Fiction Mistakes that Spell Rejection
by Moira Allen
3: Undeveloped Characters
Your story may begin with an interesting idea (e.g., “What would happen if?”), but the characters keep people reading. Most editors agreed they look for stories driven by interesting, believable characters. “Could you imagine the movie Gladiator without the scene where Maximus loses his family?” asks Doyle Wilmoth Jr. “Gladiator has action, but we also have a character that moves us deeply. Someone we want to cheer for.”
Problems with characters include:
Characters the reader won’t care about. “It is especially bad news when the protagonist is someone with no redeeming social value, because we have to care about what happens to someone in the story, or why bother to read it?” says Diane Walton.
Characters who do not grow or learn. Several editors complained of “cardboard” characters whose motivations were unclear, or who simply reacted to story events rather than being the source of the story’s plot or conflict. “Ultimately the main character must decide his or her own fate; it can’t be decided for them,” says David Felts, former editor of Maelstrom Speculative Fiction and current editor of SFReader.com. Skylar Burns of Ancient Paths notes that “an even greater problem is the character that undergoes a rapid and unrealistic transformation in a very short span of prose.” Marcia Preston of Byline notes that too many stories feature characters who lack any apparent goal, or a compelling reason to want a particular goal — a flaw that results in stories with no significant conflict.
Stereotypes. “Why can’t a rich business man be kind and compassionate? Why are unemployed men always lazy and sit around in their vests swigging out of cans? Why can’t one or two learn Latin or take up line-dancing?” asks Sally Zigmond of QWF Magazine. Rhonna Robbins-Sponaas of Net Author notes that when a character is a stereotype, the story often needs a complete rewrite to turn the character into a living, breathing, three dimensional being.
The solution? “Know your characters, particularly the narrator,” suggests Victoria Esposito-Shea of HandHeldCrime. You don’t have to give the reader every detail of your character’s history, but you should know the history yourself. “That’s where voice is going to come from, and should also drive the plot to a large degree.”
“Remember that each person on this planet is an individual, possessing a separate combination of traits that distinguish him or her from everyone else,” says Bill Glose of Virginia Adversaria. “Be specific. Instead of saying, ‘The bar patron was obnoxious,’ say, ‘The skin around his mouth glowed, gin blossoms reddening his puffy cheeks and seeping into the overlapping chins. When he spoke, his speech was slurred and the words had an edge to them.’” Glose recommends using action to illustrate a character’s traits.