Fixing Flat Characters

While there are some fine examples of books/stories in which an “everyman” character can be interesting, there are many more examples in which an “everyman” type is…well, boring.  That’s not to say that stories about “normal” people can’t be awesome, but there’s no such thing as a perfectly neutral person, just like there’s no such thing as a perfect person.

Don’t you risk pushing away some readers if you make a characters’ quirks, beliefs, attitudes, or lifestyles different from those readers’?  Yeah, but, just like in real life, not everybody is gonna like everybody else.  There are people who don’t like YOU, but you’re still yourself, right?  And a lot more readers will be intrigued by and endeared to a strong character (even one of questionable morals) than a flat, boring character.  Look at Han Solo.  He’s kind of a rake, self-centered, and smart-mouthed.  But that’s why he’s an entertaining character – that juxtaposition of “not a NICE GUY, but a GOOD GUY nonetheless” keeps you curious about his next line, whether he’ll do the right thing or not, etc.

Now, there’s another way to make a character flat and boring, at the other end of the scale.  There is nothing more intensely BLAH than a character that’s overdone – he/she is a stereotype, relies entirely on a single central trait, or is so over-the-top that he/she leaves readers rolling their eyes and sighing in moments that are meant to be powerful or gripping.  This happens a lot with the all-good hero or all-evil villain, but it’s not a problem confined to good guys vs. bad guys.

The core of the issue, really, is when the writer himself/herself doesn’t know enough about the character.  Sometimes, characters just come out three-dimensional without any effort on my part.  I love it when that happens.  Other times, they develop depth and back story during the writing process (I also love that, although it usually means I have to tweak the first scenes or chapters that character appears in, to account for things I’ve “learned” about them along the way).  And then, some characters take momentous effort to make them come alive.  Actually, I love that process, too, although it can be frustrating when the characters just won’t work with me.

For particularly troublesome characters, here are some things to try:

  • Break up stereotypes.  If you’re writing a character who is one, reverse a few expectations, throw in some additional interests, or give us some reason that your character him/herself is TRYING to be a stereotype.
  • Ask your character any 10 questions, like it’s an interview.  Write down your questions and their answers, and see what new information you can uncover about them.  What was his favorite birthday present as a kid?  What’s her ideal vacation?  What STILL bothers him, even though it happened 16 years ago?  What’s the ability she’s most confident about in herself?
  • Write down 3 things your character is aware of about himself/herself (pick some good and some bad), and 3 things that OTHER characters would readily notice about his/her personality (some good, some bad) that he/she isn’t aware of about himself/herself.  Think about the things you’ve listed – are they things that would factor into events and reactions within your storyline?  Are they things that will change, or things your character will realize, within the storyline?  Are they things your character will have to call upon or overcome in order to make it to his/her goal(s) in the story?
  • Strengths and weaknesses are sometimes one and the same.  It’s often the balance of a trait that makes it a “flaw” or a “merit” in a personality.  Being stubborn is bad, right?  The flip side of stubbornness, though, is persistance, determination, tenacity, and/or constancy.  Many of the best characters are ones whose flaws and strengths are a double-edged sword, and the interplay of positive and negative side effects of their traits gives the narrative plenty of potential intrigue and tension.
  • Don’t make a character all anything – good, bad, cruel, confident, indifferent, whatever.  Even if it’s just a smidgen of contradiction, and even if it isn’t written on the page, you should have it in mind that no one is all one way or another.  The ultra-confident jerk at the office who always gets the promotions and the girls may be exactly that to your main character, but YOU, the writer, can know better.  Maybe the guy is secretly horribly insecure and is overcompensating, or has something to prove to his overly critical father, whatever.  But, whether that’s specified in the story or not isn’t as important as the fact that, as a writer, you’ve got to know all your characters, heart and soul, as if they were real people.  They’ll never be real people to your readers unless they’re real to YOU first.

You can probably tell by now that I’m a very character-focused writer, so you know I’ll be rambling about characters and character development again.  You haven’t heard the last of it yet!  Muahahaha!  😉

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