Reading Rage Tuesday: Sorry, crappy characters, we’re voting you off the island.

14 August 2012 by 31 Comments

Also? We might set your beards on fire.

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.

TOUCHDOWN
Also, I just figured out how to make animated gifs. I KNOW. I can make them ALL THE TIME NOW. I know you’re the most excited about this, too.

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

Susie

Susie is the Bitch-in-Chief at IB and is also a contributor at Book Riot. She's an ice cream connoisseur, an art fanatic, a cat-mommy of three, and a wife. She runs the @thebooksluts Twitter account and may be slightly addicted.

31 thoughts on “Reading Rage Tuesday: Sorry, crappy characters, we’re voting you off the island.

  1. Yeah, I’m not a big fan of the purely evil villain, either. I don’t like two dimensional characters. I like feeling a little conflicted when reading about them. It makes the story more compelling.

    • Yeah. I mean, even a sociopath isn’t just evil for the sake of evil. That just doesn’t exist in human nature….

      …… although that might make a fun caricature.

  2. I’m pretty sure that you had it right the first time – at least my book club didn’t make me read shitty books by Hitler and then all act like he’d come up with something original and aMAZing and then look it me like I had two heads when I pointed out that the whole Holy Grail/Jesus family/Knights Templar conspiracy was centuries old and STOLEN wholesale from other books. And Hitler didn’t make me read horrible prose about albino monks that made me think that the whole book was really just an overly-long entry into the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest.

    Then, again, Hitler was responsible for the death of 9 million people, so *maybe* he’s a little more evil than Dan Brown.

        • Just a bit… but I also get where he’s going. And I did imply that Dan Brown’s shitty books were worse than HITLER, so I’m obviously hard to offend.

        • Wow, reading back on what I posted, you’re absolutely right. At the very least, it needed a smiley or something.

          Let all readers rest assured that I do not in any way advocate the systematic murder of millions of innocent people, but I do advocate hanging Dan Brown from the wall by a painful wedgie.

          • I was assuming that snarkiness and Dan Brown hatred got the best of your prose – something that I also have to guard against. ;-)

  3. That is a freakin’ awesome post. There are a number of books I have read that were dragged down under the waves by sucky characters (“Technomancer” anyone??). Just wanted to let you know that all the typing was not in vain – at least one person enjoyed it enough to come and comment :-) Oh, I see I’m not the first. Anyway … *whistles absently for a moment*

    I like interesting villains – I like them to have subtext and reasons and a screwed-up sense of logic that what they are doing is right. Even better, I like them to have started out with the very best of intentions – that makes their descent into random killing sprees way more enjoyable, to me. Maybe I’m just seriously twisted, I don’t know … but I almost always get a little crush on a villain like that … *sigh*

    Thanks for all the thought you put into this post!

  4. Great examples of Characters To Vote Off The Island!

    My own list would include some tropes I learned about from The Nostalgia Chick and The Nostalgia Critic:

    1) the LINETTS (Love Interest Not Essential To The Story). You could call this a variation of the Character Only There To Make The Hero’s Arc More Compelling…except that she (and it’s usually a she, at least in movies) isn’t really necessary for the hero’s arc to be compelling. The hero could get along just fine without the love interest. In fact, if said love interest is named Willie Scott, our fedora-sporting hero (and the audience) could get along 100x better without that person.

    2) In that vein, there’s also the Dumbass in Distress — the character who exists only to get kidnapped so the hero can save him or her, or if the D.I.D is the main character, because apparently it’s exciting to see this person in danger and OMG who will save them!? The character who keeps waltzing past those neon signs that scream DANGER DON’T GO IN THE BASEMENT THERE’S A MONSTER THERE SRSLY CAN’T YOU HEAR THE SCARY GROWLING SOUNDS?!!! The character who could easily escape if they just, I d’know, did something besides stand there, calling “Mariooooo! Help meeeeee!” (actually, there’s a hilarious spoof in which Princesses Peach and Zelda reminisce over their respective kidnapping experiences)

    3) This one I’m paraphrasing based on a couple of movie reviews; it’s a variation of the purely evil 2D villain-for-villainy’s-sake — the Mean Big-Businessperson or Other Stuffy Authority Figure Who’s Just There To Foil the Underdog and Disapprove of His/Her Most Unorthodox Ways.

