Let's meet three characters to avoid

Good characters really pop off the page, even when a story is driven more by plot and action. This can be achieved in a variety of ways (some of which we will look at in the next article) but sometimes writers struggle. Reflecting on the submissions received for Firewords 9, it is clear to see how important characterisation is.

Here, we talk about the three most common mistakes in character creation we see. It is not an exhaustive list but we hope you find it a good place to start. Even if you are full of confidence, do any of these apply to you?

The 2D Character

Many characters fall flat as they are so two-dimensional that it appears that even their creators don’t truly know them. What we would encourage, therefore, is to know all about your characters in ways that may not be directly relevant to the story. Knowing how they would think and react in different situations means that, when writing about them, they will be more engaging, have some depth and really come to life.

Even if the story is quite linear and doesn’t explicitly involve any layers or backstory, the character can share their thoughts and feelings. Also, their reactions in any given situation can be used for subtle character building. This all relies on the writer knowing how the character would behave.

Perhaps the writer is so focused on plot that they forget anything else. It is important to remember that even when a piece is plot-driven, that doesn’t mean other components are not important.

The Heartstring Tugger

We love it when writing moves us. However, sometimes when writers try too hard to make the reader feel, rather than focus on the content of the story itself, we are left cold.

Take, for example, wee Jeanie. Something terrible has happened to wee Jeanie. We are told in detail about what the terrible thing is, but not about how she is trying to overcome it or what affect the situation is having on her life as a whole.  

There is a fine line here between blatant attempts at violin playing and great emotive writing that really does move the reader.

In the same way, many writers try to shock the reader by describing a character who is involved in activities that are far outwith the reader’s comfort zone. The most obvious examples here are those who take hard drugs or are violent towards someone else. These stories can hold important messages, but in order to be successful they have to go somewhere.

Characters who we empathise with or cringe at are important in writing and often form the basis of great stories. In fact, there is a lot to be said for writing which focuses on character rather than plot to give us a snippet of their lives and the struggles they face. However, even here the best way to approach the writing of characters is to think of the purpose that characterisation has to the story as a whole. If we start at point A at the beginning of the story and move to point B at the end, there must be some progression in either our understanding or the position of the character.

If we start at point A and are given a lot of description and are still at point A then we have not moved forward and many readers will feel dissatisfied.

The Lazy Stereotype

One very common mistake with writing is to ‘create’ characters that are so overdone you are not really creating anything at all. It is disengaging to read because we do not feel connected to the story. One way of overcoming this is to dig deeper and get an understanding of who the character is.

An obvious example of this is the neighbour next door; the woman who is intent on pruning her garden, whose family means everything to her and who is slightly overbearing. This character comes up a lot. However, why is she overbearing? Perhaps it is through an innate need to do good. Maybe she was left on her own as a child which left her desperate and she does not want any of her family to feel the same way. Her attempts to be a better person than her own parents may not be working out so smoothly for her, but she may even look on her overbearing actions with disdain and desperately be trying to break free. If so, how does she react towards her husband when no one is there? She may take her frustrations out on him or may be an open book to him.

All this backstory will probably not appear in the writing itself, but will form how the character acts in certain situations, and her thoughts and facial expressions. Cementing characters in larger, real life context is how we start moving away from the stereotypical (and the two-dimensional).    

So really think about your character and get inside their head. Know them better than your reader ever will. You can create a world that is for you alone where everything fits together like pieces of a jigsaw, and this will shine through in your writing.

Where to go from here?

If the 2D characters above are an example of ‘under-writing’, heartstring-tugging attempts can be seen as ‘over-writing’. By trying to fix one you may well end up with the other. However, there is a huge ground in the middle that, with a wee bit of practice and editing, will be open to you.

Our final thoughts, then, reflect those in our recent podcast on emotive poetry: in trying to better your writing it is alright to get it wrong. Kiss a lot of frogs and you might finally find your prince / princess.