In a story, your characters are what make things interesting. That was kind of obvious, but you get the point. Poorly written characters make for boring, unreadable stories. I think every writer has had some sort of nightmare where you've recently published a novel, you're at a book signing, and out of nowhere somebody tells you they hate your story.
*Wakes up in a cold sweat* "It's just a dream, it's just a dream. . ."
Nobody wants that to happen in real life, but the sad truth is there are probably a thousand books I couldn't even read through halfway. Why is this so? Well, it's mostly because of awful characters.
(Cue screechy violins)
I'm not going to name names, but a certain teen romance series featuring a vampire and a werewolf comes to mind when I think "poorly written characters". To be specific, a girl who is caught in yet another unnecessary love triangle (more on those later). Yes. That girl. We'll call her Stella Goose for copyright reasons.
Stella Goose has no character. We can't feel her in the pages. If you picked up a copy of "Early Evening" (again, copyright reasons), you wouldn't be able to experience Stella. You can only read the definitely *not* desperately elaborate sentences and pretend that Stella Goose is real. Readers shouldn't have to pretend. Readers need to be so immersed in the pages that they can feel a vampire sinking its teeth into their tender neck.
So what constitutes a poorly written character? That varies, but I think there are a few pretty concrete things that make characters really, really awful.
We don't know them.
I'm not endorsing the 'unnecessary backstory' campaign. Please, please don't add unnecessary backstories. But if we don't know why they hate this and love that, if we don't know who the character is, people just don't like them. Your characters can't just appear out of nowhere and begin their quest. Take time and introduce them to the story.
Maybe not all at once, but make sure you're adding bits and pieces of who they are regularly. Imagine they are a real person: would you run away and slay a dragon with someone you knew nothing of other than their name?
No. No, you wouldn't.
There's nothing to set them apart.
I'm writing a book about Mary, Billy Joe, and Mary's grandpa.
I'm really not, but you're a writer, you can pretend. Here's what one of their conversations looks like:
"Run!" gasped Billy Joe, his legs caught in a bear trap.
"No! I'm not leaving you!" screamed Mary.
"You have to!" Billy Joe gasped, holding back tears. "I love you."
"I love you, too," Mary sobbed. She pulled out her cell phone to call her grandfather. "Gramps, we need you!"
Gramps hobbled over to where they were. "Oh my gosh," he gasped. "We need to save him!"
"It hurts a lot," Billy Joe said.
"Is there anything you can do, Gramps?"
"I don't know."
That was painful to write. Do you notice anything, though? Every character's voice sounds the same. Billy Joe might as well be Gramps, and Gramps might as well be Mary.
Give your characters some, well, character! Set them apart from each other. Give them their own spotlight. Accents, clothing style, especially what they believe in. . . the list is endless.
They're too perfect.
Unless you are writing about a society in which everyone is perfect (and, no offense, but that's a bit overdone), DO NOT MAKE YOUR CHARACTERS PERFECT. Biggest turn-off of anything, ever, I can guarantee.
We live in a place where plenty of people have self-esteem issues. Even if the main character, who is model-perfect and popular, is a jerk, we're still going to compare ourselves to her (or him). Or if she tries not to be beautiful, even though we get paragraphs at a time talking about her stunning eyes and gorgeous hair (Looking at you, Piper McLean from Percy Jackson). This is an absolute, positive no.
They're too flawed.
There is a fine, fine line between "nobody's perfect" and "this is ridiculous". Don't give your character a flaw if it's not contributing to the story or it doesn't quite fit. Fortunately, this doesn't happen often, but one can never be too careful.
You're saying they're something they're not.
This is basically the big red button that says "do not push" in bright, bold lettering. You'd think it wouldn't happen, but it does! How? Why?! Maybe we need a reminder of what this looks like. It's simple, really. We have a boring, monotonous character when we've been building on the fact they're "extraordinary". Or a character that really isn't that big of a jerk but everybody at school calls them a bully.
If you're going to give someone a character trait, give them the gosh darn character trait. If you need to switch a few things around or delete a few things, fine! Good! But never let this go.
And, last, but certainly not least,
They're not consistent
Speaks for itself, right? They're going to change over the story, sure, but they shouldn't feel different every time a chapter ends. The way they speak and how they act are the two major things that seem to be problematic, but I've read series in which the main character's hair color changes with the wind. Be constantly looking out for something that seems off, please.
So, there you go. I could go on for another year, but we have the basics. Happy Writing!
Did I miss anything? Do you have a question or an idea? I'd be glad to hear it: add a comment!