Saturday, October 12, 2013

Eccentric Characters: What I Learned from Elaine

This was one of my favorite older blog posts that I had a lot of fun writing because it deals with one of my favorite parts of a story -- crafting eccentric characters.  Yep, I kept the comments too, but I'd love any new input! 


I caught a Seinfeld episode the other day and that explains the title. The gang was at a party where they didn't know anyone and neither Jerry or Elaine were thrilled to be there. The two had a signal of tapping their head to get the other to rescue them from a conversation, but it never worked. So, "poor" Elaine was sitting on the couch while a woman talked and talked in a nasal voice with the phrase "my fiancée" liberally sprinkled throughout. Finally, the quiet Elaine looks at the woman and says in a thick Australian accent, "maybe the dingo ate your baby."   (Click here for the YouTube video of this scene.)
I'm still cracking up, even though I've seen this episode many times. The woman says, "what?" and Elaine repeats her famous line. The woman gives Elaine the "you're crazy" look and walks off. Elaine gives a self satisfied smirk. Mission accomplished.

Now, two things interest me about this. Obviously, I'm amazed at the nerve, but when I think about it, I want to break down what makes this scene so great. How did she pull it off? What could I learn for creating my own outrageous character?

First, there is NO APOLOGY. In no way does Elaine regret her words. She doesn't clasp her hand over her mouth in a "did I say that out loud?" moment. She doesn't run to Jerry and say, "you won't believe what I just did." Nope. What she does is smirk. It was a purposeful tactic. Premeditated, with the eye on the result.

Now, we've all wished to say something like this or at least thought of something outrageous to get us out of a conversation, but it's not likely it would actually happen. Like most people, we suffer through party chatter and nod politely. If, by some stretch of the imagination, the words escaped, there would have to be an excuse.  What kind of excuse would you come up with?  Maybe alcohol loosened inhibitions. Maybe it was "the last straw" kind of thing. (This one gives Elaine a possible excuse, but her fuse was very short!) Or maybe it was as simple as accepting a bet to do something outrageous.

But for a truly outrageous character, this is over thinking. This is giving the character something he/she doesn't have; the embarrassment gene.

Second, there are NO WITNESSES. Elaine did not do this to impress her friends. The only participants were herself and the annoying woman. Okay, granted, the audience - US! - were the witnesses, but her character did what she did for her own amusement. And just as she didn't tell Jerry out of embarrassment, she didn't tell Jerry to brag.

A truly outrageous character follows his/her own agenda.

I'm going to keep these two things in mind for creating outrageous characters. There is something so liberating about writing a character who seems to be lacking the embarrassment gene. And besides, I've always been a little jealous that my son seems to be missing this gene!  Somehow, I get to be the one to face the consequences and that's really not fair.  So I need to create those characters to act on my behalf.

And while I think my hero or heroine might need more reasons/excuses for blurting out "the dingo ate your baby," I'll always aim for a secondary character that can get away with it. I can't say I understand them, but maybe the key is not to over think their motives and jump to the end result. Ask simply if they would do what they do with no apology and no witnesses except the reader.

Do you write outrageous characters? Who are they performing for?

2 comments:

  1. This is great. LOL I used to feel like it was my job to feel embarrassed for those people who didn't have the embarrassment gene. And boy was it a lot of work!

    I love outrageous characters too, and I really envy them the freedom they have to go about life saying and doing what they want. I haven't thought about who they might be performing for -- maybe it's for me. LOL

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  2. Donna, I know! It's a ton of work to be embarrassed for the people who don't have the embarrassment gene! But I think it says a lot about the qualities of the person who watches out for or befriends the outrageous character. :)

    Maybe your outrageous characters ARE performing for you. I DO think mine are performing for me. They seem to appear simply to make me laugh, but then the need to protect them kicks in and my main characters have a lot more substance when they step into that role. I didn't think I had any outrageous characters in my new story, but the puppy probably counts. He doesn't feature long, but he literally gets the ball rolling. LOL

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