A good story is told best with deep characters.
Many of the best ideas and concepts have fallen flat due to a weak cast of characters, often with the main protagonist being the biggest culprit. It's a very hard problem to avoid; even large budget movies suffer a great deal from this.
What does it mean to have a "weak" character?
When I say weak, I'm not talking about the character's physical or mental capability, or their ability to influence the story. Rather, it has to do with the character's ability to influence the audience.
The audience should be able to connect on some level with the character; how that is done will depend on your target audience. Children and teenagers are affected differently by different types of characters.
For example: I can tell a person's age merely by mentioning the name Jar-Jar Binks. Older audiences absolutely despised the character; nothing would have made them happier than to see him killed off. However, young children absolutely loved the character, drawn into the story by his antics.
The difference comes from the fact that George Lucas' target audience was children. In that way, Jar-Jar was a strong character, with a powerful positive impact on his target audience. This is why it is important to understand who you are writing for. Had Lucas written the character with an older audience in mind, Jar-Jar would have been unrecognizable.
Or look at any of the characters from Twilight; all things considered any one of them is pathetically weak. But the Twilight series is still a major success simply because the author wrote with a specific audience in mind; everything else just fell into place.
Because of the drastic difference between audiences, this guide will not fit every character type, so keep a focus on who you are writing for as you read through this.
How do I recognize a weak character?
This is easier said than done; millions of viewers said that Jar-Jar was a weak character, but they aren't exactly right. Sure, he can be annoying, but those same annoyances landed him a spot in the hearts of millions in of children (the target audience).
Recognizing a weak character takes years of learning and education, and then even more years of practice. There is no checklist or questionnaire that can perfectly identify a weak character, and there are no set rules clear enough to help avoid them. You can get a degree in every area of creative writing out there and still be unable to properly identify a weak character.
Rather than trying to spot a weak character, you should focus on trying to make a strong character. Understanding what makes a good character is key to figuring out which characters are weak.
What makes a character strong?
I'm really glad you asked... I was afraid I was going to have to bring it up myself.
- Weaknesses - People are weak. It is natural to feel weak. Everyone can connect with a physically or mentally weak character. They don't necessarily need to be out of shape or handicapped, but they should run into obstacles they cannot overcome (by themselves). If they need to rescue someone hanging off a cliff or from a building window, it becomes much more interesting if they lack the physical strength to pull them to safety. Or maybe they are afraid of heights. Or maybe they are injured. If the reader doesn't have a reason to doubt the character's ability, then you've killed the suspense of putting someone in danger in the first place. As with everything, there should be a balance; you will have trouble keeping your audience interested if all your character does is mope and angst over their uselessness.
- Flaws - Don't confuse flaws and weaknesses; think of weaknesses as make it harder for your character to do what is needed, and flaws make your character unwilling to do what is needed. You have a flawed character if he is too proud to consider the underprivileged girl as a potential romance. You have a flawed character if she is too prejudiced to see past the stuck-up cockiness of the wealthy boy. You have a flawed character if his moral standards won't allow him to kill that villain, even if someone's life is on the line. You have a flawed character if they are so burned up by thoughts of revenge that they fail to consider any peaceful alternatives. If your character never hesitates for any reason, then they won't seem human, and will be harder to connect with.
- Strengths - What? What happened to weaknesses? Well, in the same way that an overly strong character can ruin a story, so can an overly weak one. Every character should have something to offer; every character should have something that makes them valuable to the plot. There should be a balance between strengths and weaknesses. Take Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings; at first glance he is the most useless and weak character possible. Constantly blundering, unable to do anything with grace, tagging along with the hero just to keep him company; he doesn't even want to have anything to do with the plot. But that is exactly what makes him strong; the ring (which has proven to be irresistible by even the greatest character) can't influence him at all, making him an invaluable companion to Frodo. If literally any other character had been there instead, Frodo wouldn't have made it. This is what makes Samwise a really strong character.
- Motivations - This should be self-explanatory, but far too often I see characters that just do whatever is plot needs them to. The story should be character-driven, meaning that the character's motivations are what propels the plot. For someone new to writing, this can be very frustrating to do; if done right, your character may fight against you as the author. That may seem counter-productive, but it can have an amazing positive impact on the story. Rather than forcing your characters to do things they don't want to, you'll need to bribe them, coerce them, and convince them to go along with your plot. It sounds silly, but it's much easier to understand a character with clear motivations than a character who just does stuff because the author says so.
