Reading Rage Tuesday: Sorry, crappy characters, we’re voting you off the island.
Before I begin, I’d like to let you guys know that I have been named a finalist in BookRiot’s START HERE Write-In Giveaway. You can help me win! I mean, if you want. Just go to my entry page here and click the Facebook “like” button for the post. Thanks a million, friends!
One thing that can kill a book–even more than bad or no editing, a fuzzy plot, or fire–is a weak cast of characters. When written properly, a book’s characters drive it from beginning to end. The characters make readers fall in love, fall out of love, cry, get angry, or worry anxiously–all of which fuel the need to keep flipping the pages until we run out of pages entirely.
Because brilliant characters matter so much to a book’s success, it’s hardly surprising that writing characters could arguably be the toughest part of writing a novel. Anybody can whip up a sequence of events, really–and many of us probably have practice in doing just that on a daily basis. “See, the reason that your car is dented? I was driving very slowly and carefully down the street when some TOTAL MANIAC came barreling though going A HUNDRED MILES PER HOUR being chased by five cop cars. I pulled over to the side but I think one of them must have bumped the car. Why wasn’t there a car chase on the news? Um–hell, I don’t know, do I look like I edit the news? OKAY FINE, I hit a pole in the 7-Eleven parking lot.” (Some people are more successful at this than others.) Making a sequence of events come to life, though, requires characters with deep motivations and many-faceted personalities. Juggling motivation and action, along with character interaction and dialogue, can be tricky.
I know there are legions of writers out there desperate to know whether their characters pass muster, probably refreshing this page a hundred times a day to see when, oh when, I’m going to write about this. Don’t worry, though. I have a handy list of characters that, should they sneak into your latest creative work, should be immediately banished and probably also drawn and quartered, just to set an example for the others.
The protagonist without a face
Okay, so the protagonist probably has a literal face–eyes and nose and so forth, maybe even some teeth. Figuratively, though, he or she is faceless in that we don’t know anything about the character. We don’t know what the character stands for, what he or she cares about, who he or she loves; it seems, really, like the character is a crude vessel through which the plot–which is often unnecessarily complicated–unfolds. The author might graciously bestow table scraps upon us from time to time about the character’s history or thoughts, but rarely enough to make a complete meal. (This might be the number one reason that shitty novels get fed to dogs. What, you don’t do that?)
(NOTE: DO NOT FEED BOOKS TO DOGS, I WAS TOTALLY JOKING.)
Unless you’re writing a book about existential ennui, a protagonist like this is one of the worst possible things you can do to your story. As readers, we desperately need to connect with your protagonist in some way, whether we love her or hate her. If I don’t care about your main character, I can’t care about your book. It’s like trying to love a statue.
This doesn’t just apply to your main characters, either–unless you have a specific reason that a character needs to be “faceless” or mysterious, all of your characters should be round and developed, with clear motivation, even if they only have a tiny part in the book. In Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, SK creates a character of the man who, in real life, hit him with a van. (This series is so meta.) We don’t see his whole back story and we don’t spend a lot of time with him; we do find out enough about the character, though, to make his actions make perfect sense. Hell, we even find out enough about the character that we could extrapolate his behavior in other situations, if called upon to do so. He’s in the story briefly*, but his development makes him memorable and enriches the book itself.
*Of course, “briefly” in the Dark Tower series could mean several hundred pages.
The superfluous character
I’m going to use a TV example here. I know, this is about books, but the best example I can think of comes from TV. So, I guess you can imagine that it’s a series of books instead of a TV show OH WAIT IT IS A SHOW BASED ON BOOKS, so I might be covered. I haven’t read the books, so I have no idea if they’re at all similar, but yeah. Awesome. Technically still talking about books. Unf-unf-unf.
I am–or, I guess, was is the more accurate verb, since I haven’t watched it for awhile–a fan of the show Bones. It’s not my usual cup of tea, but I really liked the characters; I especially like the main character, Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan, who shares a lot of my Aspie traits (despite not being an confirmed Aspie, much like Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory–digressing!). A few seasons in, the show
took a dark turn (as I re-read this, I realize how dumb this sounds since the whole premise of the show is solving grisly murders; I’m leaving this in so you can laugh at my idiocy) as Bones and FBI Agent Booth chase after a serial killer called Gormogon. They eventually discover that the killer has been training an apprentice who works in the lab with Dr. Brennan! GASP. The call was coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE.
Everyone was pretty upset about the apprentice subplot because it meant that the character, Zack, was leaving the show. I have to admit, I was upset about it too, just because of that kneejerk “I hate change” thing that we humans go through from time to time. In hindsight, however, I can see that they made a wise decision in removing him from the show. The problem with Zack on the show was that he was a carbon copy of Dr. Brennan, but younger and less experienced: he, too, was a coldly logical genius with social/Aspergery issues who had the exact same career focus as Dr. Brennan. He practically needed to be a serial killer’s apprentice just to do something that Dr. Brennan hadn’t already done.
