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.

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