What if You Love Your Characters TOO Much?

Are You Falling to the Brave/Brilliant/Beautiful Character Trap?

Just like good parents, writers are often certain their stories and characters are the cutest little thing that ever breathed. You may not carry pictures around in your wallet or brag when your baby takes his first steps before the neighbor’s kid does. But you still want everyone to understand how brilliant/brave/beautiful (you fill in the blank) your characters are.

So you make sure to tell readers, at every opportunity, about your characters’ super-awesomeness.

You know the drill: The character pauses to admire his gorgeousness in a mirror or, as in a historical mystery I just finished, is congratulated for his brilliance or bravery by another character. In this particular book, the secondary character croons that the protagonist has:

…a way of cutting to what’s true, an’ making sense of it.

The 2-Sided Problem of “Telling” Your Love for Your Character

The problem with such a declaration is two-sided.

1. It’s Repetitious

If you’ve managed to create a character that has, indeed, done something extraordinary, readers have already seen the character’s actions. If the reader already knows how wonderful the character is, he hardly needs to be told.

In fact, harping on the character’s brilliance, even if it’s true, can alienate readers because it skews the balance of strengths and weaknesses.

2. It May Be a Lie

The other pitfall of this technique is that, as in the book I read, the character really hasn’t done anything worth bragging on. As a result, when the author starts patting her “brilliant” character on the back, readers are likely to scoff in disbelief and reject the book and the character alike as unrealistic and perhaps even just plain irritating.

The best way to handle your character’s strengths is to let them speak for themselves. If she really is brilliant, brave, or beautiful, your readers should be able to grasp that through the story itself.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is your character’s most awesome trait—and how have you shown it to readers? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Great post (uh, vlog?), K.M. I definitely struggled with ‘bragging’ on my characters in my first book. They were too perfect and angelic to begin with, lacking any real flaws. That didn’t help 😛

    In my WIP, I’m having the opposite problem. I was chatting with a critique buddy the other day, and we were talking about the writing projects we’re working on. She asked what my MC was like, and I started to tell her, and then realized my character comes across as unlikeable.

    My heroine is bitter, insecure, and afraid to let anyone get close. She does have her good points, but the conversation with my friend made me realize I’m going to have to work on bringing out my MC’s strengths 😉 Ah, well. Just one more thing to add to my editing to do list.

    (oops, sorry for the long comment!)

  2. I hadn’t read romance before I started my first book (I thought it was a mystery–silly me), so I was unaware of the classic sterotypes and created flawed characters from the start. Likeable, but not gorgeous, and they made their share of mistakes.

  3. Great post, now I’m trying to figure out how this works with one of my WIP’s! My heroine is, at the beginning, insecure and mostly unsure of her abilities. She knows she’s got some strengths, but due to her past, is insecure about her future. Her best friend has to coax her out of her insecurities over the course of the book, and at one point, he reminds her of some of her past accomplishments–and she argues with him at each point. I’m hoping it works in light of what you’ve said! 🙂

    Unless a character is seriously narcissistic (i.e. Tony Stark in Iron Man and Iron Man 2, I can’t see the need for a character to love on himself, and those characters that feed a narcissistic personality are just annoying gnats. It’s kinda nice when the opposite happens–when characters point out the faults of their fellow characters (thinking of the end of Iron Man 2 with Nick Fury…)

  4. @Mia: Oh, yes, there’s definitely two sides to the coin! I’m not arguing against likable characters in this post. The problem I’m highlighting is our need as authors to keep pointing out what’s so great about the characters, instead of letting their actions speak for themselves.

    @Terry: You can’t go wrong with flawed characters. If you think of some of the most memorable characters in literary history, you’ll come up with a batch of very flawed, very fascinating human beings.

    @Liberty: So long as your MC really did all the things her friend is lauding her for (and preferably so long as you’ve given readers either proof of her acts or proof that she would indeed have acted that way), and so long as the information is necessary to the plot, you’re probably safe.

  5. My characters may have too many flaws. :/ I hate perfect characters. BORING. Flaws give conflict, to me!

  6. Flaws absolutely equal conflict. As authors, we often feel we have to give readers a character to like, but the truth is that we only have to give them character that fascinates them.

  7. Hm.
    I see my MC needs to have a little backstory with her previious attitude and beliefs. Everything is turned upside down by her husband’s actions.
    I need to show them how she was, not tell them.
    My main man was likeable, but due to his beliefs being toppled, turned into one of those unlikeable characters.
    They’re both learning to be who God created them to be together…
    I really need to fix her backstory…and maybe make him a little more likeable in between ‘heroic’ moments.
    Thanks, girl!

  8. Readers will believe what you tell them, but they’ll remember what you show them. Dramatizing character arcs and revelations can transform stories in all kinds of exciting ways!

  9. Sorry, I didn’t mean to say I need to MAKE him beatufiul, etc, I meant he turned into the annoying guy that you hate to be around…not the interesting ‘he’s going through changes, and he’s really flawed and likeable’ scenario, just the opposite…thanks for the advice.
    I just dont’ want him to leave a bad taste in the readers mouth.

