Category Archives: Christian fiction

Deadly Writing Mistake #7: Cardboard Characters

If you write fiction—it’s easy to create two-dimensional characters, or what some call cardboard characters. Even in nonfiction, we can be guilty of describing people in one dimensional terms.

Poor: Elaine is five-foot-six, has brown hair, and is thirty-two years old. She’s the divorced mother of two.

It takes time, thought, and hard work to fashion individuals, people who feel real to our readers.

Better: Elaine’s heavy brows knit together in pain and worry; a child of two clings to one leg, nervous as a wild cat. In her arms sits a baby who keeps grabbing at her mom’s long, greasy nut-brown hair. “He never meant to hit me,” Elaine says, touching her blue and yellow cheekbone. “It was the drinking that made him do it. If he’d just stay out of the bars, we’d be okay.”

The first example tells the reader who Elaine is. The second one leaves a mental memory, something the reader won’t forget. We know volumes about her life, all in three sentences.

Here’s an illustration I took from a book I recently read:

“Michael Archer found it hard to look at the young man before him. Ben Carstairs, only twenty-two, stood like a boy grown too tall, too soon. Each strand of his of his sandy hair grew as if it had a mind of its own. Handcuffs encircled his fine-boned wrists in loops of heavy iron. His lips quivered. Fear raged in his brown eyes.” Henry McLaughlin, Journey to Riverbend (Tyndale House Publishers, 2011) pg 1.

To create memorable characters do a character chart (a sample follows). This will help you with the facts of your character’s life. But you want to go deeper, get into their head and heart, actually hear their voice in your head. Ways to do this is to put on the persona of your character and write three pages as fast as you can. Now discard this and begin over. Once more, hit delete and start again. By now you will have gotten past the critic who sits on your shoulder and you will have dipped deeper into your creative mind than you may have ever gone before.

For an excellent book on this topic, I suggest Brandilyn Collin’s Getting into Character.

Deadly Writing Mistake #5: Using Cliches (Part Two)

Clichés can also be an overused idea.

Have you ever read a novel and thought, I’ve read this storyline before? Some common plot lines I’ve seen in my years of being a writing teacher and contest judge are:
1) a woman goes home for her class reunion and meets her high school sweetheart,
2) a chemical company is polluting a small town’s water and people are dying of cancer,
3) an old woman (or man) is suspected of being mean in a children’s book, but in the end, the character discovers she is really nice. I’ll bet you can add to this list.

Settings can also become cliché-like. Examples include: conversations that take place in a restaurant, at a kitchen table, or while driving in a car. Why not spice up your book by picking an unusual place for those dialogues? Why not use an attraction like a park or museum or special place that shows off the uniqueness of town where you’ve set your novel? In Seattle we have Pike Place Market, the Space Needle, and ferries. Or give your character an unusual occupation and hold the conversation while he’s putting on scuba gear, butchering a hog, or climbing out of a combine.

Most of us use clichés of setting, plot, and description without realizing it. We grab for them when we are in a hurry. They may even feel fresh, like something no one has ever written about before because we’re writing about something that happened to us. Or we do it because we’re trying to meet a deadline.

The best way to guard against clichés is to read, read, read, especially in your genre. If you write murder mysteries, you will soon discover common themes, settings, plots and you will soon learn to avoid them.

Also, take time and dig deeper into your creative mind. Even a cliché can become fresh if you find a new way to approach it. The woman who goes home to her high school reunion is a common story line for a reason. Many women have this fantasy and want to read about scenarios such as this. The challenge is to put a new twist on an old familiar theme.

Can you name a cliché you’ve seen recently?