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Revising Fiction: Avoid These 4 Common Characterization Pitfalls

by Kirt Hickman

Revising Fiction

You’ve fleshed out your characters. You’ve given them flaws as well as virtues, internal struggles and external conflict, past lives and prior relationships. In short, they’ve become real people with real goals, real motivations, real relationships, and real emotions. Great! Now go back and make sure you’ve avoided the following characterization pitfalls:

1. Characters That Are Too Similar

Make sure each character’s personality is different from that of every other character. You don’t want all your characters to behave in the same way or talk like one another. They’re people, not automatons. If each is like the others, none will seem real. And if your characters don’t seem real, your reader won’t care about what happens to them.

2. A Weak-willed Hero

It’s hard for your reader to relate to a wimp or a pushover. If your hero doesn’t care enough about his cause to assert himself to achieve it, why should the reader care enough to read about it?

Make your hero a doer, not a watcher. If he just stands by while somebody else solves his problems and overcomes his obstacles for him, he’s not much of a hero. Your reader wants a hero who rises to the challenge, faces his problems head-on, overcomes adversity, and either achieves his goal or becomes ennobled by his effort to do so. Put your hero in the driver’s seat, literally and figuratively, at every opportunity.

3. Cliché Character Traits

Go back though your list of traits for each character. Have you created a dumb blonde, a mad scientist, a brutish albino hit man, a crooked sheriff, or any one of dozens of character types that have been done to death in books and movies? Take your dumb blonde and make her not dumb or not a blond. Make your mad scientist not mad or not a scientist.

Consider a western with a stereotypical crooked sheriff. He owns the town, rules by fear, accepts bribes from criminal elements, and has the judge in his back pocket. Too cliché! When I find a cliché character in my own writing, I play “What if…” or “Suppose…” These words help me brainstorm ideas to twist my character until he no longer feels cliché.

For example, suppose the sheriff is a woman. Suppose she’s corrupt in actions, but not in motivation. Suppose she was made sheriff by her father, a powerful and corrupt politician who not only threatens her life, but that of her children as well. Suppose she must find a way to overthrow her father’s influence in order to free herself from his web of corruption.

You see how it works? More subtly, do you have an otherwise-original character who exhibits a single trait that’s a cliché for his character type? The brutish hit man who happens to be albino might fall into this category. Albinos are certainly rare, but in literature and movies, they almost always appear as brutish villains. Move this trait to a sophisticated good guy, maybe even the hero. How might that affect his life, the way people treat him, or his opportunities for social, political, or economic advancement? Is his society tolerant of such aesthetic differences? Does it hinder him in his quest?

Here I must make a distinction between realism and cliché. What if you create a 10-year-old boy who never cleans his room? Is he realistic or cliché? Here’s my test: Do most real ten-year-old boys live in dirty rooms, or do most keep them clean? I suspect the former. If so, a character with this trait is realistic. He should have some trait that’s unusual for his demographic, however, so he doesn’t feel to the reader like a cardboard cutout. If most real ten-year-old boys live in clean rooms but a high percentage of fictional ten-year-old boys are characterized by dirty rooms, a ten-year-old boy with a messy room falls into the realm of cliché.

By contrast, are most sheriffs really corrupt, or are they just portrayed that way too often? In this case, the latter is true. This is what makes the crooked sheriff, the dumb blonde, the mad scientist, and numerous other character types clichés.

Apply this test to each of your characters. If you find a single cliché trait in an otherwise-original character, one solution is to replace the trait with its opposite. Do what the reader won’t expect.

4. Forgetting Secondary Characters

The waiter, the cab driver, the shoeshine boy, and other characters who appear fleetingly need not be fleshed out as completely as your main characters, but that doesn’t mean you should leave them as cardboard cutouts. Give each character at least one interesting trait.

It’s not enough for your characters to be realistic. Make sure each one is both unique and memorable.

WorldsAsunder125_2Kirt Hickman is a technical writer turned fiction author. His books include three sci-fi thriller novels Worlds Asunder (2008), Venus Rain (2010) and Mercury Sun (2014), the high fantasy novel Fabler’s Legend (2011), and the writers’ how-to Revising Fiction: Making Sense of the Madness (2009).

