A lot of writers either prewrite or conduct character interviews in order to get to know their characters better. That’s an awesome start. You hear about writers saying how it feels like their characters are real people, or their characters talk to them. Though my characters don’t talk to me as in voices inside my head, I do dream about them sometimes, which I think is my subconscious way of solving plot problems that may arise during the course of writing a book.
Because characters are so vitally important to the success of a good story, I thought it worth mentioning a few of the mistakes I’ve encountered lately in what I’ve been reading.
Disclaimer: The actual material I read is revised for the purpose of these examples so as not to offend the authors.
In the first chapter the main character describes herself as she imagines the man she just met is seeing her. The description is bogged down with her extraordinary beauty, fabulous fashion sense, amazing charisma, mind-blowing sexuality… You get the picture. Aside from it being heavy on the Mary Sue, it’s unlikely she’s going to know how a man she just met perceives her unless he tells her. Or shows her.
So that’s how it starts. The contradiction comes a chapter later when this character is brooding over her double shots of scotch in a crappy bar, reflecting on what a horrible person she is. No reason is given for the sudden low self-esteem, so I guess it’s a mystery we’re supposed to figure out later in the story. Maybe the author’s critique group said the main character needs to be more vulnerable, who knows. Point is, this self-deprecation could work if it matched the overblown high opinion of herself expressed earlier. Even so, no reader likes to be told about a character’s attributes or flaws. We prefer to observe and interpret it for ourselves.
The uncharacteristic character
A character is introduced as a rebellious teen with multiple piercings, rooster style Mohawk, spiked boots and a switchblade in his holey jeans pocket. He’s young and riddled with angst. We know him; he’s the next door neighbor’s kid or Uncle Mike’s foster son who stomped out a cigarette on our living room carpet at last week’s family dinner party. Get the picture?
He chooses the day’s wardrobe from the bottom of the dirty laundry hamper. Of course, we’d expect him to do that. He leaves the house through his bedroom window. Not a tony kind of guy. Satisfied with our rugged bad boy, we read on. Our rough and tumble teen describes a man on the street in terms of his Miuccia Prada double breasted overcoat, knife-creased Gucci trousers and Fashion Flat Cow Leather Lace Up High Mens Boots. As a reader I’m going WTF?
It’s not that he notices the man is well-dressed, it’s how he describes the clothing by brand name and style. That’s not our angsty kid talking, it’s the author, and we’ve just been yanked from the magic of the story because the character is now out of character.
Every character has a goal and a purpose, even the bad guys. Say you have a nefarious group of magicians who worship the great god Bumble. Everything they do is in his name. They gather disciples and convince them to worship Bumble. These evil doers are menacing and cruel, and make our hero’s life miserable. They want to sacrifice our hero to Bumble. It’s scary and exciting and… confusing. Because we don’t know why. Who the hell is Bumble and what does he want with our hero? What do the magicians get as reward for their devotion? If the author doesn’t clue us in on these reasons, we’re not going to care much about the outcome. Too many whys result in a book getting slammed shut.
Are you finding character mistakes in what you’re reading these days?