One problem new writers have is creating realistic characterization within a character driven plotline.
Several writers argue if a subplot should exist within fiction writing, but I believe weaving character subplots along with the main plot points keep readers’ interest and invested in your characters. This means keeping the characters engaged, realistic and wholesome without compromising key points of their character.
Would you want a character with the same expression or face in every passage? No? Then keep reading, because emotions are important to character development.
In this article, I’ll define some of the common mistakes I’ve noticed in reference to character development. Some of these are personal examples, while others are from others I’ve helped in the last year.
#1: Inconsistent backstory and emotional reactions.
Every writer has heard the same saying: do not info-dump your main character’s backstory. However, having an inconsistent backstory causes the same damage to a writer’s credibility.
Some writers suffer from ‘shiny syndrome’ and believe they can input any cool idea into their manuscript. However, this backfires when someone writes their character has an illness, but are magically cured by book two or three with no explanation.
The best way to combat this issue is to do a character sheet and have it available when you write. In fact, for each book (if it is a series), write a natural progression arc and what the character needs to accomplish at the end of each book. This will help you with keeping consistent characterization, backstory and ensures your character grows by the series’ end.
Additionally, this helps ‘keep your characters real’ whenever they have a scenario happen within your universe. Some examples of wacky character reactions or unrealistic scenarios include abnormal relationships, not grieving when someone was central to their lives, suddenly dating after vowing vengeance upon every criminal in the universe, or info-dumping their life story to a new character when they are mortal enemies or their core personality is distrusting of strangers.
My personal favorite is characterization that shows a careful mix and developed character growth when appropriate. Anyone can write the main plot, but not everyone can craft memorable characters they want more stories about.
#2: Lack of “personalization”.
I discussed this with another writer several months ago, where they were bummed about a review they received. One comment was the inability to differentiate the characters because they “sounded recycled” and “not fresh” within this particular genre.
There are hardly any original ideas in fiction writing anymore. There are trope sites like TV Tropes and All The Tropes Wiki for a reason, but writers have the ability to write outside the norm and put a fresh twist on an overused plot device. It is our job as writers to entertain, and one of those ways is to create engaging, memorable characters.
This means giving them personality, even if they fight with others within the universe, the supporting cast or themselves. Each arc can become engaging if played right, but overplaying these arcs can irritate readers.
Not everyone will get along, and not everyone is meant to be your main character’s ally, despite the fans who insist otherwise. Write what is true to the story to a reasonable point without upsetting your fanbase. You don’t have to ‘force romance’ or ‘save a character’ because several fans insist they will stop reading, but you should consider feedback if more than a handful are stating such things.
(For the record, I would never change a pairing to a ‘forced romance’ or change how their relationship works, but I have done the ‘save a character’ card after valid feedback from several people, including my two editors and beta readers.)
#3: Everyone has the same character quirk.
There are over four billion people on Earth and not every person you write is going to have glasses, smoke cigarettes, cuss like a sailor, or dress fashionably (unless you’re hanging around Aviere, because she’s a danger magnet and attracts all the classy men with expensive guns).
Also, they’re not white, under eighteen years old, have big boobs or have every superpower under the sun. If you want this, watch anime. There’s plenty of this out there. 🙂
They might lose their glasses, trip at the most unopportune times, or spark outrage with an offhanded comment. They might do weird things like eat particular foods, make certain facial expressions, only wear one brand of clothing, or have ‘self-soothing’ techniques when they’re stressed, anxious or unable to comprehend news other characters give them.
These are character quirks and they make each character unique, depending on their personality, behavior and mental state within the story.
This was one thing I struggled with because personalizing a wide range of characters became hard after working on the same project over and over again. Several resource books helped described how people with certain personalities worked and observing people in doctor’s offices, local stores and at family events helped further.
If everyone within your main cast is “smart, sarcastic and super intelligent”, readers won’t read further. In today’s society, readers want a diverse cast, including different ethnic groups. Therefore, it is important to write character sketches (or a page of what your character is like) before drafting your story. This way, you can incorporate important aspects to their characters, like nervous tics, facial expressions and common reactions to certain situations.
#4: Everyone is related.
It’s easy to write about your main character, their family, friends, extended family, co-workers, high school acquaintances, ex-boyfriends, hated rivals and every other relation they interact with.
However, when you have one or two main characters, narrow your focus. If the extended cast doesn’t play a pivotal part, remove them or dim the camera lens. If the supporting person links them together (like the annoying co-worker or pesky boss throwing a kink in their plans), then it’s important to keep that dynamic. Most of these examples include keeping the “sidekick” character, even if they don’t fit the normal stereotype.
