Seven Deadly Sins of Novel Writing, Part II


Sin # 2: Counterfeit Characters

The most brilliant plot is nothing without the right characters. The writer's job is to create unique, emotionally charged characters that are strong enough to drive the story. The characters we choose can make or break a novel, and a single misstep can turn a credible hero into a counterfeit that the reader has no patience for.

Common missteps in characterization:

--Pushing 'Natural Character Quirks' Too Far

An example of this would be Stephanie Meyer's Bella Swan. Not to pick on SM or Twilight, but I don't know anyone who's read this book and doesn't feel that Bella comes across as too clumsy. There's clumsy, then falling/bumping/dropping something on every page clumsy. If you overdo it, the reader notices, and it unfortunately interferes with their connection to the character.

--Unmotivated Characters

If the character is more passive than active, why should the reader care about them? Chances are, Sin # 1 has been committed and the stakes are too low. Create a stronger emotional investment to the events taking place.

--They Don't Come Across as Real People (cliched, too perfect, too flawed)

I've posted a series on common character cliches, so I won't reinvent the wheel here. Yes, it can be tough to spin a character in a new way, but it's something every writer MUST do. If we don't, the character ceases to be an individual and instead becomes a stereotype. The Jock. The Good Girl. The Hard Ass. 9.9 times out of 10, a character cliche crutch means the writer needs to delve deeper to really understand who their character is.

Sometimes a character is noticeably too perfect or too flawed. Either way, the reader will not embrace them as they should because they don't feel 'authentic.' Real people have both flaws and strengths, and so should characters.

Even if there is an unbalanced set of circumstances to contend with, NEVER make the sole focus on what a character has or doesn't have. Instead emphasize what they DO with what they have. A boy can live a perfect, privileged life and still make bad choices. Or a girl can have the odds stacked against her and still succeed through perseverance and the support of those around her. Humanize the character by showing them overcoming weakness and honing strengths to get what they desire.

--Emotions Runneth Over

One word: melodrama. Absolutely a character should show his or her emotions, but not to the point where the reader gags at the levels being displayed. The portrayal of emotion must be equal to the circumstance and too much can create an instant dislike of the character. High drama all the time does not allow the reader a break to absorb and enjoy other aspects of the novel.

--The Character is Above the Law

Conflict is all about choices and consequences. Is there a better way to alienate a reader than to write a character who never has to face the music for his or her decisions? If character is never held accountable and everything always works out nice and neat for them, the reader feels cheated and angry at not just the character, but the writer.

--Logic Faux Pas/Forcing Agendas

This happens when the writer characterizes a main or secondary character one way but their actions do not line up with who they are. The reader is pulled out of the scene because the character is not acting logically. Their behavior rings false or worse, reeks of the writer's agenda. NEVER, EVER BREAK THE SPELL.

What are some other ways a character can come across as a counterfeit? What books can you think of where this sin has been committed and it affected your connection to the character?

(Picture Via Freaking News)

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22 comments:

Bish Denham said...

Great post! I won't name the book, as I don't like to cast aspersions, but I did read one not too long ago that was like reading a very bad version of The Secret Garden. The main character was just too sweet for words. She seemed to flit through the story without a care or any kind of emotional upheaval despite the fact she'd been orphaned and sent to an aged uncle far away from everything she'd known and loved.

James Cornelius said...

Your series on the seven deadly sins is excellent, Momzilla. Looking forward to seeing what other problems I am standing on the verge of.

Twisted

Medeia Sharif said...

You hit the nail on the head with this post. I'll put a book down and won't finish it when I see these problems in characterization. I need to sink into the novel, and that means connecting with realistic characters.

Ray said...

This is a timely post. I have started to write a short story and one of the goals I set for it is to be a character driven story portraying the personalities of the two characters in the plot. Your words of guidance will help me... thanks

ralfast said...

First things firsts:

Great blog you got here. Found myself opening multiple tabs so I could read all the posts on the first page. Defiantly a must read blog for writers.

Second, all good points, especially when talking about too little or too much drama/emotion.

Will keep those in mind.

Martha Flynn said...

Yes! Especially the accountability one - even when I'm rooting for a character and love the character, I get really annoyed when they're allowed to "get away" with things. Even Dexter had to face the music.

Erica said...

Wow! Great post. This Seven Deadly Sins of Novel Writing series - is really brilliant! You're my next Monday Featured Blog, I'd love others to read this. Great stuff here, as always :o)

Shannon O'Donnell said...

"NEVER make the sole focus on what a character has or doesn't have. Instead emphasize what they DO with what they have." I love this! ;)

P.S. You've been tagged :)

Karen Lange said...

Great stuff! Thanks:)

Danyelle said...

9.9 times out of 10, a character cliche crutch means the writer needs to delve deeper to really understand who their character is.

You are brilliant, you know that? This was a beautiful post. Thank you for making me put on my thinking cap. :D

Angela said...

Bish, thanks. I don't like to be nagative about books either, but at the same time an example was important and this book is well known enough for people to relate to it. Plus too at the end of the day it's wildly successful, so its not like pointing out a single flaw will affect that. :-)

James, thank you so much. I think we all need to keep these things in mind--I'm certainly not immune to committing writing sins. It's all about catching them in later drafts. :-)

Medeia, glad this resonated with you. And I agree--some of these sins, once committed, can't be recovered. Even if the reader finishes the book, their opinion is tainted.

Ray, glad this helps!

Ralfast, so glad you found me and that the posts help! Happy Christmas!

Martha, yes this one bugs me too. Even if they manage to get away with something as part of the plot, the repercussions must be seen somehow--the lowered opinion of others, a lack of trust, a dislike of the person, etc. Everything has a consequence.

Erica, I would love to be featured on your blog! I was by yesterday to see who you featured and saw they had a similar post series on the 'actual sins' and thought that was pretty neat and ironic!

Shannon & Karen, thanks so much! I'm glad this helps.

Danyelle, you are most welcome. And you know you are awesome, right?

Season's greeting everyone!

PJ Hoover said...

I love these new posts, Angela! I'm all over them!

Kelly said...

Excellent post (and reminders)!

DK said...

What also happens sometimes is that the characters act unmotivated, like the dumb girl in a horror-movie going inside that dark room where the killer hides.

Marian said...

Very informative post!

An example of counterfeit, to me, would be the author saying one thing and the character saying another. For instance, if the author (through other characters) comments on how intelligent the heroine is, but the heroine then does something very foolish. The showing is always going to speak louder than the telling.

Creative A said...

Even if there is an unbalanced set of circumstances to contend with, NEVER make the sole focus on what a character has or doesn't have. Instead emphasize what they DO with what they have. A boy can live a perfect, privileged life and still make bad choices. Or a girl can have the odds stacked against her and still succeed through perseverance and the support of those around her. Humanize the character by showing them overcoming weakness and honing strengths to get what they desire.

I think this is particularly good advice. IMHO, this is one of those big things that reframe a stereotype character into someone unique and worth reading about.

Great list!

Uninvoked said...

Hey this is Silver1 from CC. Great to see you! I can't agree with your list more. It's perfect!

ralfast said...

An interesting list to say the least.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

Ana C. Nunes said...

This one made me think a lot about my characters. Love the 7 deadly sins for authors.

R.J. Edwards said...

I love this Seven Deadly Sins of Writing series. Thank you for giving me so much to think about.

Tiffany A White said...

Helpful post, thank you! I'm always looking for writing tips, and found you today in #MyWANA! Perfect...

Angela Ackerman said...

Thanks everyone for the kind words! I'm so glad this series is helpful to you all. :)

Angela

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