2) No change. Stories are all about change, and the change is usually most evident in characters. Bilbo Baggins becomes a very unhobbity hobbit. (Apparently today I’m making up words based on made-up words…) Anne of Green Gables grows up and embraces her strengths and flaws. The Pevensey children go through a slew of transformations – both physical and mental – in Narnia. They all change. They have to. Otherwise, there’s really no story. I often hear writers – those working on a first draft of a first book – say, “My character doesn’t change at all or develop. He/she is already who he/she is supposed to be.” While there may be a few exceptions, if your main character doesn’t grow or even regress in some way through the story, you probably don’t have a very exciting story. Life is about change. The same goes for stories.
3) Cookie Cutter Characters. It’s easy to fall into the trap of using stereotypical characters who have stereotypical paths and end up being changed in stereotypical ways. The girl with trust issues falls in love and has to learn to trust. The guy haunted by memories of war has to overcome his demons and find joy in life. These aren’t bad characters. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. These characters have become stereotypes because they work. But you cannot settle for the stereotype. If you write a girl with trust issues or a guy haunted by the past, go deeper. Build a real person. Don’t rely on the stereotype to carry your story.
4) One-Dimensional Characters. This is sort of like point 3, but not really. (Clear as mud? Yes? No?) You may have a very real, original character, but sometimes what you have in your mind doesn’t translate to the page. The character that seemed so real falls flat. Very often, this is because the author doesn’t really know the character. You may think you know the character, because you know the character’s part in your story, but in the same way that real people have a life outside of the workplace, your character needs to have a life outside of what you’ve written. Every person has a past, dreams, ambitions, fears, embarrassing moments, etc. Every character should, too, even if you don’t use them in your story. Get to know your characters, and your characters will come to life. Here’s a Character Questionnaire to get you started.
5) Misuse of Dialogue. Dialogue is a great way to build characters, but it’s often overlooked by newbie writers who make every character sound the same. That’s a problem. Your main character should have a distinct voice. We should learn about the character and the changes he/she is undergoing not only by the content of the dialogue, but also by how the content is conveyed. For example, a character who greets people by saying, “Yo,” is very different from a character who greets people with a formal, “Greetings and salutations, dear sir/ma’am!” Both basically say the same thing. They say, “Hi”. But the manner in which the content is conveyed is also very telling. And if the dude who says, “Yo!” is saying, “Greetings and salutations,” by the end of the story, we know the character has changed.
6) Unbelievable Motivation. If your character spends two days stranded in the ocean with sharks circling and is finally rescued, she will likely have different perspective on life than she had before. If a character loses a loved one, he may want to live life more fully. A character who goes to Haiti for a year might be inspired to change the world after that. These are believable motivations for character development. But if your character loses his pet goldfish, that probably won’t motivate him to great change. If your character walks through a slum once, it isn’t believable that she’d decide to change the world based on that one walk. You must have a believable motivation to urge
(This is probably my biggest sin when it comes to characters, because I like to write mysteries, but I have a difficult time with motive. I can figure out the whodunit and the howdunit, but why? When push comes to shove, what’s a good reason to kill somebody? Why can’t they talk out their problems? What a horrible mystery that would make! Anyway, I have to work really hard to develop villains, because I have trouble coming up with believable motivation for them. And onto #7.)
7) Cart Before Horse. If you write often, then I’m willing to bet you’ve done this. You have an ending in mind for your story. You know where you want your character to end up. So you force the story toward that ending, and you impose a destination on your character, even if the ending and the destination don’t quite fit. As you write, your character becomes real, and his motivation is clear, but in order to reach your preconceived ending, you make your character do things he really wouldn’t do. You’ve decided on a box for your character before you’ve gone through the trouble of developing him fully. You put the cart before the horse. At that point you either need to be open to changing your ending, or else you’ll have to change your character to make him fit in that box. I’d recommend the former. If you’ve created a great character, let him carry the story. Don’t force him into predetermined ending that doesn’t quite work. Let your horse pull your cart.
So, what’s the 8th deadly sin of character development? What do you struggle with most when developing characters? And what advice do you have for character creation? Please share your idea, question, comment, concern, recipe and/or life philosophy below.