Thank you to Lucy V. Hay and to Bang2write for these insights on effective characterization.
Caring About Characters?
So, you’ve been given this feedback: “We need to care more about your characters.”
Immediate RED FLAG!!!
This is a useless piece of feedback. Put whomever gave it to you on the naughty step RIGHT NOW and join me children in examining why this feedback sucks BIG TIME. (Okay, okay, the feedback-giver *means* well. And yes, just like “Show It, Don’t Tell It”, this advice probably started off good stuff).
BUT I put it to you “we need to care more about your characters” creates waaaay more problems in drafts than it solves. Why? Because writers end up spending SO LONG trying to make us “care” (WTF does that really mean anyway?), they end up shooting themselves in the foot story-wise.
Great characters are part of great STORIES. This means the two are inextricably linked. So when writers get that ubiquitous, but crappy note “we need to care more about your characters”, they inevitably start focusing on character AT THE EXPENSE of plotting and story. YARGH!
How Writers Screw Up Their Characters
5) … They introduce their characters badly
Whether screenplay or novel, your character needs to be introduced in an interesting and dramatic way. When we meet your character for the first time – especially your protagonist – s/he should be preferably DOING something that:
a) Tells us *something* about him/her in terms of personality
b) Gives us a sense of the storyworld/the tone
c) Gives us *some clue* or indicator about the situation at hand
Yet too often we meet characters waking up, getting ready for the day ahead and/or eating breakfast; coming down the stairs or from another room (usually when someone yells for them); sitting in cafes or restaurants musing; or sitting in their bedrooms doing the same. LE YAWN.
This is nearly always because writers mistakenly believe that seeing a character in their home environment (or similar) makes us “care” about them. IT DOESN’T. It’s just dull!
Remember, readers make all kinds of assumptions not only from your very first page, but from your opening image too! Make sure you introduce your characters in ways we don’t see all the time to stand your best chances in the marketplace. Read more: How To Introduce A Character.
4) … They put too much tragic back story for characters “up front”
This is an issue that seems primarily a screenwriting-related problem. I loved the following dialogue in the brilliant WRECK-IT RALPH, which I watched recently with my Wee Girls:
FIX-IT FELIX: Jeez, she’s kinda intense, huh?
SOLDIER: It’s not her fault. She’s programmed with the most tragic backstory EVER.
In comparison to WRECK IT RALPH then, scribes DON’T play the notion of a tragic back story up front for laughs. Instead, the reader will have to wade through stories of child abuse; adoption/rejection; rape; bereavement; self harm and recriminations – all before the actual main story gets going. More often than not, this will mean going through an acre of flashback before the situation in hand kicks off, though sometimes there will be various arguments and/or a funeral, or even ALL OF THIS (yikes!).
Yet these huuuuuuuuge adverse life events are massive; to make them blithely “character building” feels like a slap in the face for the characters. Not convinced? Think about it:
“Oh my character has to deal with being held hostage in the bank where she works – BUT IT’S OKAY BECAUSE IN THE PAST SHE WAS ABUSED AS A CHILD, SO SHE CAN HANDLE THIS” — WTF???
Yeah, yeah ***of course*** writers don’t mean it this way; they’re trying to give their characters “layers” and make us “care” about them. I totally get that. But seriously, overly tragic back stories played up front are not the way. Characters’ reactions and the way they deal with what’s happening to them in the “here and now” tells us SO MUCH more than acres of flashbacks or expositional dialogue about their traumatic childhoods.