  10. Finding the line between likable and too likable can be a delicate balance… esp. since we tend to lose objectivity pretty quickly! Good beta readers are invaluable for identifying annoying character traits.

  11. Great!
    I’ve got a friend waiting on the wings to be one of my beta readers.
    thanks for the help, KM 🙂
    Your stuff has been really helpful.

  12. My pleasure! Thanks for reading.

  13. Thanks for the great post, Katie.

  14. Thanks for commenting!

  15. I am thinking this still boils down to show vs tell. Show taht the character is Brave/Brilliant/etc. vs telling the reader that the character is Brave/Brilliant/etc.

    So this is a vlog, eh? Nice to have the bookshelf in the background. If I did it, it would show a messy closet in the background… :/

  16. Hmmm… good food for thought. Characters need actions. Just like real people. We know others by what they do. Not by what they say they will do. Thanks for the vlog. 🙂

  17. @James: Exactly. Because if you show it, you’ll never need to tell it.

    @Tabitha: Right. And then, as authors, no one can accuse us of making our characters out to be better than they are.

  18. Romance series have a tendency to fall into this mistake. In the first book the hero is the most fabulous and the heroine the most beautiful, in the second book the new hero and heroine are singularly fabulous as the first who are now a fabulous couple. I have stopped reading a book because of so much fabulousness.

  19. I remember reading a thriller that featured a “blonde beauty” as a heroine. The character herself wasn’t that bad, but the continual reference to her as a blonde beauty drove me up the wall.

  20. When I wrote my very first book in my teens my main character was so beautiful and gorgeous. Then I later edited her so she was less pretty and more clumsy. She instantly became more interesting. She almost become more beautiful because of it (if that makes sense).

  21. Makes perfect sense. It’s my view that fiction is all about capturing the imperfections of life. We capture them because they’re true, because they’re our essence as human beings, and because, as a result, they’re beautiful.

  22. My characters are horrifically flawed, to the point where one of them is becoming unlikeable. The whole point in the novel is in their flaws, and my issue is showing them in a good light!

  23. This is really great advice, K.M. It really all goes back to making sure I’m “showing” instead of “telling,” doesn’t it. (As well as making certain my characters are 3-D, not too perfect!)

    Thanks for sharing the tip. I’m getting closer and closer to the end of my very first draft so I’ll have your wonderful tips stored up in my memory banks as I go though what I’ve written.

  24. @Bethany: Unlikable characters aren’t necessarily a problem (so long as they’re interesting) unless they’re *supposed* to be likable. Then readers are sure to be frustrated.

    @Holly: There has to be a balance between showing and telling. No need to excise all telling. But, in 99% of the cases, showing is usually better. Congrats on nearing the end of your first draft! That’s always exciting.

  25. Great post! I think this is such good information too. It’s always better to show than tell– something I have to keep in mind while editing!

  26. Thanks heavens for second drafts! We always have time to fix the mistakes.

  27. I recently blogged on “wimpy” characters…that tends to be more of my problem.

  28. Admittedly, most readers (myself included) enjoy characters who exemplify admirable qualities, including brains and bravery, but wimpy characters can have their place, so long as the story has a good reason for including him.

  29. Anonymous says

    Great video! I’ve enjoyed watching your videos – you do a great job with them.

  30. Thanks for watching! I’m glad you’re finding them useful.

  31. I remember in one of my writing group readings when a member commented that my main character was really “a bitch.” I was thrilled. I don’t set out to write any particular character – I tend to be more plot-driven, but the thought that I had created a character that could be a bitch was really cool.

  32. Hatable characters are always as memorable (if not more so, sometimes) than lovable characters.

  33. I was quaking in my boots when I wrote one character simply because one of her handles was Battery Acid, caustic but indispensable. In short, I had to PROVE she was caustic or omit the name. Since the name is part of her characterization and a relationship that showed up on-screen, I opted to prove it.

    I was nervous as all get out until my final first reader came back with her comments and I realized I’d gotten her write. Every time I’d used the word harsh, biting, or the one mention of caustic, I was scared on whether the actions and telling matched. It was a huge validation that they did.

    ANY character trait you tell about a character has to be proved.

    • Gotten her “right.” I really AM typoing a lot today. Sorry.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, this definitely doesn’t apply just to positive traits – although readers will be more likely to end up rolling their eyes at “fantastic” characters who fall far short than they will at “cowardly/stupid/ugly” characters who aren’t as bad as they seem.

  34. Hope you don’t mind all my commenting. I’ve been bingeing on your archives as must be obvious.

  35. Let the characters action speak for themselves.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nothing wrong with occasionally backing up their actions with confirmation, but we have to make sure the two are actually in sync.

  36. I don’t need to brag on my characters. They show you how great they are by what they do in the story. They also show how flawed they are. I wanted perfect but they refused to cooperate. As a result, I am more attached to them since they are more like me! 🙂 (flawed but working on it.)

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