- Goals - Your character's goals will differ from their motivations in that they can be defined by a single, identifiable point. They won't be necessarily exclusive, but they should be more blatant than their general motivations. A clearer way to explain it is that a character's goal might be to win a tournament, but their motivation may simply be fame and fortune, or it could to prove to themselves or to someone else that they cane do it, or it could be to win the heart of a fair maiden/man-person. There should always be a goal at every point in the story, even if it is just a short-term goal like trying to get their crush to notice them or trying to get to work or school. These
- Growth - I cannot stress how important growth in a character is; I'm talking about character development here, not physical growth. This can be a very difficult process to define, but once you know what to look for it's easy to understand. Every point up until now should change ever so slightly as the story progresses, one way or another. You should avoid being too abrupt with change, of course, but it should still be noticeable. If your character doesn't change throughout the story they will become very uninteresting and dull. You shouldn't let your reader get used to your character.
- Conflict - If your character gets along with everybody who's not the villain then your story is going to get very boring. People in real life bicker and fight over the stupidest things, and while you don't want every decision to devolve into a brawl, you should at least have some differing opinions. Just because your characters have the same goals does not mean they should have the same motivations. Weaknesses and flaws are also areas that work well for this; it's hard to change your character if nobody is willing to stand up to them. With differing motivations you don't even need to have a winner; make the arguments even, and while they should settle their differences, don't make it obvious who you agree with/support. Leaving it open-ended will allow your audience to decide for themselves who they think is right.
- Mementos - Not to be confused with the mint-flavored candy, mementos are useful tools to allow you to keep past events and details fresh in the audience's mind. This can be anything from a scar or old injury that still aches, to a physical object the character still carries with them. For example, Harry Potter had his lightning-bolt-shaped scar that served as a useful reminder of his connection to Voldemort. Every time that scar twinges, the audience is reminded of the threat, how he got the scar, who he's up against, and so on. Give your character something that you can use as a subtle reminder of important events you don't want your audience to forget.
How can I improve the characters I have?
The best way to improve your character is through practice. There are several exercises I like to do to make sure I'm not letting my characters get to a point of uselessness. The purpose of these is strictly to help you see your character as a person rather than a tool, as well as help you better understand how to manipulate them without showing your hand to your audience.
- Plan Their Death - This is perhaps one of the hardest exercises to do, but it is also the most valuable. Death is inevitable. It sucks, but everybody dies. I'm not asking you to get all dark and morbid with this, but you need to decide how you character is going to die. Do you plan on letting them grow old, have kids, and die of natural causes? OK, well at least you've set yourself a goal. The purpose of this is to know the ultimate destination of your character, and the farthest point on their path of development. Do they have the same mindset as they did when their story began? Do they die happy? Do they have any regrets? Who will be attending their funeral (if they have one)? How do their friends feel about them at this point? This sets the pace for their life, as well as the full amount of growth they will be doing. If they are the same when they die as when the story began, then you need to rethink them.
- Kill Them Off Now - OK, so we're sticking with the whole "death" scene. That's fine, this is all hypothetical; it's not like I'm asking you to kill your dog or something. But it still hurts a bit to do it (unless you are evil, in which case I give you props for the non-violent use of your time). Whenever you get the chance, write up a little summary about how your character dies at different points in their story. How would they die halfway through the ninth chapter? Or the twelfth? Who would care that they were gone? Are they really any different than when they started their journey? Find specific key moments to kill them off throughout the story to act as milestones for their development; if they ever reach that peak of character development you set in the previous exercise, it's probably a sign that you need to retire them.
- Turn Them Evil - Yes, yes, I know Johnny McDogooder wouldn't turn evil for any reason, but that just means you've made him into a boring character. What would it take to make your character go off the deep end? What makes them tick? Whether that's joining the villain, turning on their allies, or turning into the next Sith Lord, it's important to understand how to influence your character. Like killing their characters off, many writers find this process difficult or even downright unthinkable. This is usually because these characters are extensions of the writers self; this is a good thing, but it is also what usually gets in the way of proper character development. The more you treat your characters like real people, the more your audience will too. If you treat your characters like sock-puppets or worse, soap boxes, then they won't have much of an impact on your audience. Make that character into the next Hitler.
