In my duties as an international literary contest judge for the past four years, I’ve read a lot of books. When it comes to creating characters the same mistakes keep cropping up. Some may strike you as blatantly obvious, while others creep in more quietly. In the interest of engaging readers, all should be avoided.
Creating Characters: 5 Mistakes to Avoid
Mistake #1: All characters talk the same.
This never happens in real life, even within a common dialect. People express themselves as individuals.
Solution: Listen to people talk in real life, paying special attention to speed of delivery, speech patterns, and vocabulary, including use of slang and pet words. Using this research a a springboard to inspire you, look for ways to deepen your characters through the way they talk.
Mistake #2: All characters think alike.
In a perfect world, such a thing might be possible, but not in real life. Our opinions spring from attitudes based on inner values that arise from our varying mindsets and experiences.
Solution: Defining your characters well allows you to introduce perspectives that vary. When characters don’t see eye-to-eye, there’s more room for conflict, and that’s a good thing that helps you keep readers engaged.
Mistake #3: Characters are mere caricatures that lack real depth.
While sparking readers’ preconceived ideas can be efficient for introducing minor characters, such as a sleazy salesman or gum-chewing waitress, this tactic falls flat when applied to major players in the story.
Solution: When it comes to major characters, break the mold. For example, challenge your readers’ stereotypes with a story about an honest-but-misunderstood salesman and an intelligent waitress working her way through college.
Mistake #4: Characters are flat and uninspiring.
This often results from failure to develop backstory or a well-defined character arc. Writers are taught to avoid cramming backstory into a manuscript. While that’s good advice, taking it too far and avoiding backstory entirely leads to characters that, like Pegasus, spring fully-grown from their parent’s brow. Where they came from and where they are going remains a mystery to both you and the reader.
Solution: Think of backstory as an iceberg, with its vast bulk underneath the water. Most of its mass remains hidden, but it is there keeping the tip above water. The tip must be visible or we won’t know the iceberg exists. Determine which part of the backstory to allow above the surface is a an acquired skill, but a good rule of thumb is to let it leak out in small portions on a need-to-know basis. Understand how to support your story’s theme with appropriate character arcs.
Mistake #5: Failure to react keeps your characters out of emotional reach.
I’ve seen this most often when someone important to the protagonist dies (say, a parent) at the beginning of a story. After a moment of grief and perhaps a later mention, the dearly departed is all but forgotten. This is not usually how grief displays itself in real life, and so your character comes across as either callous or shallow or both.
Solution: Make sure your story will support a grieving protagonist, and then include that grief in your character’s arc. If that’s not possible or preferable, reconsider including loss in your story or move it a realistic distance into the past.
Check your characters for flaws by reading your manuscripts out loud. Having an audience willing and able to offer you constructive advice lets you more readily identify and correct any characterizations mistakes you may be making.