Are your story’s characters living out at the edge? If not, maybe you should push them further out there.
What does that mean? In this post by author Steven Pressfield, he mentions a friend of his who considers fictional characters far more interesting, more worth reading about, if they operate at some extreme, if they’re desperate enough to act outside normal boundaries.
Only then is the drama enticing enough, the character fascinating enough, to make the tale worth the reader’s time.
Pressfield’s post cites examples including several movie characters played by Matthew McConaughey, as well as characters on cable TV shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men.
Two thoughts I’d add to Pressfield’s post. First, he claims it should be as if a character is telling the reader, “Don’t take your eyes off me because I am capable of doing anything.” By “anything” I believe Pressfield means anything consistent with the character’s personality and motivations. The character should be at the edge, yes, but at the edge of a space bordered by that character’s nature and inner dreams.
Second, as one of the commenters pointed out, being at the edge doesn’t only mean rough-and-tumble actions such as picking fights, killing people, or driving 100 miles per hour.
For example, say you’re Arthur Conan Doyle and you want to write about a fictional detective. Taking that character to the edge means making him capable of deductive reasoning and powers of observations that are at the outer limits of human capability. Then, of course, compensate by giving that character weaknesses and flaws; you don’t get superhuman abilities in one facet without suffering in some others.
Say you’re Jules Verne and you want to write about a character desperate to complete a journey around the world before a deadline. Taking that character to the edge means making him fixated on time, exacting and precise, decisive and unemotional. Compensate by giving him faults as well, such as being uncaring and oblivious to the emotions of others.
Before writing your story, create a written description of your main characters, including each one’s physical appearance, motivation, personality type, goals, and dreams, etc. Then ask yourself if you can make those characters more extreme. Don’t worry about realism or authenticity too much. See how close to the edge you can push them.
If you succeed in doing this, your story’s action and dialogue will be fascinating and dramatic, your characters vivid and unforgettable.
Go ahead and push them out toward the edge…further…further… Out on that precipice stands your finest character, a big part of your best story. Now write that story.
One more thing. When your story succeeds, tell me about it by leaving an edgy comment for—