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.