Five things NOT to Do When Building a Character

Like all writers, I have my strengths and my weaknesses. I am aware of both, and am constantly working to improve the latter. However I will admit that I am particularly fond of my ability to design unique, three-dimensional characters that my readers love.

This ability didn’t come naturally, though. I have made my fair share of mistakes in the past. For example, it took quite a bit of trial and error for me to learn that you should never…

1. Make your characters too unique.

We all want our characters to stand out, to be different than the pack, and above all to guffaw in the face of stereotypes. Unfortunately  sometimes this means that we make them so unique that they are entirely unbelievable, and not in a good way.

I did this myself for the same reasons for a very long time, and often my characters weren’t just unbelievable… they were horribly confusing, even to me. So here’s the thing — if your character is too unique, at the very least your reader won’t have anything in common with them, and at the very most they will convolute the story so badly that even you can’t unknot it. Without commonalities there is very little you can do to relate your reader to your character.  If your reader doesn’t care what happens to your character, then they probably won’t care much about the story itself… especially if they have to slog through tons of confusions and contradictions on top of it.

That said, we must remember that  it’s also a bad idea to…

2. Follow stereotypes.

This one might sound like common sense, but it is very easy to fall into the stereotype trap, even when you’re not wanting to. This is especially true when a writer is creating characters whose culture they are not personally acquainted with. For example, my main character for Dr. Fixit’s Malicious Machine is an eleven-year-old boy. Now, I’ve been eleven. It was *coughalmostthreedecadesagocough* but I do remember some of it. However  I have never been an eleven-year-old boy. (Possible previous lives notwithstanding.) I know next to nothing about being a manchild of that age… or at all. My own son was only six when I began creating Trevor, so he didn’t help me much, and all my husband could say was he didn’t remember being that age at all.


So my only recourse was to go with what I did know about little boys… which was a bevvy of stereotypes. Everyone knows little boys are rowdy, rambunctious, dirty, eat bugs and hit each-other all the time for no reason… right?

Needless to say, early Trevor was not a likable character. Oi.

My early readers called him not-so-nice names. He was a jerk. A little snot. A brat. Nobody liked him, and when nobody likes your hero, well, that’s the end of the game right there. At first I was confused as to why they would think that about my little mind-son. After all, he was just like all other little boys, right? But I didn’t think about what I was putting into him. Not directly. I didn’t knowingly fashion him around those stereotypes. In fact, I didn’t even realize that I was thinking them in the first place. That’s the insidious thing about stereotyping: often, we don’t even know we’re doing it.

I put my manuscript away for a bit and worked on other things. And then, lo and behold when I went back to it, I didn’t like Trevor any more than my readers did! But I worried about making him more vulnerable. Would he be too sappy? Too “girl-like”? In the end I decided I didn’t care about that. There was a Trevor there, the Trevor that now resides in my published book, whom I wasn’t letting out because I was afraid he wouldn’t be perfect. Funny thing is, when I finally did let him out he was amazing. That’s when I learned that a writer should never…

3) Force your characters into a box.

You have a story you want to tell. That story requires a certain type of character, so that is who you create to fill the role. But as the story unravels, so does your character, going in directions you didn’t expect… and often don’t want.  What do you do?

You let the character be who they were meant to be. That’s what.

I know, I know. That often changes the entire story. But see the thing is, if your character is evolving that’s a good thing! It means they’re three-dimensional. But if you squash them back to fit the contours of the initial story, they will loose that third dimension and you will loose a possible masterpiece. Literature is, above all other things, an ongoing narration of the human condition. There are no stories without souls to tell them… souls to live them. Your story will not be anywhere near as effective to the soul reading it if the soul living it is nothing more than a means to an end.

That said, you also don’t want to…

4)  Create clones of yourself.

Maybe you’ve heard the mantra, “to make a character feel alive in the mind of your reader, you have to become that character”. It is quite a common conception among writers, if not in this exact form. Unfortunately, it is seldom followed up with, “unless you’re writing your memoirs, this is not meant to be taken literally”.

It really should be.

Now, let’s be honest here for a moment, shall we? We write because we must. Ah, yes. Another writer’s mantra. 😉 But a large part of that “because we must” involves working out our own demons. Whether we mean it or not, this often results in our characters becoming those demons… becoming us. While we can’t — and shouldn’t — keep ourselves entirely out of our characters,  neither should we make them clones of ourselves. There are two very important reasons for this: One, nobody wants to read an entire book of you whining about your problems — your reader is not your psychologist nor do they want to be — and two,  you run the very real risk of your stories becoming so personal that you can’t handle any criticism, even the constructive kind. Any writer worth their salt knows that the inability to listen to and apply constructive criticism is a death-knell for a writing career.

There’s also the additional risk of turning your character’s voice into a sermon of your personal obsessions, and nobody likes that.

Finally you must never, ever, under pain of death and possible dismemberment…

5) Copy another writer’s character.

Okay, I’ll admit it. Fanfic — I can’t stand it. Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with loving a character. After all, that’s why we writers create them! But if you make a character do something that their personality just really would never do, does that really mean you love the actual character at all?

Still, whatever. That’s just my own personal opinion. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery… or some such, right? At least I can admit that for the most part, fanfic writers don’t pretend that their work is original. But for those who do, and any other “writers” who use other people’s characters as their own, there’s something you should know (and already would, if you were a true writer):

In the writing world, copying is stealing. And we don’t like that. At. All.

I’m not talking about getting inspiration from other characters for your own. We all do that, and there’s literally nothing new under the sun. My own Guts, Glory and Books were inspired by a number of wonderful kidlit characters I grew up with, including Jem, Scout and Dil from To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m also not talking about reimaginings of classic tales such as the ever-popular Pride, Prejudice and Zombies books. My friend John is working on something like that, which I won’t go into here as it’s not my place. That said, his story, like Zombies, is a blatant reimagining of a classic work. There is no tiptoeing around it, no assumption that these characters and settings are of his own making. He gives credit where it is due, and his work is entirely an homage to the original author.

And really, that’s the difference right there.

If you have followed my blog at all, you know that I’m a graduate student. One thing they really drill into us in grad school is cite your sourcesWe’re allowed to use sources — how else would we prove our theses — but we are not allowed to take credit for those sources. You want to use a character that someone else has worked long and hard on? Fine. Then own that fact and give credit where it is due. Don’t rename Huckleberry Finn and call him yours. That’s stealing, and you’re not fooling anyone.

In the end, characters create the bridge between writer and reader in a way that nothing else can. To that end, treat them well. Take care of them. And never, ever underestimate their worth.


2 Responses to “Five things NOT to Do When Building a Character”

  1. I like the part about not creating clones of yourself. It’s hard to not make carbon literary copies, but the advice you give makes sense.

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