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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.

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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