    • P.S. in a similar vein as the D.I.D. (and look, I’m actually talking about a book this time!) I love what J. K. Rowling did with Neville in the Harry Potter books — especially the later ones. She could have just made him the comic relief, or the character we/Harry could feel sorry for and stand up for just to show how noble he (Harry) is. Instead, Rowling made Neville the character we initially underestimate, but who then surprises us and even plays a significant role in the final battle against Voldemort.

    • I love this, Nerija. I can’t stand the D.I.D. or the L.I.N.E.T.T.S. I can spot the latter a mile away, usually when the protag has had a spat with the REAL love interest and then WHAMMO, meets someone else a teensy bit alluring, and then the reader is forced to watch their hijinks until the author throws the L.I.N.E.T.T.S. under the narrative bus. Way more interesting is when that character actually has an effect on the protag (and BETTER, the other characters as well), because then the reader doesn’t know what’s going to happen next because suddenly all these people are living, breathing characters you can’t quite second-guess.

      • Thanks! And yes, I hate the gratuitous Other Woman/Man, or the gratuitous love triangle. That speaks to good vs. trite plots, too — I want a conflict with more substance and creativity than who-gets-to-be-the-final-love-interest? or
        when-will-the-true-couple-overcome-the-tritely-dramatic-misunderstanding-that-tore-them-apart-in-the-first-place(-and-drove-the-protag-to-cheat)?

        Sadly, from what I’ve heard, I’m afraid that’s what the final Earth’s Children book is going to be like. I was once a huge fan of the series, but the only thing still drawing me to The Land of Painted Caves after the first few chapters I read last fall (and which, mostly because of the painfully expositioney dialogue, prompted me to set the book aside for a year) is sentiment/nostalgia and just wanting to finish what I started.

  5. My pet hate is the character I don’t care about. Not caring about the characters has stopped me bothering with several TV series over the years and I’m finding the same with books recently. I used to be able to handle shallow, 1D characters, but these days my tastes appear to be broadening. Oh for the days when I ignored all that and just enjoyed the bloodshed.

    To add to your collection: The Author Insert Protagonist. Author insert characters are one thing. When the guy who runs the local bookshop is actually the author and your protagonist meets them, well, that’s one thing. It’s a bit like Stan Lee appearing in every Marvel Studios movie, or dropping Terry Pratchett into the TV versions of his books. It’s almost a wave to the fans. But when the main protagonist is the author with super-powers, that’s an issue.

    While this obviously is more likely in genre fiction (because the author can literally give themselves super-powers) it does occur in other places. Erotica and romance where the author can meet the man (it’s usually a man) of their dreams. Contemporary fiction where the author can be more witty and clever than in real life. (It’s really easy to be clever and witty with the Internet available and several days to come back with the clever, err, come back.) Clearly the biggest use of these characters is in fanfic, but we’re seeing more and more of that being published as real fiction so beware – the Author Inserts are coming to get you!

    • I like the author cameo (it was done well in Roger Zelazny’s Amber series, because it was brief, and skewered the author as well as the story he was writing, if you paid close attention), when it’s not too belaboured. The author-with-superpowers… yeah, I get sick of that too.

  6. Of course, I voted for you!!
    LOVE this post!! I’ve gotten so picky about my reading that I don’t care how good a book is supposed to be, if I don’t connect with the characters, or like ’em, or find ’em interesting even in all of their bad-ass glory, I won’t finish the book. I’m thinking about hanging a target in my library. Something to aim the boring character-books at when I hurl ’em.

  7. zomg, I was just muttering about Zooey Deschanel being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl LAST NIGHT! Husband of course had no idea what I was talking about so we had to pause Weeds so I could explain, but I think he was even more confused when I stopped talking.

    Anyway, I recently read a book where upon finishing, I realized I had zero idea what the main character looked like. None. She had no face at all, no hair colour, nothing, and I wonder how the hell that got by everyone who read the book before it was published?

  8. GGG – I should probably have been paying attention during this big important mtg I’m at, but I saw your post in my inbox and had to read it. And wow, what a post. Thank you, way more interesting than the mtg.

    Okay, my contribution – the Gratuitous Victim. Mostly seen in serial killer fiction, just fodder to raise the stakes between the killer and the good guy, but they’re often treated like meat sacks instead of human beings. Don’t they have families ? Hopes ? Dreams ? Not saying they should have fully fleshed out characters, but we should feel something.

