Starting a new writing project is like falling in love.
At first, everything is wonderful. But as the reality of the commitment sinks in, we get scared and we do stupid things: like not fleshing out our characters enough and then getting stuck down the line.
For the variety of genres there are on the planet, the variety of story types is actually surprisingly narrow. Whilst some writers have repeatedly argued that there is really only one type of story (the hero’s quest), I think that we can all agree that there isn’t any more than about a handful.
Personally, I would argue that there are really only two: comedies and tragedies and they both need great characters to succeed.
The writing course I am currently undertaking has given me the opportunity to read a lot of other people’s fiction writing in recent weeks and I have picked up on 5 character mistakes that I see people make over and over.
Unfortunately, I can’t say that I’m immune to these. In fact, I am having massive issues with my characters on the second draft of my YA dystopian novel ‘The Dream Parade’ and now have to delay publication because I need to do proper character sketches before continuing the re-write.
Determined to avoid repeating the mistakes I have made in character development on this novel, I have come up with some fixes which can hopefully also work for you.
Mistake #1: Not Bothering with a Physical Description
Ok, so you’re not planning to spend a lot of time in your fiction describing the physical attributes of your character(s). That’s fine. Most readers (especially if they’re anything like me) will thank you for not overburdening them with too many details.
And yet, there may be parts of your story where giving away two or three small details about a character’s physical appearance may be inevitable. After all, readers like to be able to imagine what their favourite character looks like.
When you do start dropping hints about a character’s appearance, you need to be consistent. Nobody wants to read about somebody’s muscles on one page and then find out about the layer of body fat on the next.
I’m exaggerating here but you get the idea.
TRY THIS FIX:
Decide the major physical attributes before you start writing and record them in a notebook or word doc for future reference. I know it’s painful when you’re itching to write your story but you will thank yourself later. To avoid this becoming stale, you can vary the types of details you record for each character. Maybe character A is a smoker and wears leather jackets, whilst character B likes to walk barefoot and carries around a shabby guitar.
Mistake #2: Too Much Physical Detail
So, you might have already caught on to the fact that it’s not possible to make mistake #1 and #2 at the same time. If you do manage it, please send me a copy of your story. I’d love to see that!
As bad as it is not to have enough information about a character, it’s even worse to have to read through pages and pages of descriptions about somebody’s nail polish, clever t-shirt, latex outfit or fancy sneakers.
Your reader doesn’t care!
If it’s not important to the story, cut it! If the nail polish says something vital about the character, include it but keep it brief. A few words rather than a few sentences. Your readers will thank you later.
TRY THIS FIX:
Borrow from copywriting. Yes, you read that right. You may consider me a blasphemer but there is one thing that marketers and copywriters have perfected: the art of coming to the point as quickly and efficiently as possible and have an impact on the reader. Better to go back and add some detail later, than dump too many details into the story at the beginning.
Mistake # 3: No Backstory
Every person comes with baggage. Every character comes with backstory. No, you shouldn’t dump all of this on your reader and may not even include any of it in your story.
But knowing your character’s backstory is vital in understanding how he/she/it behaves. Understanding backstory = understanding drive and motivation.
Skimp on this if you like, but if you get stuck in your writing it’s usually because you don’t really know how a character would/ should react in a given situation. That’s how end up sitting there, thinking: what next?
TRY THIS FIX:
Invent the characters’ backstories in line with your world-building as this is where you are most likely to be most immersed in your fictional world and can come up with the most fitting ideas.
Mistake #4: No Distinct Character Voices
I recently discussed the importance of character voice in a blog post about writing authentic dialogue and thought it might be a good idea to briefly bring this up here, too.
If you don’t know how a character would likely express themselves, how can you decide what hey would say in a stretch of dialogue?
Inconsistency when it comes to voice, this is one of my number one bugbears when it comes to reading fiction and will cause me to put any book down faster than lightspeed.
TRY THIS FIX:
Read the dialogue out loud and try and ‘do the voices’ of your characters. Like roleplay. This will help identify if the characters sound authentic and flag up any inconsistencies. If you’re stuck at deciding how to fix such problems, you can always try one of the solutions I recently outlined in my other blog post – click here.
Mistake #5: Ignoring Character Tropes
Like it or not, every genre comes with strings attached. These will often come in the form of character tropes which, if ignored or used incorrectly, can leave readers confused, angry or frustrated. None of which are reactions that any writer will usually want to provoke.
Whilst you don’t have to use all of the character tropes known in your chosen genre (and whilst you don’t even have to 100% conform to any tropes you use), you do need to make some allowances for your readers’ expectations.
Otherwise, you may be risking snarky reviews and targeted hate mail.
TRY THIS FIX:
Read up on the kind of tropes to expect within each genre. I like to borrow from TV writing as today’s readers (especially millennials) are heavily influenced by TV writing and, as fiction writers (especially as writers of commercial fiction), we would be wise not to ignore this. I love Dickensian characterisations but I also understand that most of my YA readers are probably more into The Maze Runner, Divergent, and The Hunger Games and I make allowances for that.
Let me know your thoughts about this post in the comments below. I would also be interested to hear about any additional characterisation mistakes and possible fixes that you may have come across. If you try any of these fixes, let me know how it goes.
And… if you LOVED this post and want to help me keep on writing: