By Diane O’Connell
One thing I love about reading a novel is meeting a new cast of characters. Think of your favorite novel: At the heart of everything is a realistic, enthralling protagonist, compelling supporters, or a dynamic villain. The best characters resonate as actual people that you feel as if you could go out and meet.
This makes it all the more frustrating for readers—and editors—when a novel features lackluster, unbelievable people that don’t leap off the page. If you’ve had trouble getting an agent or publisher to take on your manuscript, it might be time to reexamine your characters.
There could be many reasons why your characters fail to meet these criteria, why they are, in a word, boring. Perhaps you didn’t lay the backstory groundwork that’s necessary for them to be fully rounded. Then again, is it because your descriptions just aren’t vivid enough?
Here are the top culprits that make for boring characters, plus tips for breathing life into them.
3 common mistakes in character development:
1. Your characters lack sufficient detail.
I’ve read many manuscripts where authors fall into the same trap: They describe characters only by how they look. It’s much like a laundry list of what characters are wearing—a “pink blouse” or “sensible black pants”—or vague superficial details you’d find in a dossier—like “long, brown hair” or “six-foot-tall man.” These don’t tell us much. Indeed, the portrayals resonate more like mugshots than rich illustrations. We need to know more so that we can envision and connect to the characters.
Ask yourself: What are some telling details? How does your character carry herself, and what does this tell us about her personality? Pay attention to verbs; does she “lumber” into a room as if weighed down by personal conflicts, or “glide” about with grace and confidence? Are there similes and metaphors you can use? For instance, is your character “a restless monkey” or is she “as pale as parchment?”
2. You don’t know enough about them yourself.
Remember that, like real people, your characters have backstories that color how they react to their present environments. It is critical to know their histories. Even if every facet of their life story doesn’t make it onto the page, you as author should understand how a character’s beliefs, relationships, upbringing and culture impact his behavior and, therefore, his story arc. Without exploring them inside and out, you risk creating people who feel unrooted or hollow.
Ask yourself: What has my character been through? How does this affect his relationships, or how he pursues his goals? What is his culture? His belief system? What kind of home did he grow up in? What does he fear? What drives him to get out of bed in the morning? Get to know your character as a therapist or a biographer would. Doing so will determine the lens through which your characters react to everyone and everything.
3. You aren’t challenging them enough.
Every character, even supporting ones, needs to have some sort of transformative journey from beginning to end. Static characters with no sense of drive or transformation can quickly make your novel feel uninspired. Think about it: It’s simply a more engaging read when characters are forced to fight through challenges, adapting and struggling like any real human being.
Ask yourself: What do your characters want and need? This is the deeper, psychological reason behind why he wants what he wants. How can you throw a wrench into those plans, and doing do provide readers with a compelling journey toward triumph or failure?
And that’s what makes for compelling characters.