The ten worst mistakes that authors make when creating characters (and what you should do instead)
Characters should be interesting and three-dimensional and relatable and memorable and all the other important things. That is no easy task!
Creating a character that is interesting and three-dimensional is not easy. Even published authors often get it wrong, and I have concocted a small how-NOT-to list with the ten worst mistakes.
And so as not to be fully focused on gleefully pointing out the mistakes of others (no names of course – but you’re more than welcome to provide your favourite examples of terrible characters below!) I’ll finish off with a few tips on how to make sure our characters are MUCH better.
Drum roll, please? Here come the worst mistakes.
Too many Points of View
Ever try reading a story where you almost burst out ‘oh no, not again’ or at least heave a deep sigh when the point of view suddenly changes yet another time? Multiple points of view should be used with caution. Too often it ends up working like an obstacle that gets in the way of you feeling absorbed in the story, because you end up trying to put yourself in too many characters’ shoes.
Too Much Zen
Sometimes a character is just too stoic, you know what I mean? If you find out in that you have magical powers or that your parents are not really your parents because you’re actually an alien or your boyfriend is a vampire or something equally shocking, we want to see a reaction. Okay, so maybe a full-on breakdown doesn’t help the story progress, and maybe the author is trying to show us that this character handles adversity very well, but a little something in the lines of a normal, human reaction is just so much more realistic.
Too Much Information
Do we really need to know the colour of the heroine’s socks? Or the name of every plant our hero passes on his way to school? Well, sometimes we do, but not always. And there is nothing more boring than an unmotivated overload of details that don’t really say anything useful about the character anyway.
Too Many People
In the same way that a story can almost OD on details, it can also OD on characters. Too often we are trying to keep track of tons of different people that aren’t even necessary to tell the story, and you find yourself flipping back through the pages trying to find where the character was first introduced so you can figure out who they are. It’s enough to know that someone goes to school and get to know a few of the people there – but if we’re introduced to the whole class and asked to remember 25 names, there’d better be a really good reason!
Wrong Foot First
Sometimes the author thinks it’s a good gimmick to let us follow a character in the beginning and then – surprise – in the course of a few pages that character is dead, and now the real story starts. Except the reader thought it already did and really tried to connect with the character who is now – unfortunately – dead. The same applies to settings. In the hands of a really skilled author it can definitely work, but it should be handled with care.
The Trouble With Perfection
Characters need to be relatable and interesting – and oftentimes they are also really attractive. But sometimes they are both ridiculously beautiful AND good, because the author has forgotten that perfection is quite simply boring. There is no tension (and sadly it’s not very relatable either) because there is really nowhere to go from perfection and a story needs an engine, it needs development.
Talk Talk Talk
Dialogue is good, no doubt, and characterization through dialogue is way better than just describing the character. But the dialogue needs to take place in a setting between characters that do more than just move their lips. Nothing is as annoying as dialogue where you lose track of who is saying what, and nothing besides talk goes on for page after page.
Forgetting The Zoom Lens
Everything is not equally important, and that should be reflected in the way it is told. Imagine watching an entire movie that is filmed from the same angle and without ever zooming in or out. Some books feel the same way. That makes it impossible for the reader to get involved with the characters. Some things should be related in detail and others should only be alluded to.
Did You Say Passive?
No, I said passionate! Too many characters are just waiting around for stuff to happen to them. They don’t act, they react. They seem to only get mixed up in events by coincidence and when they do, they spend most of the time waiting around for someone else to help them out. We want heroes and heroines that are full of ideas and show initiative.
Show, Don’t Tell
A classic, if there ever was one, and no doubt you have heard this already a million times. But for a good reason! It might be the most important advice of all, in relation to characters as well as everything else. Some authors just tell us what she did (she walked down the street. She was afraid that someone was following her), but we want to know how she did it, and what it looked like or felt like (She walked faster, her footsteps sounding way too loud in the deserted street. Was this a mistake? She glimpsed something out of the corner of her eye. Movement, a shadow. Heart racing, she turned. Nothing.)
And now what?
So how can we make sure that our characters are great? First of all don’t make any of these ten mistakes. Ha ha, okay, that’s easier said than done. But knowing what they are should at least help us avoid making them.
Other than that; two things. The first is to always make sure that my character is motivated. Give them a goal, something they’re trying to achieve. It shouldn’t be too difficult, or they may never get there, but it shouldn’t be too easy or there’s no tension, no challenge. And their goal, of course, says a lot about who they are. Is your heroine desperately trying to save up money for a nose job? Or is she desperately trying to salvage the local bog, which is one of the last breeding grounds for an endangered species of frogs?
The second is to make sure that you’ve given your character an individual voice. If you delete the part that says “said Marlene”, will the reader still know it’s Marlene, because it is just so like her to say that? Is there accordance between the way she speaks and what kind of person, she is? If your hero is a vampire who has lived for 300 years, he probably speaks in a different tone of voice than a girl who dreams of becoming a rapper.
As always, I can’t wait to read all your great stories!
And please comment if you have an example of a really dreadful (or really amazing) character, or have a good tip on how to create great characters!