- FAN FICTION/CROSSOVER!!! - Well then...I wasn't expecting to actually cover this one, but here we are. Fan fiction is a terrifying field of daydreams gone creepy, but if you're careful, they can actually help with the steps above. This is advisable mostly if your character's story doesn't allow much room for evil or death. Of course, you don't need to actually write anything here; this is mostly a mental exercise. Think about their chance of survival; the odds of being turned to the villains side; the way they interact with the world setting. This exercise allows you use stages outside of your own work for practicing the other exercises; this is especially useful if the story they are from isn't a good vs evil story. One important thing to remember here though; never force your character into a setting they don't belong in. If it doesn't flow naturally, you're only going to make things harder on yourself. Personally, I created a setting for this purpose from scratch, allowing me to put any of my characters through a variety of experiences to test their personalities, strengths, and weaknesses.
There are a few other things to keep in mind while writing out your character's story:
- Avoid settling - It's a good idea to know how you want to end your story, but don't let yourself get locked on specific details. Only give your characters a descriptive appearance as you need to; if you get your heart set on your character looking or acting a certain way, you are less likely to come up with ideas to improve them. This is mostly a concern for the first draft. It's good to tell your audience what the character looks like in the early part of the story so they can get a mental image, but if you decide the character's appearance before you actually write their story, you'll end up putting yourself through a lot of frustration. Their appearance should be controlled as directly as possible, built around telling the story you want to tell. Don't give your character glasses just because you like glasses; give them glasses so your other characters (or the audience) get the impression that he is intelligent.
- You are their enemy - Your characters are not your friends; if they met you, the chances of them actually liking you are really, really small. You are the villain here, putting them through all kinds of stress and pain just to entertain your readers. The only character who might get along with you is the villain (unless they found out how you plan to end the story). Don't let your emotions keep you from roughing them up a bit.
- Never just discard a character - When it comes to deciding whether or not to scrap a character and start over, remember that any character can be fixed or repurposed. A character that is too perfect can be given flaws to make them interesting. If your character is overpowered, have them do something that endangers everybody they care about; cripple them with fear at their own strength; focus their development internally. If your character is too morally just, give them a situation that they can't handle; make them start to doubt themselves. It still counts as growth even if it is negative. And as with all growth, don't backtrack; kill them off after breaking them down to have maximum impact on your audience. The weakest character I ever created was originally kept around to use as a benchmark so I could see my improvement; recently, I discovered a way to use him in one of my works that both improved him as a character, and added greatly to the depth of the story.
- Personality first - If someone asks you about your character, don't start by describing what they can/will do. I don't care if your character can fly, shoot lasers out of his eyeballs, or has nuclear indigestion; I want to know about their fears, motivations, weaknesses, and flaws. Telling me that can freeze time doesn't give me any idea what kind of person they are; that's like telling me they eat pizza. Yes, it's fine to include that information, but you should start by talking about what kind of person they are and tie the rest into that. This alone will drastically change how your characters are received, and the feedback you do get will be much more useful and informative.
- Get feedback - Probably the best way to become confident in your characters is to talk to other writers about them. This is difficult to do with personal/private works as you generally can't expect other writers to drop their work and come fix your problems. There are groups on deviantArt devoted to pairing up people for that purpose, but your best bet is to start a collaboration with someone. Show them what you can do; make characters you are proud of; talk openly with your collaborator about each. They will tell you their opinion on those characters, give you advice to improve them, and otherwise shatter your hopes and dreams. But that second perspective is invaluable, even if it goes against something in this guide. It gives you an opportunity to discuss what you've learned argue (peacefully) over the points you disagree on, and will boost your confidence either through learning something new you can apply to your private work, or by showing you that you have the right ideas. Keep in mind that everyone has different opinions; you will never find someone who agrees with everything you want to do (if you do, don't trust anything they say). Try to understand the reasons for these differences; succeed in that, and you will learn to write better than any guide or class could ever teach you.