Avoid Writing Characters Who Are Unrelatable, by Rhiannon Hart
When you’re writing a novel, it’s so important to make characters relatable and realistic. If you don’t, your readers will be rolling their eyes every time your character opens their mouth.
Have you noticed how so much of writing advice is what not to do? Show don’t tell. Go easy on the adverbs. You can have the same approach when you’re looking at characters. Some of my pet hates when it comes to what not to do when writing characters are:
Making them perfect
Little Miss goody-goody is respectful to her parents, kind to animals and is wracked with guilt if she thinks she’s crushing on the same guy as her BFF. She’s never impulsive, eats her vegetables, has neat handwriting and a pencil case full of all those beautifully coloured gel pens. Unchewed. And she never loses a pen cap. Oh, and bluebirds make her bed every morning. These girls make me feel frumpy and erratic in real life. I certainly don’t want to read about them. The highest praise I have received from reviewers who enjoyed my first book, Blood Song, is that they love how Zeraphina (my main character) isn’t perfect. She is selfish, and then feels ashamed. She’s impulsive and she knows it, but she just can’t help herself when there are people keeping secrets from her. This dissonance springs from her cravings for blood, and her subsequent horror that it might mean she’s a monster.
Making characters self-centred
The other day I opened a WIP from a year or two or go that I have been intending to finish. I reread several chapters, and I was bored. Every single character is excruciatingly self-centred. No one likes anyone else. Even best friends are secretly mortal enemies. Crushes are superficial. If I ever revisit this piece it’s going to require some serious surgery.
Having them fall in love with someone they don’t like, or don’t even know
This one comes from my experience as a reader. I have a favourite writer of non-fiction who also wrote some novels early in his career. When I began his the first one, I was quickly put off by how the main character met and quickly fell for a woman when the reader had been given only a superficial description of her. I wasn’t doing the falling with the character; I was watching it from the sidelines, askance. Not long after that I put the book down. When falling in love is so often central many novels (even when they’re not romance), it’s important to look at why and how quickly two characters fall for one another. Crushes can be baseless and superficial, of course. As can jealously. But the falling in love part has to be logical (which does sound absurd, but it’s true), timely and thoroughly examined.
Which brings me to my next point: when the ‘realisation moment’, the first kiss or confession or declaration or however it comes, falls flat. Some writers build up tension exquisitely between two characters and it’s not until just before the denouement (which I think is the best place to put the declaration moment, right before the climax of the story, when it’s not a straight romance) that they confess their love and finally kiss — and it’s done in the most off-hand, peremptory manner. A sort of ‘duh’ is written between the lines, and the two characters seem to squeeze each others arms and go, ‘Oh yeah, we love each other. We sort of knew it and it’s no big deal.’ Fade to black. Wha? No big deal?! It’s a MEGA deal. In real life when you discover someone likes you the way you like them it’s like a supernova goes off in your world. There’s a sense of wonder. Electricity. Joy. Perhaps some writers feel it’s a little cliché by now to make a big deal of a romantic scene. But I need it. And I’m sure a lot of other readers do too.
I canvassed Twitter for other readers opinions on what makes characters unrelatable, and variations on the above came up, as well as: love triangles in general, when motivations are confusing and illogical, general illogical behaviour, the ‘it’s behind you’ factor*, and when everyone’s dialogue sounds exactly the same. (I wanted to give proper credit for these, but Twitter is playing up. I will favourite Tweets and do better in the future, promise.)
What are your pet peeves that make characters unrelatable?
*Does everyone know what I mean when I say the ‘it’s behind you’ factor? It’s when something is staring the heroine (usually) right in the face or breathing down her neck, and she remains oblivious. Gah.
Rhiannon Hart author website: www.rhiannon-hart.blogspot.com