Character Mistakes to Avoid, and Tips to Make them Better

As an author, I often find myself analysing the different components of a story, whether I am reading a book, enjoying a movie, or watching a TV series. The one aspect of stories that I have found I am the most interested in is the characters. One thing that all authors believe is that strong characters are central to a great story. The characters are the thing that keeps the reader/viewer connected to the story, and if the character’s fall flat, so will the interest of the reader/viewer. So I guess the question I am attempting to answer in this post is “What makes for a great character? And what should I avoid in my characters?” And be aware, just because I list a character as having a negative trait does not mean I dislke the character. I am using them to illustrate a point.
First off, things to avoid in your characters(and these apply to villains, side characters, and main characters):

1: Mary Sue Syndrome. A Mary Sue is a character who is perfect in every way, has no flaws, is loved by all characters, has a crazy amount of talent and ability that is learned very quickly, and gets the perfect happy ending. Mary Sues are bad for several reasons, one of the biggest being that they are unrealistic and hard for the reader to relate to. Mary Sues are also obnoxious in many ways; their perfection eventually becomes unbearable and annoying. Here is a link to a quiz to see if your character is a Mary Sue(there are some questions on the quiz that are awkward, but you can opt out of answering those if they don’t apply) Some good examples of Mary Sue characters are Arwen from Lord of the Rings, Bella Swan in Twilight, Nancy Drew(don’t get me wrong, she is pretty awesome), etc. Guys can be Mary Sues as well, often referred to as Marty Stus. Male examples would be Luke Skywalker in Star Wars(in some ways), Gale Hawthorne in The Hunger Games, and Marcello Forelli in the River of Time.

2: Cliches and tropes. Basically anything that has been used over and over again until it becomes exhausted. Good examples: dumb blonde, grey bearded wizard, geeky kid who falls in love with out of league girl, jocks who are bullies, etc. These have become majorly overdone, and can really turn people off to the storyline. Sometimes they can be useful as brief side characters, but I do not recommend using them unless they serve a purpose in the story. Good examples of cliche characters: Donna Noble in Doctor Who (sarcastic, seemingly hard character who at heart is a big softie), Eragon in the Inheritance Cycle and Merlin in Merlin (Young boy who discovers that he is destined to defeat baddie, and there’s a prophecy to boot!), Peter Parker(geeky guy who loves out of league girl, who ends up becoming super and winning girl)

3: Overly villainous villains. I am in no way saying that every villain should have a spark of good. But I do get tired of the maniac villain rubbing his hands together and laughing evilly. I also get bored of the mystery where the villain turns out to be the Main characters best friend. And the story where the villain kidnaps female character and ends up liking her. EW! Seriously though, your villains need a reason to be evil. Give them a backstory, something that the reader can believe. Seriously, the backstory should not force the reader to use suspension of disbelief in order to enjoy the story. Good examples of overly villainous villains are: Palpatine/Lord Sidious in Star Wars, Denethor in Lord of the Rings (though he could also be classified as an anti-hero), and Zelena in Once Upon a Time (her backstory was stupid).
4: Not villainous enough villains. I get it. We all want to love the villain. I mean, who doesn’t love Loki? (Ok, the real question should be: What female doesn’t love Loki?) But I am tired of the villain always turning out to have some good in him and making a miraculous turn around at the end. I love some characters like this, but it is quickly becoming cliche. Try making your villains really evil with a reason to be so, as opposed to “misunderstood”. Good examples of not villainous enough villains (and I love them all the same) are: Guy of Gisborne in BBC’s Robin Hood and Loki in Thor, The Avengers, and Thor 2.

5: Good/Bad guys. In other words: Good guys who have a “darkness” in them that can “destroy” them. Like, why can’t a good guy just be good? Not that they should be perfect, because I don’t want any more Mary Sues or Marty Stus, but I do want a good character who is truly good. No dark side, no freakish desires lurking, no sudden need to get revenge. Some good examples of this are Phil Coulson from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (As much as I love him), Snow White from Once Upon a Time, and Thorin Oakenshield from The Hobbit.

