Cardinal Sins of Character Development

Nothing makes me stop reading a novel faster than a poorly realized protagonist. Why? Because that character is the guide to a new world, and if he lacks credibility the whole story does too. Below, I have listed some examples of sins against characters. Blessed be the writers who avoid them.

Your character is a stick figure

Your character has no flesh. A character needs personality, quirks, unique physical traits, and habits. If you are guilty of this sin, go to a public space and people watch for twenty minutes. Take notes on what makes individuals stand out.

Your character doesn’t want anything

This one irks me. When a protagonist stumbles through a story, reacting to every plot twist, but never actively seeking anything, I want to yell at the author. We all want something: money, fame, a pony. Never forget a character should want something. And should be frustrated in that desire. Now you’ve got a story.

Your character gets everything

If your character never works for anything, if every reward falls into his lap, that’s annoying. Some writers hate to make their protagonists suffer. So they grant them every desire. But most readers prefer a character who has to work to get what he wants.

Your character never changes

To have no evolution of a character rings false. A character doesn’t need to change for the better. But he should evolve. Hell, he can go from bad to worse.  Just move him.

Your character talks like a robot

Unless you’re character is a robot, he shouldn’t talk like one. Dialogue should inform an understanding of the character. And by all that’s holy please don’t use your protagonist’s speech to dump information on the reader. Example below.

Jim: Mark, we’ve got to defuse this improvised explosive device,
before it harms the citizens of this war torn community.

Mark: I wish our country had never become involved with this place one hundred years ago,
even if we did need oil reserves to fight the global threat present at that time.

Another peeve: if your characters are experts in a field, never have them talk in full phrases when they would use abbreviations. In the above example, Jim would say IED. When you’re about to defuse a bomb you don’t waste time explaining things the other character knows.

Your character is perfect

Real people wake up in the morning with crust in their eyes and bad breath. Real people burn food, forget to pay bills, and step in dog shit. If your character is perfect, real people (readers) will hate him. Which is fine if you intend to give your character a complete reversal of fortune: from riches to rags. But, if not, give your perfect person a few faults.

Hey, it’s hard not to sin against our characters. Sometimes our good intentions (why make our protagonist suffer—he’s a good guy) can lead us into temptation. Resist. Be strong.  And go forth and create characters so real you forget they’re not.


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