Unbelievable and unreadable characters
When writing fiction, if a novel or short story is populated with unsympathetic or mundane characters, who do you imagine will engage with it or them? A common mistake the novice writer makes is to write unbelievable, 2-dimensional people. Sometimes the characters have very little, in terms of traits, to distinguish them as being human at all. Other characters are written with hundreds of defining features, but they're all despicable, causing the reader to question whether anyone could really be that bad. Or the opposite problem, a character is too perfect and the reader can't identify with them, making the story unreadable.
Let's break down some of the more common mistakes first time authors make when writing characters for fiction.
1, Vague descriptions
When writing fiction, describing a character's personality as 'interesting' tells us nothing at all; it is unspecific. It is possible to pack a paragraph with words relating to a character, without telling the reader one important thing about them. Characters are described in generic terms and we are left with sentences that bear a striking resemblance to a police report.
- 'Kathy was a medium-sized woman with brown hair and brown eyes'.
- 'David wore a white shirt and black trousers on his small frame.'
- 'Christina was a pretty girl with a nice way about her'.
These types of description make the characters feel like faceless stick figures. We may as well tell the reader that a person has two arms, two legs and a head.
It is important to be specific in descriptions; tells us the things we wouldn't take for granted on the basis of the sex of the character. Revealing that a woman has 'average sized breasts' is pointless. Try and describe the attributes your character has that are unique. If they are indeed a fairly average person, take one of two courses of action; either reconsider the inclusion of the character (what is compelling you to write fiction about such a dull person?), or, if you decide to stick with the character, at least give us an idea of the specific way she feels about being average ('Melanie was consistently devastated that she could never stand out in a crowd').
2, Clothes do not make the man
Often, when writing fiction for the first time, novice writers will go into minute detail about what a character is wearing;
'As John looked her up and down, he thought how appealing Wendy was. She was wearing a low-cut powder blue v-neck jumper, made from 100% cashmere and her neck was ordained with a lavishly delicate gold necklace. A thin tan leather belt hugged her hips and stretched over the pair of vintage pink pedal pushers….' You get the picture!
Details about clothing can often give us clues about a character's personality and sometimes even their psychology. However in themselves, clothes don't constitute character. An exhaustive inventory of their chosen wardrobe for the day is not necessary. A well-chosen couple of items, that are specific to the character will usually suffice.
3, Celeb Lookalikes
If a novelist describes a character as being 'reminiscent of Brad Pitt', the reader is stuck with the image of Brad Pitt for the entire story. It takes away half the fun of reading; engaging the imagination. Readers enjoy the little bit of work it takes to form their own image of what a character looks, moves, smells, talks and sounds like.
Another common mistake in writing fiction, is to tell the reader that a character looks like 'a fat Nicole Kidman' or 'an ugly Halle Berry' or a 'young Robert Deniro'.
It is not necessarily a mistake to have a character who resembles Leonardo DiCaprio. The writer should, however, use specific detail to describe Leonardo DiCaprio, rather than use his name as a shortcut.
4, Mirror Mirror
It is sometimes a challenge to deliver a description of what a character looks like when the story is being told from their point of view. Many first-time writers resort to that character peering into the mirror;
'Sally paused to inspect her image in the mirror. A woman of a certain age with a body ten years younger and still the spark of youth in her hazel eyes. Her long dyed brown hair nestled on her slim shoulders…….'
Unfortunately, although this is convenient, it is a cheap convention best avoided when writing fiction. A person looking in a mirror never notices the things that stay the same day to day (the brown hair, the hazel eyes). They notice the subtle and unsubtle changes (the new pimple, the hair out of place). It is more effective to use an encounter that would reasonably cause the character to reflect upon their own appearance, like a chance meeting with a member of the opposite sex.
5, Picture Perfect
A related problem to having a character see themselves in the mirror, is having them ponder over a photograph of someone else as a way of describing that person. Most of the time this is a redundant device. People often think about their own appearance (with no need of a mirror). They do so with differing attitudes and opinions; disgust, vanity, pride and indeed, if a man with a pot-belly is faced with a hunk of a fellow, all white teeth and bulging biceps, he might resolve to join a gym.
Likewise, if we think of another person (not ourselves), we see the way they look. The point is that no phony device is required to describe another person; their entrance into a scene or appearance in a character's mind's eye is enough. When writing fiction, it is normally effective to use one of the constant reminders of other people we are faced with in real life to segue into a description; thinking of an ex-lover with lust, the boss with disdain, an elderly relative with concern. Even then, it is only necessary to comment on what is unusual about them and particular to that occasion. This way the character from whose point of you the author is writing has no need to 'think' anything, as they are seeing it first hand.
Writing characters is only one of the challenges of creating convincing fiction (what about how to open a novel or knowing when to use the passive voice over the active voice to name but two more?), but by avoiding the pitfalls outlined in this article, any writer will already be on the road to populating their story with rounded, 3-dimensional people.