This article was originally published in the August 2009 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Quite the Character

by Olive Balla

Olive Balla245According to author, editor, and writing consultant Jeff Gerke there are two kinds of writers—I call them Plotters and Character-philes. No, this has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with how our brains are wired. Gerke says fiction writers will be good at either crafting a complex, multi-stranded plot, or building deep, multi-faceted and interesting characters, but not both. With that in mind, and in the interest of helping my fellow Plotters thicken the portion of their cerebral cortexes wherein their Character-philes lie dormant, I submit some tidbits I’ve picked up.

By the time we reach the age of twenty or so, all of us will have developed psychological, mental, spiritual, and even physical battle scars, along with the mechanisms for coping with them. And by the time we’ve put a few decades under our belt, we’re as bent and dented as any used vehicle on a second-rate car lot. Gerke’s message is to embrace your hard-earned dings. Exorcise your ghosts through your characters. For example, show your protagonist struggling to survive a tumultuous relationship with her mother, father, or even her boyfriend’s obnoxious cat. Or better yet, show your antagonist’s inner turmoil over an action he’s taken, or is about to take. Readers love delving into the dichotomy of good versus evil that apparently resides in every human being, so heap the internal conflict high.

Got any phobias? How about a couple of recalcitrant neuroses? Do you engage in obsessive compulsive rituals or carry a load of guilt over youthful—or even recent—indiscretions? Good. Confession time: One such incident from my past became the basis for my essay “The Four People I DON’T Want to See in Heaven.” Here’s an excerpt:

I don’t want to see David Brown in Heaven. David was in my third grade class. He lived just up the street from me, so we often walked home from school at about the same time. One afternoon, when we reached a particularly isolated spot, David offered to show me His Bits if I would show him Mine. Never having seen that particular part of the male anatomy before, I figured that sounded like a great idea. I told David to go first, and he did. However, being raised in an extremely conservative household, I had second thoughts about my end of the bargain. Modesty won out, and after completing my observations, I turned and ran home as fast as my nine year-old legs would carry me, leaving an undoubtedly wiser David with his pants around his ankles.Had any epiphanies along your self-discovery journey? Excellent. Draw on all of those life experiences to build colorful, deeply human characters. You don’t have to admit to a thing, and your readers will wonder how you grew to be so wise.

Then there’s the dynamic known in psychological circles as the Normalcy Bias. How many horror or suspense movies have we watched where a female character hears a noise from the basement and proceeds to check it out? We in the audience know it’s a bad idea, but the character is a victim of the too-human characteristic that whispers in her ear, “Nothing bad has ever happened before when you went into the basement, so nothing bad will happen now.” The ways to enhance your characters through use of this it-can’t-happen-here trait are endless. For example, does the mother watching her toddler play in the park realize that the handsome young gentleman who seems to turn up everywhere is actually stalking her? Of course not, it has to be a coincidence. Or do the villagers who live at the foot of an active volcano fear imminent destruction? Poppycock. The thing has been spewing smoke and cinders for decades. Go to sleep children, all is well.

And how about fear? We humans harbor fears-a-plenty. We’re born with the fear of abandonment, and then proceed to pile up more terrors over our lifetimes. We fear people, places, situations, the future, insects, certain animals, etc. Haul out your own fears. Hold them up to the light, and then bless your characters with a fistful. Someone said that readers look to writers to help them discover ways of dealing with their own life issues. So scare the bejeebers out of your readers, and then lead them to safety—or not. Either way, they’ll love you for it.

Then there’s the human ability to survive through adaptation. It’s the process by which the bizarre becomes the norm. If an action is repeated often enough and over a long enough period of time—even if it involves horrifying or twisted behavior—the people who witness it, or even those who are victims of it, adapt to it. They may not like it on some level, but they will eventually not only accept that behavior, but embrace and even mirror it. It’s part of our arsenal of survival strategies. Tough and resilient characters, anyone?

Ah, the human condition. Time to turn your lemons into lemonade.

