Friday, 17 June 2011

4 Character Fails

1. Characters display unattractive or dull characteristics
Spiteful. Petty. Mean-spirited. There are some characteristics that have no redeeming features. Patronising. Superior. Condescending. Give your main characters these qualities and you can guarantee you're going to turn readers off. Subsidiary characters can of course have these qualities, then we like the main characters for giving them their comeuppance.
Now, I can hear you all saying, but what about the character we love to hate? The character we love to hate usually has attractive characteristics in spades - qualities like energy, flair, wit, sex appeal. They may do bad things, but that doesn't seem to matter as much.

2. Characters who are nice
Bland characters are boring. Inoffensive = unmemorable. Nice people are good to know in real life but they make heavy reading. Quick - name a woman in a Dickens novel. Bet you came up with Estella, Miss Havisham, Betsy Trotwood, Bella, Sarah Gamp, Nancy, Lady Deadlock - all characters who aren't particularly 'nice' but are memorable. Anyone remember Dora? Nope, didn't think so.

3. Characters who react rather than act
Main characters need to do stuff, not hang around waiting for things to happen. We can all jog along nicely in our own little ruts in real life, but who wants to read about it? Your character might be in a rut at the start of the book, but once they've been thrown out of it (as they surely will, and hopefully pretty early on) they get going and start doing.

4. Bad first impressions
I am sure there are lots of gorgeous men out there called Geoff or Brian. Or Nigel. But it's hard to think of them as leading male characters. For the women, it's hard to get excited reading about Mildred, Doris or Blodwen. Names are important as they have all sorts of associations - Scarlett O'Hara was originally called Pansy, which doesn't have quite the same ring about it.
It's also hard for characters to shake off negative impressions if they're shown displaying unattractive characteristics (see no 1) the first time we see them. You know the saying that we make up our minds about someone within 30 seconds of meeting them? Same is true for reading about them, and it's very hard to shift those first impressions.

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4 comments:

Lucy V Morgan said...

Plenty of alpha male genre romance characters have a lot of those number one characteristics, but readers lap them up (ahem) nonetheless. I think writing a female character is way harder in that respect.

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

Yes - it's so important to get your character's right. The most important I think is that no matter how flawed they may be they should be likeable. The reader needs to root for them...

Jane Holland said...

Real historical characters can be hard to write well if they don't fit into any of those 'good character' categories. You feel bound by the facts in most cases.

Being a bit of a wheeler-dealer though, I try to use a little imagination and nudge those kinds of characters into some secret motivation which allows us to identify with them more. Whilst keeping my fingers crossed that no one moans 'But that's not what happened! He wasn't like that at all!' etc.

Sarah Duncan said...

That's an interesting point Lucy. The classic alpha male in genre romance is often patronising, superior etc - until he gets tamed by the woman. And I think he's generally really vulnerable, loyal etc underneath the hard exterior.

Pat - flawed is essential, but some flaws are def more 'acceptable' than others. I always think that the characters in Friends are interesting examples of flawed characters where the flaws make them even more likeable.

Jane - I hadn't thought of problems with real historical characters, but I assume while someone can say that's not what happened, it's impossible to say that he wasn't like that at all, because who knows? In a way, that's why a character such as Henry VIII is interesting because he did so many things that seem completely contradictory you could almost write his personality in any way and some of the facts would support that interpretation.