Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Wild Cards -- Creating Offbeat Characters

When you’re writing a story, sometimes you need an offbeat or oddball character who doesn’t quite fit the norm. A ‘wild card’ can be lots of fun to create because they’re so different from heroes and heroines who have to be, well, heroic. Some aspects of a wild card’s behavior are irrational—warped, distorted or maybe deviant. At the very least, they’re eccentrics. Others with even more exaggerated behavior might be labeled psychos.

How do you create a wild card? The same way you develop a ‘normal’ character. You devise a dominant impression, give him tags and traits, goals, motivation and a background etc. But that’s just the beginning because he’s not a run-of-the-mill kind of guy. He deviates from the norm and you, the writer, control to what degree and in what way he differs from other more typical characters.

The eccentric has a great need to exert his individuality. He’s probably obsessive-compulsive or possibly schizoid or paranoid. His preoccupation with his obsession sets him apart and makes him noticeable to other people.

To develop such a character, you have to ask three questions:
What form does his eccentricity take? Labeling him odd isn’t enough to convince readers he truly is strange. Show his peculiar habits or compulsions in action.

What purpose does it serve for him? The wild card has to gain something from his peculiar behavior and it has to be meaningful to the story. Remember to keep his behavior consistent.

How do you want readers to feel about him? The writer must decide if she wants the reader to feel distain, dislike, pity or amusement toward the character.

The psycho is a character suffering from a more or less severe emotional illness. There’s often a thin line between the eccentric and the psychotic character. The writer isn’t concerned with the clinical details of the disease, but with the problems the character faces due to his sickness. While the psychotic wild card masks his aberration, the eccentric often is open about his obsession and is considered harmless.

There are three questions the writer might ask to develop a psychotic character:
What does he do to reveal his deviance?
How does he mask it from others?
What logic lies behind his madness?

Another relevant question the writer might ask: Do you delve within the psycho’s mind or do you report objectively about him? You can go either way, but the more mysterious the character, the more realistic he seems to the reader who often struggles to relate to a deviant, especially one whose actions repulse us. But if you want the reader to feel sympathy, delve into the wild card’s mind and show his odd reasoning. Show how his emotions overwhelm his mind and cause him to lose his rational control.

It’s important to research mental illness before creating a story character who is ‘crazy.’ You certainly don’t have to earn a degree in Psychology before you begin to write, but remember that all deviant characters are not the same. They differ from one another just as ‘regular’ characters do.

Unless you’re writing a horror novel, you might not want to make the wild card the view point character/hero since readers often find him distasteful and hard to relate to. It can be done, but it’s difficult—unless you’re Stephen King.

Often the psycho is your villain who disguises his evil heart beneath a normal exterior. But the eccentric character lends himself to even more story roles. He can serve many story purposes including comic relief, one of my favorites. Let your imagination run wild as you create these people and I guarantee you’ll have fun. Who says secondary characters are only walk-ins? They can be as vivid and colorful as you make them.

If you’re interested in devising oddball characters, read Dwight V. Swain’s book How to Build Story People.


  1. Ohhh, interesting idea. I like this. I'm starting a new WIP next month, I'm gonna keep this in mind. Is this something like a comic relief but more in depth?

  2. I have one of these characters in my new WIP, and he figures into the plot fairly prominently. I'm hoping to include at least one more "eccentric," someone who brings color and comic relief into the story, but haven't figured out how to do that yet. But it'll come to me. :-)

  3. Hi Lynn and Melanie! A humorous character is just one kind of quirky eccentric. Anyone with oddities in their personality--speech, behavior, thoughts etc.--can be created to fit your purpose. To me they're fun to write because they're 'out of the box' and unusal. Unlike the hero/heroine, wild cards don't even have to be likeable because the reader doesn't relate so closely to them.

  4. Great info Cara and something we need to keep in mind when developing secondary characters. They are just as important as our hero and heroine. I'm going to keep this info in mind.

    Hmmmm, I've got some cheesecake smothered with berries. Would anyone like some? Help yourself. It will save me the calories. Ruthy should be along with more goodies.

  5. This is really good stuff, Cara. I never considered this in depth. I always have a wild card, but admit that I shy away from writing suspsense because I have a very had time writinging the villan wild card.

  6. Good post, Cara. I usually add an eccentric secondary character somewhere in my novels. I think it just reflects a realistic view of the world.

    My grade 10 teacher told us that 'no one is normal'. I started to argue with her until she added 'we are all average'.

    How true, for which one would be classified as normal - the introvert or extrovert?

  7. Great tips Cara! Thanks for the post. :-)

  8. Cara, very interesting post! I love creating secondary characters for comic relief or to create havoc for the hero and heroine. I'd never heard of the term wild card, but it's very apt. Thanks!


  9. I hadn't heard of this Swain book. Definitely going to look for a copy. My characters are often too normal. LOL! And I love reading about quirky or eccentric characters.

    Great post!

  10. LOL, Cara, I think you forgot to mention how much fun these characters can be! And also,to be careful they don't take over your book.

    In one book I was writing, I was so worried about developing the H/H characters with the right GMC, that I gravitated to the butler because he was easy and had a sense of humor. HE stole every scene he was in just because I wasn't all worked up about writing him.

    Good point to bring up when rounding out the book. I love calling them wild cards : )

  11. Cara ... what a cool and unique blog article ... sure could have used it with Charity! :) Forgive me for the popping in so late, but I have been in the ER all day and night with my 90-year-old aunt, who is doing okay, praise God.


  12. Thanks for this post! Our own lives are filled with quirky, eccentric people. Adding them to our stories can only serve the make our novel more realistic.

    Thanks again!