When you have two characters that are almost identical, you run the risk of being repetitive, if their arcs take the same paths, or of possibly cannibalizing character growth from each other as you strive to create unique circumstances for the two of them. (Heh, heh. Incidentally, that serial killer was also a cannibal, so I guess I kind of just made a pun. You probably had to be there.) If you make sure characters have enough differences between them, you won’t end up with a couple of half-assed characters that wither from lack of development.
The stagnant character
D’you ever read a book and, by the end of it, you wonder why certain characters never just manned up and took care of their shit? Or, barring that, didn’t go into a crazy downward spiral beyond salvation? It’s a little bit like listening to a married couple having an argument that you know they have had a hundred times just in the past week, or having a friend that whines about the same problems every single time you talk. Yes, that’s right. It’s absolutely obnoxious.
If nothing is happening to your character, your character probably should be 86’d–unless that character serves as a foil for your protagonist and you’re specifically highlighting how your protagonist has decided to act vs. the consequences of inaction. You could also use a “constant” character as an anchor–a mother, for example, who’s always got Sunday dinner on when her children come home from the big bad ugly world. These characters should be used in this capacity sparingly, though. If things aren’t changing, it means that repetition is occurring, and repetition is baaad, Groundhog Day notwithstanding. We can only re-read the same scene two or three times before we get the urge to swan dive off of the nearest building.
These characters don’t necessarily have to overcome their problems, either. Things just need to change to push your story along, or, swan dives.
Angels and devils
Did you know, there aren’t really any people who are 100% evil or 100% noble? And that even the most evil people you can think of had motivations besides, “Welp, I guess I’m gonna do this terrible thing because I am a harbinger of all things unholy”? The whole Good vs. Evil thing is so played out.
Let’s take the most evil motherfucker in recent history–Dan Brown. Wait, sorry, I meant Hitler. If one wanted to fictionalize Hitler, what’s a more compelling story–that he did all of the fucked-up things that he did because he was just “evil” and he just did things to be evil, or that he did all of the things that he did because he genuinely thought in his warped mind that it was the right thing to do and that he was a hero? I find the second (real) scenario far more chilling because it’s so damn humanizing. It’s easy enough to think of a time when you were wrong and convinced you were right . . . as soon as you do, boom–you have something in common with Hitler. Even if it’s not to scale, just being able to go there raises the hair on the backs of our necks.
Characters who are goody-two-shoes are, in my opinion, even worse. Oh, you’re gonna fight the powers of evil because it’s the right thing to do, are you? Is that your default autopilot setting? As we all learned in middle school when our teachers showed us poorly-produced videos about peer pressure, doing the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing is kind of really hard. There’s a reason that we
sane people get inspired when we see someone stand up for what’s right. There’s a reason that Rosa Parks is a hero for something as seemingly simple as not giving up a bus seat. Deciding to do the right thing often comes after a long internal struggle, a war where morality, nobility, and conscience do battle with self-preservation, self-interest, and fear. That should be a major conflict for any “good” character, if not the central conflict; to leave that out would be to cheapen the whole idea of “good.”
Characters who only exist to make another character’s story arc more compelling
I know, this one is kind of advanced. Don’t be scared.
It may seem like splitting hairs, but there is a fine line between characters who only exist to further another character’s arc, and characters who only appear in a story to further another character’s arc. The difference lies in how the character is developed, rather than how much page time they receive or their purpose in a story. To illustrate the difference, I’m going to discuss everyone’s favorite trope, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Quick background if you’re not familiar: a Manic Pixie Dream Girl comes into a male protagonist’s life (or it could be a female, but it’s far more often male for this specific trope–females probably have our own trope for this) and fills it with joy and spontaneity and fun weirdness. If you saw the movies Garden State, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, or just about anything starring Zooey Deschanel, you’ve seen a MPDG. (The trope also appears in books–The Perks of Being a Wallflower, High Fidelity, and Norwegian Wood all feature MPDGs. Still on subject, woo!) One of the major dilemmas of this trope is that the MPDG often exists solely to help another character, generally a male love interest, make his sucky, doldrummy life better. To do this, she whips him into a chaotic, whimsical frenzy, usually just by being delightfully quirky.
The problem with this kind of character, whether it’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl or another character that exists to spur on the protagonist’s development, is that they’re boring. Yes, boring, no matter how many times you write them screaming “PENIS!” in public places. I totally get that, if you have a protagonist, every other character in the story revolves around the protagonist to an extent just by virtue of the story being presented from a certain point of view. Those characters still need their own motivations for existing, though. The MPDG, for example, hasn’t lived her whole life waiting for you, the protagonist, to come along so she could change your life; without showing or having their own raison d’etre, the character becomes a cardboard cut-out of a real person. As I said before, it can be a fine line to walk. I think the key is that, even if the supporting cast are only mentioned in the story because they have affected the protagonist’s arc, the characters don’t only exist to further another character’s arc. They need their own motivations, desires, weaknesses, and histories.
Holy shit, I went through my stories and I had to delete every single character. This sucks.
I’m sorry. I am. It really is better this way, though.
What about you guys? What kinds of characters would you add to the list? Are there any you would take off? Do you have infuriating examples of any of these characters? Did you go vote for my entry here? COMMENTS ALL THE COMMENTS