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Ten Elements of Bad Storytelling: #5 + Annotation

First off, new Annotation: Mistborn Chapter Thirty Three Part Two

Now, on to the feature article:

Ten Elements of Bad Storytelling (we all use)

#5: Flat Characters

I’ve tried to get across in these essays that a lot of these things are tools that authors, even the professional ones, use in their writing. As we get down to the bottom five, I’ll be looking at some of the worst corners we authors cut–and, at the same time, admit that I’m guilty of a lot of these things.

Flat characters is a great example of something we all tell new authors to avoid using, then go ahead and put into our books anyway. (And when I talk about ‘flat’ characters in this essay, I mean characters who either 1) Don’t progress as the story does or 2) Don’t have a rounded viewpoint, expressing depth of thought, and looking at things in more than one way.)

Look on virtually any editor or agent’s website, and under the ‘What are we looking for?’ section, they’ll say something to the affect of “We want stories about dynamic characters who change, grow, and who are interesting.”

Baloney. We all want one thing: stories that will sell. That’s one of the reasons we write commercial fiction. We want to write stories that people will enjoy, and that they will therefore pay money for. True, most of us authors also have a strong artistic drive–a desire to get the ideas in our heads out, expressed for the world to see. However, we also want to get paid to do it–for, only by getting paid can we have the time we need to get MORE of those stories out of our heads.

When it comes down to it, it’s very easy to cut corners on characters. I think doing so undermines the quality of the story–and therefore undermine its emotional impact on readers. This, in turn, will affect (in my opinion) the story’s longevity. However, that may not actually lessen its sales in the short run. Take, for instance, the Da Vinci Code. (Heck, the entire thriller genre in general.) Here, flat characters are the norm. The stories aren’t about a character who grows, they’re about the tension and fast pacing. And, if a character does ‘learn’ something, it’s in the form of a lesson they’re beaten over the head with repeatedly.

So, number five is flat characters. When we write characters in popular fiction, our first concern is usually to make them sympathetic. We want to write stories about characters readers will enjoy, we want to put readers in the characters’ shoes, because that’s one of the best and most powerful ways to evoke emotion in our readers. Once we have considered that, we tend to create conflict for those characters, since this not only enhances sympathy, but also creates tension and adds (hopefully) to the plot. Next, we tend to consider the individuality of that character (though this is often connected to the other two) and come up with ways they are distinctive. (Powers, quirks, abilities, philosophies.)

Therefore, giving that character an actually character arc–letting them grow and progress in a natural way, and then making their opinions and views rounded–actually comes fourth on the list. (Or, at least, my list. Others may do it differently.) We often talk about the importance of rounded characters. Yet, the truth is that isn’t necessary to make a story work, and so it’s easy to skimp in this area as opposed to other means of characterization. This sort of thing is icing, but I believe it’s one of the things that separates good commercial writing from great commercial writing.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone, as I’ve mentioned. In my first novel, ELANTRIS, I worry that some of the characters walked the line between being flat caricatures and true, rounded characters. Actually, as I look at it critically, I think the character with the least screen time (Hrathen) is the one that came out the most rounded, though I’ve drawn criticism for him since at the beginning of the book, this is rather difficult to see.

Like most of the others in my list, this is something to be aware of, but not necessarily something to let you stop writing. I think it’s a process, learning to give depth to characters. I think I did a much better job of it in Mistborn, but my side characters there are still pretty flat. (By necessity–I find that I have a lot of trouble rounding a character unless I give them a viewpoint. If I can’t write from their head, I can’t understand them on a deep level.)

Anyway, those are my thoughts on characters. We’ll do #4 tomorrow. Again, forgive the rough-draft nature of this essay. I’ll clean it up later, once I’ve had more time to think about it.

|   Castellano