    • Oh yes. Quite often a single woman with few community ties and lots of cats, no? She was probably bringing in a small, sad sack of groceries when the killer ambushed her.

  9. What a brilliant post! Delete those extraneous characters. Lose the folks talking up precious page space. Make ’em all work for their pages.

    (And yes, Dan Brown is the devil incarnate.)

  10. On the MPDG note, I’m going to go with “any protagonist whose flaws actually perfect them in some way.” Flaws should be flaws, not hidden reasons why the protagonist is actually EVEN MORE AWESOME.

    • That too. It’s like going into a job interview and saying that your shortcomings are that you work TOO hard and you’re too much of a perfectionist.

  11. On that note, besides the MPDG, I hate any character who exists merely so that the protagonist can learn a VERY IMPORTANT LIFE LESSON – like the neighbor with cancer who dies just so the main character can learn to live every day like it matters.

    Which is pretty much what you said already, so I’ll just shut up now. But, really, haven’t we all watched enough After School Specials and learned enough VERY IMPORTANT LIFE LESSONS?

  12. Wait, did nobody else get super excited about the gifs yet? Because I am so excited about the gifs. Just remember, with great power comes great responsibility.

    I had a very hard time not writing Manic Pixie Dream People into my novel, and I’m not sure I succeeded. I did my best to make sure the lady in question had a life of her own, and that she didn’t exist just to make the hero Understand Joyful Zaniness. (Also, can we note here my hatred of the word “feisty” as applied to female characters? Because it’s pretty much ONLY applied to female characters, and it’s shorthand for “brave and a little bit bitchy and therefore Totally Not Two-Dimensional Without Needing Other Defining Traits.”) I’m not sure I did so well with one of my other characters, who happens to be a dude, but calling me out is what beta readers are for, right?

    I agree with all the other suggestions, but I’d like to also submit Very Boring Ordinary Girl Who Somehow Gets Awesome Guy Despite Being Utterly Nebbishy, and her partner in crime, Handsome Rich Hero With Negligible Personality. This might be the book version of Geeky Girl Who Is Hot When Glasses Are Removed and her counterpart, Asshole Popular Guy Who Sees The Error Of His Ways, unless it’s really just happening in Twilight/50 Shades and I’ve blown it way out of proportion in my dire irritation.

    • And don’t forget Asshole Popular Guy’s initial girlfriend, Bitchy (Often Blond) Hyper-Popular Shallow Cheerleader Who Is, Like, So Shocked When Asshole Popular Guy Chooses That Sweet Unpopular Girl In The End.

      Wow, that was a long title XD

    • I think that it’s possible to write an interesting, if quirky, female character and not have her turn into MPDG. I started thinking about Beautiful Darkness and whether or not Lena Duchannes fell into that category – I decided that she wasn’t a MPDG because, while she did quirky things, she had a reason for being different and her own motivations for acting the way that she did that had nothing to do with helping Ethan grow as a person. Not only that, but while he changed because of his friendship (and more) with her, she also changed and challenged her life based on her friendship with him. So… it’s probably like avoiding Mary Sues – it’s tricky, but it can be done.

      And no, you aren’t imagining things and it isn’t just Twilight/50 Shades – YA novels, in particular, are full of girls who aren’t especially interesting, but somehow attract the undivided attention of one or more supernatural creatures because they are somehow “special” despite being seeming typical navel-gazing emo girls (who are, of course, unaware of their unconventional, but stunning beauty. And yummy smelling blood… or whatever).

  13. The Protagonist Without a Face is the one I have the hardest time with. If I can’t tap into their motivations or values, or their decisions are not held up by any sort of structure, I struggle. Even contradictory structure I get because that’s human! But willy nilly behaviours to serve the plot or create “twists” is maddening. The other types are usually secondary characters that chap my ass but won’t necessarily make me put down a book.

    The two biggest examples I can think of are The Time Traveler’s Wife and the Millennium series. Niffenegger created two main characters who come very close to being hateable but instead settle me into complete apathy. I wanted so much to care, but I couldn’t. I didn’t care a lick about the characters in Her Fearful Symmetry either, but can’t quite put my finger on what’s missing. Regardless, it’s something in her writing style. I’m mentioning Larsson for a different reason. He does that gross masturbatory thing where the main character was clearly wishful thinking about himself. Brilliant and talented, women fawning all over him. Blerg. I know much of an author is infused in their work, but this level of narcissism needs to be edited out because it ruins what could be a compelling character.

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