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What makes a badly written character?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Feo Takahari, Apr 10, 2015.

  1. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

    Spun off from the female characters thread, because I'm curious what people will say. Under what circumstances do you consider a character badly written?
  2. spectre

    spectre Sage

    When rather than being an element of the environment, they only respond to that environment. It makes their contributions harder to visualize. On the other hand as a reader with an active imagination a character can offer minimal opinions and effectively perform in the book and I'll make up the rest.

    Example bad:

    Rin grabbed the chair and smashed it over the thief's back, running for the first exit she saw.

    Example good:

    Knowing the chairs at Celer's tavern were old and rotted, Rin grabbed one and pretended to be moving it closer to a group of people to join in with their happy-going but instead she smashed the chair over the thieve's back. Knowing the bobbies would be along soon, she made a dash for the door without looking back, she wasn't concerned she had hurt the man more than his crime deserved only that she not be arrested as a vigilante.

    Character development makes the world more dimensional, Material-Social-Mental.
    Feo Takahari likes this.
  3. X Equestris

    X Equestris Maester

    Hmmm. Well, trying too hard to be awesome or tough kind of rubs me the wrong way, as that often leads to the character coming off as a jerk.

    Characters, and we're talking major characters, who fell like they're just going through the motions . They don't have a reason for their actions, other than the plot requiring them to behave a certain way.

    Characters who never fail and have no flaws. They're just too perfect, and come off feeling artificial. And they're really hard to relate too.

    There are plenty of other things, but those are the ones off the top of my head.
    cupiscent likes this.
  4. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    A bad writer makes a badly written character.

    But seriously, I've considered writing a "what you need to make a good character" guide. I think that's the better question to ask.

    In my opinion, a character without motivation, agency or investment is a story-killer. A character needs to want something, take action to get that something and have a reason for caring about stuff.

    I should point out that that refers to main characters. Secondary characters probably don't need as much to be good.
    Last edited: Apr 10, 2015
  5. I write bad characters.

    In all seriousness though, I think good characters are good for exactly the same reasons, but bad characters are bad in their own special way.

    Good characters are complex, deep, and have flaws. One of the best characters in all of fantasy literature is Samwise Gamgee. Who is he? A gardener. He's kind, loyal, determined, scared, physically inferior to his enemies, in way over his head, is only a marginal fighter for the most part. Look at him. He's great.

    Now, let's compare that to another favorite character of mine: Matrim Cauthon of WoT fame. He's one bad muddah who don't take no crap from nobody. He's smart, tactical, extremely lucky, a philanderer, drunken gambler. He's overly confident. Arrogant in the extreme, at least to me, and he's great.

    How can these two be the same? Well look away from the veneer of traits and look at their core. They have good traits. They have bad traits. Both traits actually affect them. They're relatable. We can see something of someone we know in them. That's what makes them great. We can relate to them on some level. They're not god. They're awesome but approachable.

    Compare that to bad characters. One of my least favorites is Eragon or his brother what's-his-face. Eragon is perfect. His flaws are virtues. I'm half convinced Eragon is Lannister since he poops gold, or so we are led to believe. Drives me nuts. But what's-his-face is some hard a that is a borderline crazy guy. And I hate him. There's another character from the series that must not be named (Twilight). Bella is a milquetoast. Weak beyond imagining. Hate that too.

    Why are these three so awful? They're boring. There's no conflict save for plot induced conflict or contrived conflict in some other stupid way. Those are my slightly meandering thoughts. And this is by no means an attempt to call me perfect. Far from it. Because, if you were to ask me I think my characters as they are aren't good enough to be published. But, I'm working on it. Those are my thoughts. Take them for what they're worth. (Nothing, unless you think they're worth something.)
  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    To paraphrase Jessica Rabbit, I'm not bad, I'm just written that way.

    There are a couple of factors I can think of. There's badly written and there's poorly constructed. The latter would be the one-dimensional character, the character who changes inexplicably or arbitrarily, who serves the plot rather than the story. And so on.

    A character can be well-conceived but still be poorly written. Inadequately described, for instance. Or a character who is kept too remote from the reader, or is too predictable or too obvious. I guess there ought also to be a distinction between poorly written and poorly executed. The one is too many adverbs, said-isms, and so on, while the latter is more in the predictable, obvious vein. Of course, if the character is well executed, there will plenty of obvious veins. (sorry, my post so I got to go first)
    cupiscent and studentofrhythm like this.
  7. cupiscent

    cupiscent Sage

    There's some great stuff in here already. Some things that I often see in characters I'd call badly-written:

    "One trick ponies", by which I mean characters who only have one thing about them. e.g. Burly McManpain has nothing to his story or character but violent revenge for his slain wife. Too simple, no complexity, and no internal conflict for Burly! Now, if Burly wanted revenge for his slain wife, but needed to work with his wife's killers in order to defeat a threat to the entire world, that might become more interesting. Especially if Burly had to use something other than physical violence to win.

    "No consequences", by which I mean characters whose history only seems to matter when it's significant for the plot, but otherwise seems to have left no marks on them at all. This is often seen in female characters with histories of being victims of abuse or violence, especially sexual in nature, but are 100% super-duper sassy fine now - or who've been prostitutes without apparently any impact.

    "For some reason", by which I mean characters who do, say, feel and believe things that don't even have a logical reason in their own narration. Most commonly seen as "For some reason, I trusted him" and similar variants. Every time I see this, I say (usually out loud) "The reason had better make itself evident soon." Sometimes it does (which is fine) but other times this was just the author cramming the characters into the shape the plot required.

