The most brilliant plot is nothing without the right characters. The writer’s job is to create unique, emotionally charged characters that are strong enough to drive the story. The characters we choose can make or break a novel, and a single misstep can turn a credible hero into a counterfeit that the reader has no patience for.
Common missteps in characterization:
–Pushing ‘Natural Character Quirks’ Too Far
An example of this would be Stephanie Meyer’s Bella Swan. Not to pick on SM or Twilight, but I don’t know anyone who’s read this book and doesn’t feel that Bella comes across as too clumsy. There’s clumsy, then falling/bumping/dropping something on every page clumsy. If you overdo it, the reader notices, and it unfortunately interferes with their connection to the character.
If the character is more passive than active, why should the reader care about them? Chances are, Sin # 1 has been committed and the stakes are too low. Create a stronger emotional investment to the events taking place.
–They Don’t Come Across as Real People (cliched, too perfect, too flawed)
I’ve posted a series on common character cliches, so I won’t reinvent the wheel here. Yes, it can be tough to spin a character in a new way, but it’s something every writer MUST do. If we don’t, the character ceases to be an individual and instead becomes a stereotype. The Jock. The Good Girl. The Hard Ass. 9.9 times out of 10, a character cliche crutch means the writer needs to delve deeper to really understand who their character is.
Sometimes a character is noticeably too perfect or too flawed. Either way, the reader will not embrace them as they should because they don’t feel ‘authentic.’ Real people have both flaws and strengths, and so should characters.
Even if there is an unbalanced set of circumstances to contend with, NEVER make the sole focus on what a character has or doesn’t have. Instead emphasize what they DO with what they have. A boy can live a perfect, privileged life and still make bad choices. Or a girl can have the odds stacked against her and still succeed through perseverance and the support of those around her. Humanize the character by showing them overcoming weakness and honing strengths to get what they desire.
–Emotions Runneth Over
One word: melodrama. Absolutely a character should show his or her emotions, but not to the point where the reader gags at the levels being displayed. The portrayal of emotion must be equal to the circumstance and too much can create an instant dislike of the character. High drama all the time does not allow the reader a break to absorb and enjoy other aspects of the novel.
–The Character is Above the Law
Conflict is all about choices and consequences. Is there a better way to alienate a reader than to write a character who never has to face the music for his or her decisions? If character is never held accountable and everything always works out nice and neat for them, the reader feels cheated and angry at not just the character, but the writer.
–Logic Faux Pas/Forcing Agendas
This happens when the writer characterizes a main or secondary character one way but their actions do not line up with who they are. The reader is pulled out of the scene because the character is not acting logically. Their behavior rings false or worse, reeks of the writer’s agenda. NEVER, EVER BREAK THE SPELL.
What are some other ways a character can come across as a counterfeit? What books can you think of where this sin has been committed and it affected your connection to the character?
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.