Usually, I use this blog as a means of helpful advice on what you should do for your writing. I firmly believe that the tools an author has at their disposal should be as diverse and vast as they can make it.
But today, I want to talk about what you shouldn’t do in a novel. Namely, what things you should avoid that will make your characters dull, lifeless and unappealing.
Most authors have their particular focus. Some are impressive plot crafters, weaving in many different storylines in such a way that progression is seamless and engaging. Some are description experts, making every single scene seem like a movie in your mind. Some, like me, focus on creating life-like characters, using their presence in the story to drive the other points. While you should want to be an expert in all possible devices, neither one is notably better than the other. You may be able to get by lacking in some description from time to time, but there is never a recovery when a character becomes flat and unengaging.
So what makes a flat, unengaging character? As it turns out, many things, but we’re going to focus on three.
I’ve listed a couple of exercises to help with dialogue (particularly texts between two characters helps a lot), but the important part is to hear their voice differently than every other character in your head. Each character should have their own voice–literally. Their accents, dialect, preferred phrases, tone and inflections should all be varied and distinguishable. You should want the readers to get to the point that they can tell who is speaking if there are no tags or indications.
Forced dialogue is usually something you hear in your own voice when coming up with every character’s dialogue. For more assistance, listen to people you know well. Listen to how they phrase things, the speed at which they speak, the facial expressions or their favorite words that they use over and over. Use conversations as inspirations for characters voices. The voice of your character may not match perfectly, but paying attention to how people actually speak and act will help flesh the character out.
Even though it feels like cheating, pay attention to character types that you like in your favorite movies or T.V. shows. When tried to expound on my antihero, Mortimer, I was having a difficult time making his voice unique. Later, when watching the scene from Supernatural where Dean Winchester meets the archangel, Michael, I found my inspiration. It was a short conversation, but the condescension and arrogance in the line, “free will’s an illusion, Dean,” was like a sudden click that gave me an obvious idea of how I wanted Mortimer to sound when he spoke. In reality, the two characters couldn’t be more opposite; whereas the character, Michael, is bound by rules that he feels aren’t negotiable for him, Mortimer makes it his personal agenda to break every possible rule that can come between him and what he wants. The likeness, however, isn’t essential. Knowing the tone and seeing even just half a second of a manifestation of your character’s personality can make everything fall into place.
Learning to write great characters requires consuming everything you can about how people communicate. This includes nuances in facial expressions, attitudes and words. People watch whenever you have a second. People are often a story, themselves, and you can learn a lot about writing characters by notating what a person’s expression or stance or voice say about their attitude, personality or presence. Pay close attention to your favorite characters. They’re your favorite characters for a reason.
No Show, All Tell
I think every single author is tired of hearing, “show me, don’t tell me,” as a critique in their work. That’s because it’s the hardest rule to follow, even for somebody like me, who loves character development the most.
A surefire way to make your readers doubt that your character is brave is by telling them they’re brave. A better way to convince them is to tell them about every effort they took to steel themselves and stand their ground in the face of the 200-foot dragon intent on burning alive them and every last person in the town, despite their own fear. Your characters’ trials and struggles and fears and weaknesses and how they handle all of them will be what define them for your readers. After all, the purpose of reading fantasy or sci-fi is to travel through a journey with your character, to watch how the trip changes them and to see what they become.
If you read Harry Potter, you know the most hated character isn’t Voldemort, the main antagonist, or Lucius Malfoy, an awful man in general. It’s really, nearly indisputably Dolores Umbridge. She’s considered the personification of evil by most readers. The interesting part is the J.K. Rowling never outright refers to her as ‘evil.’ She relies purely on the actions of the character. Everybody hates Joffrey, from Game of Thrones, but that’s because George R.R. Martin spares no expense in making the word “unhinged” seem charitable when describing the actions of the character. The natural inclination is to explain the character to your readers. The talent lies in mentally smacking your hands when you do it, and relying on their actions, instead.
It also helps to flesh out your characters, as you won’t rely on qualifiers to describe them. Maybe your character is manipulative but soft-spoken. Perhaps they’re heartless until they’re around children. They can react one way to one situation, and a completely different way when faced with another. Not labeling them as any type of persona gives you the freedom to make them more involved.
No Challenges Too Great
As I mentioned earlier, your character is defined by their weakness and challenge and how they handle them. Be sure to give them problems that seem insurmountable, even if they’re mighty. Nobody is interested in stories in which the characters coast through every struggle. There’s nothing for a reader to invest themselves in.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy is an excellent example of seemingly unbeatable challenges. Not only are there plenty of struggles that J.R.R. Tolkien has laid at the feet of the Fellowship, but the One Ring, itself, poses a threat both to Frodo for carrying it and to those around him who want it.
This point is pretty straightforward. If everything is a breeze for your character, there just isn’t much of a story to tell. Conflicts are what keep readers reading, and having the right amount is what will keep your readers turning pages.
So, now that you’re aware of these three things, what can you do to avoid them? This is where the earlier post about prewriting can be useful. Edward Zwick, the director of the movie, Blood Diamond, said that, for filming, he wrote on a piece of paper, “the child is the diamond,” and used that to keep the plot in line with the critical story he was trying to tell. This is a good idea if you feel overwhelmed by character development, even if you’re not too crazy about prewriting. Have a sentence for each significant character that defines their goal, their challenge or their motivation, and use that as a compass whenever you’re lost as to how they should react. Use personalities that you’ve constructed by watching real interactions. Use characteristics that you’ve accumulated from characters that have made an impact on you as a reader or viewer.
Making a character really means knowing how real people speak, act and react. Fine tune your understanding of this and you’re on your way to unforgettable characters.