. There's a reason I didn't use that book as an example :)

    When I started writing about Skylar, I had no idea what I was doing, so I hadn't thought this stuff through. What made her extraordinary to me was that she never stood in front of the mirror wondering if she had on the right outfit, she just knew it was. She didn't dwell on whether or not she looked pretty, she just felt confident that she did.

    As someone who's spent a lot of time debating what clothes to wear and how I look, that felt extraordinary to me.

    Regarding a series, your character should be consistent, so their extraordinariness should certainly travel with them. But you can also open up new facets of their specialness.

  5. Thanks!

    Another question:

    you mentioned a character displaying this trait in opposition. I've been trying to figure out my MC's "extraordinary" quality, and finally almost decided on one - she's very loyal and supportive, especially of her family. Problem is, she does fail when put to a very hard test. Ultimately, though, she goes back on that decision. Is that ok? Should I choose a different trait?

  6. Sounds like something that will work great, Jordan. Particularly if the test is very hard, as you said.

    Another exercise I've done (by this same teacher, actually) has us pick something our character would say they would never ever do, and then finding a way to make them do it. So for you, your character might say she would always be loyal to her family. And you've found a way to bend her until she breaks. Which is excellent. (Well, for the story, I mean.)

  7. Thanks for doing this! This type of thing was something that I wouldn't normally consider using while working on the creative process, but it has helped... a lot!