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.
2. Overcrowding – 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.
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