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Kelsey Shields, UR Writing Consultant

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Fine-Tuning Your Character: Deciding What Matters

Depending on how much you decide to develop your characters, you may have pages of information you will most likely never use. Realistically, you will probably never have the chance to employ every detail of their history or personality in all of the stories they are involved with; therefore it is a good idea to decide which traits you want to focus on specifically. For example, if Jane Doe's parents divorced when she was little and her mother re-married a man she despised, that's most likely going to be more important than the relationship she had with the family dog. The same goes for personality traits: while habits and quirks are what truly make a character three-dimensional, having too many of them can begin to overwhelm the reader. Though it seems like common sense, a generally good rule of thumb to go by is this: the shorter the work of fiction, the less personal traits you should focus on.

Does the Shoe Fit?

Before letting your character loose in your next story, try getting a feel for him or her first. Place your character in situations they wouldn't normally find themselves in. For example, if your character lives in a modern setting, have them somehow transported back to a certain point in history. Or, perhaps they trip into a wormhole and end up a few thousand years into the future. How would they react in these situations?

Or, if you don't want to be that extreme, try something more typical. Write a few entries the character keeps in their journal. Pose a few questions you'd like to ask your own character and see how they react-- dialogue is, after all, one of the hardest parts of a character to perfect. Professor Allison Titus suggested having a character fill out this interview in order to get a feel for their voice.

Extra Material

As it was stated above, though you will eventually have to decide what you want to focus on in your new character, it is always a good idea to hold on to all your original information, because you never know when you will have to rewrite something in the future. Another bit of wisdom from author Chuck Wendig is: "Any rewriting or additional work comes easy when you know which way the character's gonna jump. Know them like you know yourself; when the character does something under your watch, you know it comes justified, with purpose, with meaning, with intimate knowledge that the thing she did is the thing she was always supposed to do."

And, even if you don't end up using that material for that specific character, who knows--you may end up using bits here and there in other characters you create in the future.

Pitfalls to Avoid

There are several pitfalls that, unfortunately, writers of all levels can fall into if they aren't careful. Even the most well-intentioned of writers may create a character that is either teeth-grindingly perfect, desperate for the reader's attention and sympathy, or utilize politically incorrect/offensive stereotypes or descriptions. These traps can be easily avoided, however, if you know how to spot them.

Mary Sues/Gary Stus

Mary Sues, also known as Gary Stus in the case of male characters, are characters who are considered to be too perfect, and thus, unrealistic. They are often described as being excessively beautiful or handsome, possess little to no detrimental flaws, and have a dramatic history (i.e. rape, child abuse, teenage pregnancies, etc.) that have little effect on their current self. They often possess unique and rare traits (such as two differently colored eyes, a birthmark in the shape of a heart, etc.) and other characters within the story are either perpetually in awe of the character, catering to his or her every whim, or both. In many instances, a Mary Sue is also an idealized version of the writer him- or herself, though this is much more common in fan fiction than original fiction.

This type of character is not just seen in novice fiction, however; it has been argued that the characters Captain Kirk and Wesley Crusher from the Star Trek series fit the criteria of a Gary Stu. For more information on the controversial Mary Sue/Gary Stu and its various incarnations, TV Tropes provides an exhaustive definition, analysis, and series of examples of this interesting phenomena in literature and film.

While there is a general consensus of what Mary Sue character is, there is no official criteria for them. Thus, one of the most popular ways to decide if one's character is a Mary Sue is to take a "litmus test" that provides a ranked score that suggests whether your character is considered a Mary Sue, is borderline, or should be completely re-written. The Original Fiction Mary Sue Litmus Test and The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test are popular choices. These tests cover characters for everything from non-genre fiction, to fantasy/science fiction, to roleplaying characters, and are extremely useful.

Offensive Writing

Unfortunately, many writers use fiction as a way to air their dirty laundry with the excuse that it's "just fiction," as if it is impossible for fiction to have any significant impact on the real world. On the contrary, however, many novels have been published that have had extraordinary impacts on reality, such as Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) stirring up large amounts of abolitionist sentiments before the American Civil War while simultaneously creating the Uncle Tom, Mammy, and other stereotypes that are still often associated with African Americans today, either consciously or subconsciously. Though most offensive writing in today's works are often more subtle, and perhaps largely unintentional, below are some major issues that one should avoid:

