How many ways are there for your characters to fall short of the compelling, three-dimensional ideal? A nearly infinite variety.
Flat. Two-dimensional. Thin. Stereotype. Underdeveloped. Implausible. Placeholder. Caricature. Insufficiently complex. Not fully fledged. Mere outlines. Sketches. Functions, not people. Poorly thought out.
For our purposes today, let’s call them “bad,” and let’s talk about the best ways to make your characters as bad as possible.
(Of course, what we really want is “good” characters – compelling, interesting characters who feel as real as people – but sometimes the best way to figure out how to do something is to start with how notto do it.)
Make your characters stand-ins for ideas. All novels have themes, and plot and character serve to reinforce those themes, but that doesn’t excuse characters who exist only to embody an idea that you want to advance or debunk. Unless you’re writing allegory – and even if you are – you’ll want characters with more complexity. Any character whose only purpose is to make a point or counterpoint is going to come across as tissue-thin. If that’s what you’re going for, great. If not, beware.
Base your characters exclusively on people in your life. Fiction is fiction, and fictional characters are characters, not people. There’s nothing wrong with taking some inspiration from real life – physical appearances, snippets of dialogue, roles, conflicts – but the key word there is inspiration. If your imagination is caught by a man on the street with dark red hair the exact color of a copper penny, and that unusual physical feature sparks something you want to use in your novel, why not? Go ahead. But if you make the main villain of your novel a sharp-tongued, sharp-chinned woman with the exact physical characteristics of your irritating next-door neighbor and no redeeming qualities or inner life, you’re setting yourself and your novel up for trouble.
Define your characters only by function. Your story probably needs a protagonist, antagonist, and supporting characters of various kinds. Maybe your main character wants to rescue a love interest, or protect a family member, and all these things are just fine as decisions. But if the pretty teenage love interest is only a pretty teenage love interest and no more? If the dying grandfather has no personality, complexity or history? Then you’re delivering bad characters up on a platter, and readers will notice.
These are only a few of the ways to make sure your characters are bad ones – and obviously, failing to develop the character beyond an initial kernel is a common thread across all three.
Q: What are some other ways to deliver thin and uncompelling characters? (And how do you take steps to make them truly compelling instead?)
About Greer Macallister
Raised in the Midwest, Greer Macallister is a poet, short story writer, playwright and novelist. Her plays have been performed at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. Her debut novel THE MAGICIAN’S LIE was an Indie Next pick, Target Book Club selection, and a USA Today bestseller, and has been optioned for film by Jessica Chastain’s Freckle Films. Her next novel is GIRL IN DISGUISE, about America’s first female private investigator, Kate Warne (Sourcebooks, March 2017.)