Jan 02 2012
Here are some possibilities for making boring characters interesting–feel free to mix and match.
Problem 1: The character doesn’t have a distinct personality.
A) Make sure the character has distinct traits. Can you name 3-4 adjectives that fit your character really well but not most other protagonists in your genre? If not, please see this list of character traits for some possibilities and this article about how to use traits to develop characters.
B) Give him at least one flaw, a trait that makes it harder for him to achieve his goals and preferably leads to some conflict with sympathetic characters. Some authors back into rarely-interesting “flaws” like being overly modest or “caring too much.” If you can use those flaw(s) to create conflict or obstacles, that’s fine. For example, maybe he wants to succeed in a job where modesty is an obstacle (e.g. marketing, sales or politics). If you can’t use the flaw to create conflict, I’d recommend trying a different flaw instead or possibly rewriting the plot to accommodate the character. For example, if you were really dead-set on a character whose signature flaw was his total inability to play the didgeridoo, maybe he’s growing up in a culture where mastering the didgeridoo is a critical rite of passage and/or the main way to pick up ladies. For more on flaws and challenging characters, please see this article.
C) If all else fails, play up traits to the extreme. Anything is better than having your character do and say “whatever the author feels like today,” and unfortunately I see many WTAFLT characters. It’s generally easier to rewrite a character whose traits are too strong than one whose traits are too bland/unclear.
D) Make sure your plot gives your protagonists chances to make unusual choices. If 99% of protagonists from your genre would act the same way if they were in your plot, you’re not giving your protagonist a chance to distinguish himself. If there’s a goal, a principle or a possession your character values much more than most other protagonists would, your character might make an unusual decision to protect/advance it. For example, the fugitive protagonist of Point of Impact breaks into an FBI-guarded morgue to reclaim and properly bury his dead dog. It’s a memorable scene because the character is putting himself on the line for a goal that wouldn’t matter to most action protagonists–almost every protagonist would just skip to getting revenge or clearing his name.
E) Flesh out his perspective–what are some things he would notice or comment on that most other people wouldn’t? What are some things he would draw connections between that most people wouldn’t? For example, in a superhero-style world where people like Lois Lane or Mary Jane get kidnapped repeatedly, a veteran superhero (or investigator) might guess that anyone that’s been kidnapped by a supervillain for no readily obvious reason is probably very close to a superhero.
F) Force your main character to do or say at least one thing per page that he would do but you wouldn’t. Don’t let your character get hemmed in by what you would do–most authors aren’t interesting or honest/circumspect enough to make an autobiography work. Also, if at all possible, please force your main character(s) to do/say at least one thing per page that your other characters wouldn’t. That will really help the main character feel distinct. If that’s not possible, I would recommend reevaluating whether the character has distinct traits and whether the plot is giving him opportunities to show those traits.
Problem 2: The character doesn’t have a pressing goal.
A. If the character doesn’t already have a pressing goal, give him one. If the character did have a goal but it petered out or he accomplished it too quickly, either create a new obstacle that endangers his accomplishment or transition into a new goal.
B. The goal doesn’t need to be life or death, but the character needs to feel the stakes are high. If the character can just walk away, the plot is liable to fall apart. Here are some tips on ways to motivate a character.
C. If you’re near the start of the book and aren’t willing/able to introduce the main goal yet, at least use an intermediate goal to propel the story. For example, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World uses Scott’s relationship with Knives Chau to establish that Scott has major problems (he’s dealing with a hard break-up and is dating a high school girl) before we’re introduced to the main love interest and the Seven Evil Exes that are trying to keep Scott from the main love interest. In Iron-Man, we’re introduced to an intermediate villain (the terrorist that kidnapped Tony Stark) well before Tony realizes the identity of the main villain. The Taxman Must Die starts with an intermediate villain trying to assassinate an IRS protagonist, but the actual villain is someone else altogether.
Problem 3: Nothing’s at stake and/or there isn’t any chance of failure.
A. Show us that failure is possible by letting the character make a big mistake. For example, Peter Parker’s most interesting decision–and possibly the most interesting thing about him altogether–is that he didn’t stop the robber, which got Uncle Ben killed. A taste of failure raises the stakes on whether the character will actually succeed.
B. When a character fails, make sure there are real consequences. If there are no consequences to failure, then it doesn’t really matter whether the character succeeds or not. For example, some possible consequences of intermediate failures might include:
- Suffering a major setback on the way to accomplishing his goal, preferably one that will make it harder for him to accomplish the goal next time.
- A significant loss of status (like public humiliation or a demotion).
- Suffering a major setback in an important relationship (like a breakup or a sidekick deciding to part ways).
- The villain accomplishes some (usually intermediate) goal to raise the stakes.
- Something unpleasant happens to a loved one or bystanders. This may be physical (like a hostage getting shot if a superhero screws up), but it might not be. For example, if Al does something that causes Brenda to break up with him, and Brenda starts dating Carl to make Al feel jealous, Carl is collateral damage.
- The hero loses faith and/or faces a new mental obstacle and/or exacerbates an old mental obstacle.
- Allies become less committed to the hero, prospective allies are lost and/or new enemies emerge.
- Serious injury.
- The villain and/or the hero’s loved one(s) learn information that ends up damaging the hero.
- An important resource is lost, damaged or destroyed. For example, in one Seinfeld episode, George used a photograph of a beautiful woman (supposedly his dearly departed wife) to get into a super-exclusive club for supermodels… until he accidentally set the photograph on fire.
- Getting fired.
C. Increase the challenge level so that the character will fail occasionally. For more ideas there, please see this article.
D. What are 1-2 things this character wants to accomplish that readers wouldn’t want him to? You can have him approach those precipices to raise doubt about what, exactly, he/she will accomplish. For example, a romance protagonist might start falling for a false love interest to raise doubt about whether he/she will find a way to be with a more sympathetic character. Alternately, perhaps the character does accomplish the goal and later regrets it and/or has to deal with the consequences. For example, Peter Parker wants to get back at a wrestling promoter that has screwed him, but Peter’s pettiness ends up getting his uncle killed.
Problem 4: The character is too passive.
A. Cut the whining–have the character act to solve his problems. Complaining is very rarely an interesting course of action. I’d much rather read about, say, a drafted superhero trying to get himself fired or blackmail his boss into letting him go than someone who just complains about how much he hates being drafted. In particular, I’d recommend being creative with your young characters–e.g. if a kid wants something but his parents won’t buy it for him, have him try to enact some sort of plan to get it anyway rather than just complaining about how mean his parents are. Whatever he tries (persuasion/reasoning, stealth/theft, coercion/extortion/blackmail, hard work, holding a series of bake-sales until he has $130 for a deactivated bazooka and $20 for a DVD about how to reactivate a deactivated bazooka, etc), it will surely be more interesting than complaining.
B. Raise the costs of inaction. For example, pretty much all of the consequences for failure above could convince a character to act. Alternately, perhaps the plot incorporates a ticking clock and there’s no time to sit around. My favorite example of a ticking clock so far is D.O.A., a story about a poisoned detective who has two days to solve his own murder.