Archive for the 'Authorial Distance' Category

Jan 02 2012

How to Make a Boring Character Interesting

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

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.


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43 responses so far

Oct 22 2008

“How Can I Make a Character With Mental Disorders Work?”

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59 responses so far

Sep 30 2008

Please Don’t Base Your Characters on Friends Or Family

Generally, characters that are based on the friends and family members of the author turn out poorly.

1. These characters tend to be boring because they lack flaws. If your character is based on a friend or family member, you might feel afraid to give that person flaws because the friend might find out. PS: If you’re using someone as a model, they’re probably close enough to you that they’ll read the book eventually. (Alternately, if the character is based on someone the author hates, the character will probably have no likability or style whatsoever — that sort of character is usually a liability even as an antagonist).


2. It may limit the character’s development if you feel that you have to be “true” to the real-life model. Generally, it’s easiest to write when you completely own the material.


3. Your friend or family member might not fit into the story or a satisfying development arc. Well-constructed characters will have traits, flaws, skills, conflicts and usually growth arcs carefully tailored to the story. If the character’s details don’t work for the plot, it may detract from the reading experience. For example, Soon I Will Be Invincible inexplicably tried to fit several adult superheroes into a conflict between geeks and jocks.  If it seems strange that adults would really care about who was popular back in high school, it seems absolutely mind-blowing that a mutant tiger would.


4. Your friends and family are probably not quite as interesting or endearing to readers as they are to you.  No offense, but most people aren’t interesting enough to have biographies written about them. Why will we care about your friends?


5. If I were evaluating a novel manuscript, I’d be really concerned about whether the author had enough distance from what he was writing. 


6. While modeling characters on acquaintances is probably problematic, you can still use your real-life observations to make your characters or story feel more realistic. For example, you might draw on certain traits or habits from people you know rather than transplanting characters wholesale. That will help you maintain full ownership over the work and modify characters as necessary to fit the plot. If you find yourself making writing decisions based on what your friends/family would do in a particular situation, you would probably benefit from more creative control over your material.

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Mar 04 2008

Why Maintain Authorial Distance?

This article discusses why it is critical to think of your characters as distinct from you.

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