  • Portraying mental illnesses incorrectly. Many novice writers also do not extensively research mental disorders and end up playing into old stereotypes, most notably the idea that all people suffering from mental disorders are evil, psychotic, or some other shade of dangerous. It is because of this portrayal of mental disorders in the media and entertainment industries that there is still a stigma attached to mental illnesses in the first place. Unfortunately, many beginning writers often give their characters mental disorders in order to garner sympathy for them or to make them special, which is also a type of discrimination. As states, "some people portray people [with mental disorders] as innocent or even mystical. That's positive discrimination, and that's also bad because it creates unrealistic expectations... and whatever you do, NEVER give your character a mental illness just to make [them] more 'interesting,' because that's ableism. " Finally, while Wikipedia can be a good place to get an overview of a mental disorder, it only does just that-- provide a clinical overview. To truly understand the effects of a mental illness, it is best to read or watch personal accounts of people dealing with it on a daily basis.
  • Downplaying the significance of traumatic events.Rape, child abuse, and war are serious things that should never be experienced by a person, and those that do are often haunted by those events for the rest of their lives. Sometimes, those events are so unbearable that the victims feel that the only way to relief is to commit suicide. In fact, more soldiers have died by suicide rather than combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Therefore, similar to mental illnesses, these events should not be added into a character's past just for a "dramatic flair." Not only is it offensive, but it understates the consequences that these events actually have on a person.
  • Written accents. Not only are written accents difficult for the reader to interpret, they are also offensive to the group it pertains to. An example of this can be seen in the satirical novel Blonde Roots by Bernardine Evaristo, in which the author purposefully exaggerates the "hick" accents of the Caucasian characters in order to make the reader subconsciously believe they are less intelligent than their African counterparts. If your character has an accent, simply mentioning it and employing the slang associated with it is often enough. Dropping the "g" off the end of every word when talking in a Southern accent, however, is excessive, not to mention unrealistic.
  • Stereotypes so common they're considered "harmless."Harmless stereotypes are usually considered to be stereotypes commonly used in Hollywood or other forms of entertainment, such as: the feminine gay man; dumb cheerleaders; socially inept gamers; inbred southerners; promiscuous ethnic women; posh, witty British people... The list could go on and on. But just because these stereotypes are used liberally, however, does not mean they are not offensive and degrading to the targeted group. Worse still, the use of these stereotypes can signal to readers an authors' laziness to create unique and more realistic characters. If you really want to make your character unique, try creating one that completely defies these stereotypes instead.

This list was partially inspired by, which provides two great lists of offensive writing that can be viewed here and here.


Signs of a Weak Character

Now that you at least had an idea of a character in your mind, here are several more pitfalls to be wary of as you begin to write them into stories.

The Rule of Threes

For a main character to successfully engage the reader, they must be dynamic-- meaning they must undergo some sort of dramatic change by the end of the story. Many writers, especially for longer fiction, adhere to the rule of threes-- that is, the character changes physically, socially, and emotionally. A great example of this is the character Jane Eyre, who physically progresses from childhood into young adulthood by the end of the novel; socially, she starts out as a despised, solitary orphan but makes several strong friendships and a happy marriage; and she emotionally grows from being a rebellious, ill-tempered child to a patient, nurturing young woman.

Chuck Wendig, the author of three novels and 500 Ways to Be a Better Writer, offers several other great examples of the rule of threes: "Find three beats for your character - be they physical, social, emotional - with each beat graphing a change of the character of the course of a story. Selfish boy to exiled teen to heroic man. From maiden to mother to crone. Private, Lieutenant, General. Knows everything, everything in question, knows nothing. Birth, life, death. Beginning, middle, end."

Connection to the Plot

A writer could have the most well-rounded character on earth, but if they don't connect to the plot, they are still going to fall flat. The same, obviously, goes for a great plot: the main character is who leads the reader through the plot, and if they fail at this task, your reader is going to quickly lose interest.

If you are unsure of how connected your character is to a plot, ask yourself these questions: What is at stake for the main character if they suddenly decide to walk away from the issue at hand? If I completely remove this character from the story, how greatly will the plot be affected? Could another character easily replace them in their role?

Connection to Your Characters

If you aren't truly invested in your characters, it often comes across to the reader. These characters tend to be bland, and--related to the point made above--they rarely have solid connections with the plot. If for some reason you are unsatisfied with your character, try back peddling to the early planning stages. What do you dislike most about the character? How can this be changed and made to impact the plot in some way? And if worse comes to worse and you can't find any way to resolve your detachment from your characters, don't waste your time on a relationship that can't be salvaged. Scrap them, and start anew.

That being said, don't become so emotionally attached to your characters that you can't bear to see any harm come to them. Stephenie Meyer, the author of the Twilight series, admitted in an interview that she was guilty of this, and many fans were ultimately disappointed with the series' implausible "fairy tale ending." As Kurt Vonnegut stated in the preface of Bagombo Snuff Box, "Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of."

Slice of Life Rarely Works

Real life is boring. That's why people escape into fiction: to follow characters as they progress through distressing and traumatic experiences, to watch fictional people be tortured, physically and/or emotionally, and eagerly await the final result. Do they get a happy ending, or is the story just one continuous spiral into darkness? Do they fall in love, get betrayed by a best friend, kill the evil overlord, save the Earth from being blown up by a hostile alien race? These are the things people read fiction for; as Steve Almond states in his collection of essays and flash fiction, This Won't Take But a Minute, Honey, "readers are drawn to stories not because of your dazzling prose, but because they wish to immerse themselves in a world of danger. More precisely, in the heart of a particular character on the brink or emotional tumult... readers don't want typical. They turn to fiction for that particular slice of life when typical blows up or breaks down and gives way to the inherent chaos of the human heart."

Obviously, "slice of life" rarely stays engaging for long. That being said, when the time comes, don't be afraid to push your characters to the brink, and when you do, give them a kick that sends them flying over the edge. Your readers will thank you for it.

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