Boring characters kill great books.
They make your work in progress less interesting to read, meaning people are less likely to read beyond the sample. They may not even finish the first page.
If they do finish your first book, they won’t carry on to read the rest of your series because just that first one was a massive slog.
If you’re pitching to agents…they won’t thank you for those opening three chapters or 10,000 words. Your manuscript will end up in the bin faster than you can say ‘slush pile’.
So, what’s the solution? How do you avoid writing boring characters?
Let’s take a look at some common character creation mistakes, and how you can fix them.
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You’re writing too much about yourself
‘I’m just writing about what happened to me,’ someone said to me once, after I’d critiqued how something developed in their story.
Doing that is fine in non-fiction and memoirs. But that’s not what fiction is about.
Fiction is fiction. A lot of people project onto fictional characters, which means when you’re writing things like romantic or familial relationships, you need to accurately portray what most people experience in real life. It isn’t about what you experienced.
One of my friends comes from a really big family, and one of her pet peeves is books, TV shows, and films that inaccurately portray sibling bonds. Part of why she loves the 1998 film Practical Magic is because it does show this well. She also highly recommends Schitt’s Creek for this same reason.
People want to see themselves and their experiences reflected on screen. They want to live vicariously through your characters.
They want to think the sexy, semi-naked cowboy is there, waiting for them on the other side of the door.
They want to think their letter to a magical boarding school is on its way to them via owl right now.
You need to really think about audience expectations. It isn’t about the story you want to write; it’s about the story they want to read. Focusing on that is how you attract more readers, sell more books, and make more money.
You haven’t studied psychology
You can’t write about people if you don’t understand them. Studying psychology is exactly how you do that.
You don’t need formal psychology qualifications to do this. I did really badly at my Psychology A Level because I sucked at evaluating studies and didn’t want to do it. I just wanted to dissect theories about why this caused that.
Focus on the areas that are of interest to you and apply it to your characters, then go from there.
One of my favourite books that works as a good starting point—especially when it comes to backstory—is Difficult Mothers by Terri Apter. It goes into great detail about how someone’s relationship with their primary caregiver forms the foundations for the rest of their life.
You’re being too vague
A few weeks ago, a friend linked me to a Reddit thread. It asked if, by not describing anything about your character—not even their gender—and giving them a gender-neutral name, your writing would be more universal.
But that’s not how you make something universal.
You don’t want to write something that appeals to everyone. You want to write something that appeals to your target audience. It’s why knowing who you’re writing for is really important, even if that person is a younger version of yourself or someone you know.
You can then tailor your writing based on what they’d like to say.
Nobody connects to vagueness in writing. It’s boring to read. It’s not even black and white; it’s just grey.
As writers, it’s our job to add depth and colour so that our readers feel like they’re standing in front of our characters and know them inside out.
Specificity is what creates a universal connection because it tells a more engaging story and forms a more memorable image in your reader’s mind.
Too much detail
However, there is such a thing as too much detail.
This is when you get so bogged down with the details that your story doesn’t move for pages and pages and pages. There are very few genres where this is acceptable, and as attention spans shrink, there will be more of a trend away from doing this.
If this is done in large chunks, this is called an info dump. If you have very long descriptive phrases, it’s called purple prose (or, as I like to call it, frilly knicker writing).
This type of writing can be inaccessible to people with reading or comprehension difficulties. Which is yet another reason why knowing who you’re writing for is important. If your target audience can’t understand what you’re writing, it’s time to get the scissors out.
I wouldn’t worry about this when you’re writing your first draft, but remind yourself of it when you’re editing: every word should earn its place. It should move the plot forwards. It should add more depth to your characters. If it doesn’t, it’s time to say bye, bye, bye…
Life is too easy for them
Have you ever met someone whose life seems so easy it’s infuriating?
Do you want your reader to feel that way about your characters?
Didn’t think so.
So start making their life harder!
Think of what they really, really, REALLY want, then put the worst thing you can think of in front of them.
Someone who really wants to pass a test with memory problems.
Someone who wants to be a singer who gets stage fright.
Someone who’s afraid of losing someone they love finding out a loved one has been kidnapped.
The King’s Speech works not because it’s a biopic, but because we feel for Bertie.
At the start of the film, he’s the underdog: he’s been thrust into a position he doesn’t want (king), and he has a stutter that makes it really hard for him to do public speaking…which is basically a prerequisite for any royal. We want him to succeed. We’re rooting for him because he’s in a really difficult situation.
There’s no consistency to what they can/can’t do
I recently read a cosy paranormal mystery that I had high hopes for. It didn’t fulfil those hopes.
Aside from a talking familiar, there was no reason for the character to be a witch. Her powers didn’t have rules or limitations; it didn’t make sense when/why she used—or didn’t use—them.
The mystery part of it made sense and that was the main reason I kept reading. If it had been longer than a novella, I probably wouldn’t have.
I wanted it to work, but the inconsistencies with the character were infuriating to read.
It isn’t just magical powers that can be inconsistent, though. Everything from how a health issue affects someone, to what their relationship is with another character, to how they speak can be disconcerting to readers if it changes without any logical reason.
Consistency fosters trust between you and your reader, and between your character and your reader.
Focusing on their appearance too much
How would you feel if someone you knew described you purely based on your appearance? They didn’t talk about where you’re from, your family, your achievements, nothing. You were just reduced to a hair and eye colour.
That’s what happens when you focus on your character’s appearance.
While appearance can make characters appear in a reader’s head, they’ll always project their own images onto the character anyway. Romance readers will adjust how a character looks to fit the kind of love interest they want; fantasy readers will picture a creature based on what they’ve read or seen before. That’s out of your hands.
Their personality is what makes them human and interesting. Not how they look.
It’s what makes them fun to write.
It’s what changes over the course of their story.
The better you know them, the more you can write about their growth, whether that’s in a short story or a saga.
It’s much more interesting to bring their appearance in to describe their personality, such as a depressed person wearing baggy clothes to hide their shape.
Writing boring characters is easy. Too easy. Which makes it all too common.
Beta readers and editors can help you bring them to life, but it will always be an easier process if you know who your character is before you start writing. You’ll be able to write much faster and will require less external input.
It’s much easier to engross yourself in your character’s head if you know them inside and out. Your characters will then be more well-rounded.
And your readers will be more likely to binge read what your stories because they’ll be desperate to spend more time with your characters. And isn’t that what every writer wants?
Thanks to Silvia Lopez for working her editing magic on this post 🙂
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Over to You
What are your top tips on writing well-rounded characters?