AnArmAndALeg72Olive Balla, author of suspense novel An Arm and a Leg, is mother of 3, grandmother to 13, great-grandmother of 4, a retired educator, and part-time professional musician. Having been everything from secretary at a used car dealership, a university student, and a high school Spanish teacher, Balla states her characters are, in part, amalgamations of people she’s met. Living with her husband Victor in the Albuquerque area, she spends her spare time in a small woodworking shop designing and building everything from breadboxes and wine racks, to a porch bench. Visit her website at

This article was originally published in the December 2013 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Make Your Characters More than Cardboard Cutouts

by Kirt Hickman

Revising FictionYour characters must not be automatons. Your reader must buy into them as real people with real goals, real motivations, real relationships, and real emotions. They must have flaws as well as virtues. They must face internal struggles and external conflict. They must have past lives and prior relationships.

Use the tips below to individualize each of your characters. The traits you assign don’t have to be sensational. They can be small, even subtle, qualities. Your goal is to make each character a believable individual, not an incredible eccentric (unless, of course, you want him to be).

Give each character a unique set of physical traits.
These don’t have to be scars and tattoos, the obvious choices for truly unique identifiers. Furthermore, these traits need not be unique among all humanity, just unique within the context of your story. If you choose traits that are extraordinary, account for them in a credible way through the character’s background.

Give each character a unique style of speech.
Each character should have a unique combination of dialect and vocabulary, based upon his personality, level of education, and upbringing. Make your characters’ speech rhythms different enough that if a line of dialogue written for one character were attributed to another, that line would sound out of place.

Give each character a flaw that the reader can understand.
If you make your hero perfect, she won’t be credible. Even if you manage to make her believable without building in a flaw or two, your reader won’t be able to relate to her. Write about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Your hero’s flaws often provide a source of internal conflict overlaid upon the external struggle provoked by the villain. Ratchet up the tension in every scene by exploiting your character’s flaws to make her trials more difficult.

Give each character a special skill.
Special skills let your reader see into some aspect of life, some hobby or profession, that he might find interesting. Introduce your character’s skill early in the story, well before she needs it. Otherwise it will seem contrived—an afterthought you invented to get her out of whatever fix you put her into. Present your character’s skill at a technical level your reader can understand, and provide only information that is directly relevant to the events at hand.

Give each character a definable personality.
Is your character optimistic? Pessimistic? Grumpy? Funny? Flirtatious? Adversarial? What does she get fired up about? The environment? Animal rights? Poverty? Duty? Family? Honor? Love? Hatred? Vengeance? Let’s face it, without a definable personality and a passion for something, your character (your hero in particular) will be boring.

How does your character respond to frustration? This is an important decision. Your plot consists of obstacles and events designed to frustrate your character’s efforts. How will she react? Will she get angry? Resourceful? Determined? Depressed? Will she get even? Will she seek help? Will she pray? I’m not suggesting your character should respond to every situation in the same way, but people tend toward certain emotional reactions to frustration. Your character should too.*

Give each character an identifying line, mannerism, or prop.
Give your reader something to associate with your character besides a name. Establish identifiers early, preferably the first time you introduce the character. Exhibit the identifiers every time the character appears in a scene.

Give each character virtues.
This is particularly important for your hero. Generally speaking, the reader must like her. No matter how many internal demons your hero has to overcome, she must have at least one redeeming quality that your reader can latch onto and that makes him say, “I care. I hope she overcomes it all because she’s worth saving.” Give virtues to your other characters as well, including your villain. The villain rarely considers himself to be the bad guy. Whatever he does, he does for a reason. Sometimes it’s just for personal gain. Often, he believes he’s working toward some greater good, however warped that perception might be.

Know each character’s backstory.
You must know the details of your hero’s backstory in far greater depth than you’ll ever reveal in the pages of your novel. Your character’s past has made him the person he is today. His past will determine his emotions, attitudes, and actions. And it will justify them to the reader. His past will make him real.

Know how each character will change throughout the story.
The change your character makes, and the way that change comes about, is the character’s arc. Provide an arc for each major character, not just the hero, but make the hero’s arc dominant in the story.

*See also Nancy Kress, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint from Writer’s Digest Books (2005).

WorldsAsunder125_2Kirt Hickman is a technical writer turned fiction author. His books include three sci-fi thriller novels Worlds Asunder (2008), Venus Rain (2010) and Mercury Sun (2014), the high fantasy novel Fabler’s Legend (2011), and the writers’ how-to Revising Fiction: Making Sense of the Madness (2009).

This article was originally published in the July 2009 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

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