Creating Characters - 5 Mistakes Beginner Writers Make

I am often asked to appraise writers’ manuscripts. I have found that these are the most common problems beginner writers share when they're creating characters, especially their protagonists and antagonists.

1. Cardboard cut-out characters
Give your characters a life. Surround them with evidence of their past, present, and future. Everyday things that happen to them make them human. They should argue with their parents, forget a friend's birthday, and hope everyone will forget theirs. They stub their toes, drop cell phones in water, and lose car keys. All of this must happen while they're dealing with other people. The reader must see characters as real people. Writers create believable characters when readers are able to identify with them.  
2Overcrowding - Too many characters
Don’t give prime space to minor characters. They simply crowd pages and daze readers. Readers do not want to keep track of characters in a book. Less is always more. This also applies when writing memoirs. Make space for two characters who influence and support your two main characters. Make these characters memorable and quirky. Don’t name characters if they don’t have a significant role to play in your book. Readers do not want to know the name of the waitress, the jogger, the doorman, the receptionist and the sales assistant. 
3. Over-writing – Too many words
Everybody does it when describing a character’s thoughts, actions or motivations. You know…The flowery prose, the reaching for descriptive heights, the excessive internal monologue. Good writing means writing clearly and economically. It means using the five senses on every page. Use strong verbs, precise nouns and proper sentence structure. Great writing does not mean lots of words. It especially does not mean lots of big words. Don’t contrive a style. Correct, simple words show everything. 
4. Tormented heroes - Too many thoughts, not enough actions 
Most new writers spend too much time in their characters’ heads. To make characters human we need to see them act. Make them get up and do things. A character needs to move forward in a story. The reader needs to see him as a person who is in trouble and identify with him. A common mistake occurs when a character reviews actions. And then thinks it through again. This reveals a lack of skill on the writer’s part when he feels he has not shown the idea the first time around. Your reader will lose interest if you do this. 
5. Lack of Setting - Where am I? 
Imagine watching a film where characters live on a blank screen. That is the equivalent of lack of setting in a novel.  Show characters in their cars, homes and offices. Use decor, food and medication to define them. To create a believable setting in a novel, characters must see, smell, hear, taste and touch in that setting. Characters can’t respond to surroundings if they don’t have any. Make your characters uncomfortable. Put them in a crowded lift, or a traffic jam. Make sure there is no coffee in the cupboard when they most need it. Give your character a life through setting. 

Amanda Patterson On Writing by Amanda Patterson. Follow her on PinterestFacebook,  Google+,  Tumblr  and Twitter. 

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35 responses
Always so helpful! Thanks!
This is so true, especially the first one. I always make my characters heavily flawed. I loathe reading about the pretty-but-clumsy heroine and the brooding but physically chiselled hero. Yawn.
True true
Nice brief, salient article.
Great advice, Ms Patterson. Thank you. Speaking of cardboard cutouts of characters, remember to try to give your leading characters more than just John Smith or Jane Doe for a name. I've come across a few manuscripts where I could not tell which character was the main, and which were the supports.
So very true. Another problem is the run-on dialogue, with no breaks. It's like a game of "Pong". One-dimensional and boring.
Loved this post. It's things we all should know but sometimes, we get so involved in getting the story down on paper that we overlook the important details. For me, this post is a great reminder to add in those details when it's time for the second and third draft.
very good points all. 1 & 3 are especially true. It sometimes seems to me that people write for a word count rather than writing to get the job done. say what you have to say and get out of the way.
Some great suggestions. Each point concise and valuable.
THANK YOU. Number 4 is too relatable for me.
Should be called "5 ways to make your story look like any other"
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