    Special mention for characters who know everything and everyone, and always spot the trap coming (though sometimes when it's too late to heroically fight free). They always make me think this is the author's RPG character and they can't possibly bear for him or her to appear less than perfect, even for plot reasons.
  8. buyjupiter

    buyjupiter Maester

    Off hand, I'd say that any character that only does things to shore up some gender norm is a "bad" character. (i.e. men going off to war to save the family farm, because that's what men do OR women only interested in getting married, because that's all women can do--historically speaking at least.)

    Any character that serves as a mouth piece for the author's views typically comes off as a bad character. I'm thinking in particular of a book I recommended, only being half way through it when the tone completely shifted and I finished it out of sheer will power I think, rather than any real desire to finish it. Mostly because I thought what the author was doing was setting up a big reveal where he went "just kidding, that was a set up!" (And then I had to take back my recommendation, thus kinda embarrassing me that I had thought it good enough to recommend in the first place.)

    I think that one ^ comes across fairly clearly, at least most of the times that I've seen it. And when/if it's done more subtly, I tend to veer away from that author's books in the future...mostly because I don't like being beaten over the head with the obvious stick as a reader. (I don't mind a message in my books, I love KSR's Mars series and Margaret Atwood, I just don't want to read a single character as mouth piece. Those two are able to write the message without resorting to having their characters spout things just because they want them to.)
  9. Ophiucha

    Ophiucha Auror

    I don't think anything, on its own, is a sign of a bad character. Static characters -- even when they are main characters -- can be amazing and deeply developed. Characters without agency can still be memorable. Characters who are overpowered (relative to their setting) can still be interesting. Even characters who are difficult to connect with as a reader, be it because they are fundamentally inhuman or because they are flawed in an unforgivable way, can at least captivate and intrigue the audience.

    Usually, the worst characters just don't fit the story that they are in. Characters whose journeys don't match the flow of their development, love interests/token females who never seem to talk to anyone in the party except their to-be beau, side characters who take up too much of the spotlight. They could be good characters, if they were more or less important or if they were in another novel altogether -- one that was crafted to match them as opposed to created more or less separately. But they weren't, so they're bad.
  10. MineOwnKing

    MineOwnKing Maester

    Dull dialogue is a turnoff for me. Not every line needs to be a Captain Ahab soliloquy, but they should at least be an Ishmaelian equivalent.

    Speaking as a reader instead of a writer, personally the elements of a fantasy world and the actual plot are less critical to me. I need deep soul searching and strong lyrical vibes to keep my interest alive.

    As a writer I try to entertain a larger audience and therefore bow to less floridity, but I do struggle with writing sparse dialogue, and the temptation to dive into author narrative is like a lusty siren song.
  11. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    Good opinions here. I agree with a lot that's been said. I can think of one more consideration.... A varied cast.

    If you have more than one character fulfilling a story role, it can lessen the interest your reader feels toward both.

    Think of all your faves. Are there characters that perform the same function in the story? Do they have similar reactions, or ways of speaking? Chances are, they're distinct from every other within the story. They may even seem unique within the genre...all the better.

    Variety is one part of creating interest. Interesting characters are good characters.
  12. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    I don't think there are necessarily bad character types. I mean there are uses for one dimensional characters in stories. If every character was three dimensional and had their backgrounds explained, books would be thousands and thousands of pages long.

    What I think makes a poorly written character is inconsistency: stupid actions by smart people without reason, lacking common sense without reason, strength and durability determined by plot.
  13. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

    What are people's thoughts on ambivalent characters? Surely no one is 100% determined to do everything they need to do all the time. There's bound to be thoughts of "am I doing the right thing here?" or "Maybe this would be a wiser choice" or "okay, I got myself into this by being stupid, now how can I be smart and get myself out?" Would that be a form of inconsistency or not?
  14. cupiscent

    cupiscent Sage

    Ireth, I think those are signs of an interesting and rounded character. I love characters who grow and realise their own flaws, and then work on getting better in those areas. I am really interested in reading about them and how they develop further.

    Though I will note that it's important that in "how can I get myself out of this", the this shouldn't be the main plot! I read a book where the main character spent 80% of the book trying to escape from the story, and I just found myself not caring at all about either the story - because he didn't - or about him - because all he wanted to do was run away.
    Ireth likes this.
  15. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    Yeah, I agree, ambivalence can be good, and it's kind of necessary. When you're able to put a character into a situation with multiple choices, good and bad, and you can see them choosing either one of them for good reasons, then it's a sign you're writing a character with some depth.

    As a story unfolds, characters should be constantly confronted with a selection of choices and have to make a selection for the story to proceed. They should be evaluating those choices and be deliberating on what the consequences are. Of course, there are some choices that are generally obvious, like when you're unarmed and in the path of a charging rhino, so deliberation can be very-very brief or non-existent in those situations.

    Ambivalence is a great tool for revealing how your character thinks. Sometimes how and why they make their choices are more important than what choices they make. To me that's what makes the Game of Thrones characters so interesting. You may not agree with the choices a character makes, but you understand them because you've been in their heads and witnessed their ambivalence and their deliberations.
  16. K.S. Crooks

    K.S. Crooks Inkling

    What came to mind for me are the goals of the character. If they don't have any or they seem petty or they give no reason for their actions then I lose interest with them. Second would be lack of change. If the character stays the same, learns nothing or keep trying the same methods.

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