And now to talk about some things that make excellent characters. Some of these will be for particular character archetypes, and others will be general observations.

1: Flawed (but not fatally so) Heroes. When I say flawed, I don’t mean that your character should have issues with lust or drinking (though if it plays a part in the story, then you should give it a go). When I say that, I mean flaws that your average human can relate to, like selfishness, anger, lying, impulsiveness, etcetera. Characters need to have normal flaws so that the audience can relate to them on a deeper level. Some people hate flawed characters, but your average person will find them excellent. Good examples of this are: Rose Tyler from Doctor Who (selfish and a bit bratty), Arthur and Gwaine from Merlin (one can be rude and unthinking, the other has problems with self-love, lust, and drinking without being overboard), and Han Solo from Star Wars (cocky and self-asssured).

2: Strong Anti-Heroes. What is an anti hero? An anti-hero is someone who is neither good, nor evil. They may help the good guys, or they may help the baddies, sometimes both. But everything they do is done to advance their own cause. It has nothing to do with loyalties or personal feelings for either side. Anti heroes are hard to write. You have to make them work, or else they will be overly evil or Mary Sues. You have to make them a character that the audience and root for and hate with a passion at the same time. Some good examples of anti-heroes are: Rumplestiltskin from Once Upon a Time, Agravaine in Merlin(in some ways), and Grant Ward in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

3: Realistic romance. In real life, people don’t fall in love the minute they see each other, and they definitely don’t micro-analyse every aspect of a person’s appearance and personality from the get go. In real life, love takes work and time. But on the other hand, people don’t always go around falling in love with the people they despise. I am sick of the whole: I hate him/her but I also kind of like him/her, but he/she is so obnoxious but also so sweet. It’s shallow, cliche, and unrealistic. Some good examples of realistic romances are Gwen/Arthur in Merlin (She is a servant and he is a prince, and they both have flaws), Emma/Hook in Once Upon a Time (They are both flawed and have trust issues, and she needs time to trust him and move forward), and Katniss/Peeta in The Hunger Games (damaged people who have to love even when it hurts, and both must work to trust the other).

4: Strong supporting characters. In many cases, it is the secondary characters of a story that carry it and keep the reader interested when the main character falls short. And even with an incredible main character, the side characters are still an important aspect. Think about it: We wouldn’t love National Treasure as much without Riley, and The Hunger Games would not have been half as much fun without Finnick. Strong side characters can carry your story to places it never could have gone without them. Good examples of strong secondary characters are: Jedediah and Octavius from Night at the Museum, Christina in Divergent, Leroy in Once Upon a Time, and Percival, Leon, Elyan, Lancelot, and Gwaine from Merlin.

And finally: 5: Well written villains. I mentioned what shouldn’t be done, but what does make for a good villain? Well, a villain can be evil and yet still have the audience loving them simply because of the way they were written. And a villain doesn’t have to be a main character. Take Cenred from Merlin. He was only in a few episodes, and yet in those few episodes he proved himself to be a pretty terrible person and a formiddable foe. And your villains should have some good motivation, and something other than: “Well you destroyed me, so now I shall destroy you!” (Though it has worked before). And if you do go for the redemption storyline, then make sure that it isn’t just “snap” and their a goody two shoes. If your villain does get redemption, make sure they have journey to it. Good examples of powerful villains are: Regina in Once Upon a Time (She did have the “destroy your happiness thing” but she rocked it. She also got redemption), Morgana in Merlin(she began as good but was sucked into a life of evil), President Snow in The Hunger Games (he rarely appears yet manages to creep everyone out), Nicolae Caparthia in Left Behind (He’s the anti-Christ, what more is there to say?), and Peter Pan in Once Upon a Time (I stimutaneously hated and was creeped out by him and loved him and thought he was an incredible character)

I hope this list helps you better understand character writing, and how to do it the right way. And this is by no means a rule book, a lot of it stems from my personal feelings. But it is hard to find a well written book with bad characters. And if anyone has anything to add to this, let me know in the comments! I hope to do more writing posts in the future!


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