My current lineup is this:
- Two main characters: Aviere and Travis. Both are anti-heroes in their own right, but flip from protagonist to antagonist on each other, depending on their views and morals. While urban fantasy usually focuses on first person and one POV, I used third and up to three points of view, depending on which secondary support links both main characters together for books two through five.
- Sidekick characters: Each main character has a supporting “right hand” or “sidekick” character(s), which can be secondary antagonists for the opposing main character(s). For Aviere, these are her brothers, who disagree with some choices, but eventually support her quest. For Travis, it’s his co-worker/in-law that detests him because of his magic, but maintains his support, despite his open hostility about their situation.
- Antagonist: The general big bad. Most people have this in the open, but I have a rolling number until the ultimate evil slips and reveals himself in book three.
- Neutral characters: These are people who can be supporting and transfer to main, but do not side with either power. One example is Soulstealer, a defected mage in Drift. She acts according to a ‘black and white’ version of right and wrong, even if the main characters aren’t victorious at the end of the book.
- Supporting characters: These are people who are not the main focus of the story. Keep in mind, this CAN change within a series, depending on if characters die or opt out of following the main character. These can be good or bad guys, depending on which side they follow.
- Foil characters: This is important to note, since every writer does this. These are people who are a reflection of another character, no matter how small. Foil characters should not encompass the entire main cast, but bring out certain quirks within your main characters. I will give examples in my next mistake of foil characters.
Your main character is not related to everyone. Think of Spaceballs for a second, where Darth Helmet is listing his relation to Lone Star. It’s reasonable to have brothers, sisters, and intermediate family, but leave out extended cousins, your second cousin removed and your ‘sister’s brother’s former roommate’. Unless there’s a reason you need them, you’re better off limiting the amount of main and supporting characters, unless you’re writing an epic fantasy or Game of Thrones.
#5: Every character is either paired with someone else or became foil characters of certain pairings.
Again, have some diversity here. It’s easy to have the tragic hero or heroine who’s on a quest to find their long-lost love, but this is an overplayed trope that can work if retold correctly. You can also have people represent different aspects of these tropes, which ties into the foil character remark from earlier. Here are two examples.
In my first series, Limere became a foil of Travis’ character, who later developed in book two. The reason for the foil developed in book one, where Travis needed reassurance that his boss paired him with an individual who understood what working with him was like. In two, this needed to separate, because there was another development which linked all three characters together, ending one person’s story arc for this series.
Peters falls into the same category for Aviere, who comes out more throughout each book, but is featured with his own point-of-view by book three. At first, he was the conflict, but is a minor antagonist in regards to performing his job. His character brings out her best traits and the worst, while making her recognize some lessons she needs to learn within the series.
Now, back to the other part of this problem.
Broaden your horizons and make romantic and foil characters realistic. Some people die, and it’s sad—but it happens. If the character in question does questionable actions within their original backstory, and it bites their bottom within the series, there needs to be a major consequence. As much as writers become attached to their darlings, know when to cut the cord. Even romantic couples lose someone, including supporting cast members.
Everyone loves romance, but keep it reasonable. If you’re writing for an audience you know doesn’t want erotica, there are other ways to show a romantic pairing. (See number 3 about having the same quirks.) Some examples include holding hands, affectionate gestures, teasing remarks or thoughtful actions. In these instances, you want to personalize them so that each couple has their own ‘memorable mark’ and leaves the reader with a good feeling. Even in dark fantasy, grimdark and dark paranormal romances, readers love hopeful feelings for said couple, even if the book hangs on a happy-for-now (HFN) ending.
For example, by book two, I have a potential couple and a definite couple. Both have different levels of tension between them whenever they’re presented together. While the potential couple (later confirmed couple) has tension you could cut with a knife (and other characters notice and voice their complaints), the other one is balanced, despite some unhealthy circumstances out of their control.
The thing you want to avoid is sickeningly sweet romance or Serena from Sailor Moon. You’ll scare away readers quick if they turn on the waterworks every time they’re fighting with their partner.
And last, but not least:
#6: Melodrama does not win brownie points.
I cannot stress this enough, especially with certain kinds of scenes. Readers will only tolerate a certain amount of times a character whines, cries or grieves, even if the reaction is appropriate to their character’s reaction, or their character arc later down the road.
As someone who doesn’t care for melodramatics in any female characters, finding a reasonable balance can be hard. The last three chapters of my second book tried my patience finding this particular part.
If the character is supposed to react badly, that is fine. I’m not saying to never show tears or melodrama. However, limit it to a tolerable level. Someone’s death before their eyes will probably cause unbridled grief, and so will searing pain, losing limbs, or near fatal injuries.
Melodrama because they can’t get a pizza, they ran out of makeup at the store or a petty argument is a different story.
I hope these tips help you when you start developing characters or revamping your draft if various people question your character development.
Are there things you struggle with or overcome during character development? If so, how? If not, why not?0