8 Ways to Avoid Cardboard Characters (and Plot Contrivances While You’re At It)

“The plot was contrived, and the characters were cardboard.” Ouch. That’s about as bad as it can get when it comes to negative story reviews. It’s also perhaps one of the most common complaints audiences have about stories. Certainly, it’s one that irritates me the most! Here’s the thing though: cardboard characters often cause plot contrivances—and vice versa. Once you realize this, it can become a little easier to figure out how to identify and avoid cardboard characters (and plot contrivances) in your own fiction.

This post was inspired by two different western romance novelists I read recently. Neither was perfect, but one I really enjoyed and the other, although better than many, almost invariably compromised her stories with this dreaded tandem of cardboard characters and plot contrivances. What I recognized was that her characters weren’t cardboard until the plot grew contrived—and vice versa, the plot didn’t feel contrived until the characters stopped exhibiting dimensionality in their choices and actions.

Genre stories that follow tight conventions, such as romance and mystery, are often those I see struggling most with this equation. The authors need to hit certain beats and elicit certain emotional responses from readers, but too often they end up hitting the beats in an artificial way that hampers the overall story, killing both realism and resonance. The irony is that emotional resonance is perhaps most necessary in stories of this kind, since the desire for a very specific sort of experience is exactly why readers pick these books up.

Stories that are more varied—such as, say, an adventure story with a romantic subplot or a generational saga with many different slice-of-life aspects—can get away with less-than-perfect emotional resonance here and there due to fact they’re inherently offering audiences a wider selection of experiences. Of course, this spottiness isn’t ideal in any type of story, but those genres with a tighter focus must be all the more vigilant in evoking a genuine response from readers via a genuine presentation of characters.

Regardless what type of story you’re writing, you can always take everything up a notch by paying attention to this all-important link between cardboard characters and plot contrivances. If your story suffers from one, it probably suffers from both. The corresponding good news is that if you fix one, you will probably inevitably fix the other as well.

The Link Between Cardboard Characters and Plot Contrivances

What Are Cardboard Characters?

As the metaphor suggests, cardboard characters are… flat. And dry. And colorless.

Remember the “blooper” at the end of A Bug’s Life, when one of the ants starts flirting with an attractive extra, only to accidentally knock him over and realize he’s just a cardboard cutout set up to fill out the necessary “cast of thousands” who populated the anthill?

A Bug’s Life (1998), Walt Disney Pictures.

That’s a cardboard character. Attractive on the surface but not much personality—and certainly not much agency.

Cardboard characters are a writer’s mindless robot minions. They do whatever they’re told, no questions asked. Dimensional characters on the other hand push back whenever you’re trying to make them to do something stupid just because it would make for a cool explosion onscreen. “You want me to slo-mo walk away from the exploding building? No way, lady! You think a real secret agent would do that?”

What Are Plot Contrivances?

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

Structuring Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

“Contrivance” means “not genuine.” A contrived plot is one in which the events unfold in a way that simply doesn’t make sense or seems forced. Plot contrivances are the flipside of cardboard characters, so, basically: cardboard plots. These are plots that mechanically hit all the genre beats (although, frankly, not necessarily all the structural beats) as if they were doing a “dot to dot” puzzle. These cardboard plots are particularly obvious when writers try to manufacture a big or exciting scene that lacks proper cause and effect.

Because plot and character are not separate story techniques, but rather two sides of a coin, a contrived plot is almost always the result of a cardboard character who is not showing up to make authentic decisions. If characters aren’t responding to plot events authentically, this will prevent them from, in turn, being able to drive and create an authentic plot. This is most obvious when characters respond to big events without weighing the consequences. For example, someone may choose to make a big (and ultimately even unwise) sacrifice for someone he loves, but not without thoroughly weighing out reasons and options before putting his head in the lion’s mouth.

8 Ways to Avoid Cardboard Characters (and Plot Contrivances)

Now that we know cardboard characters equal plot contrivances, and together they equal bad—what can we do about it? After all, the merging of plot and character is a dance. Letting our characters run “authentically” amok with no regard for plot isn’t much better than making the characters mindless servants to the plot events we’re intent on creating.

Here are eight things to keep in mind in order to avoid both cardboard characters and plot contrivances.

1. Learn the Structure of Character Arc, Then Sync It With Your Plot

Creating Character Arcs

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

Writers sometimes worry that adhering too closely to story structure will cause their plots to become contrived, or at least formulaic. And this can be true if the writer is trying too hard to follow the form without understanding the function. One of the best ways to prevent a contrived plot while also deepening character is to study how the shape of a strong character arc syncs up with plot structure—then let the character arc drive the plot. When you do this, your authorial questions become less about “what I can make happen here?” and more about “what would my character do here?”

2. Assign Character Attributes, Then See What Happens

Although writing a novel is almost inevitably an exercise in discovering your character, it’s usually best if you can start with a sense of at least a few strong attributes for each character. Contrasting attributes are especially juicy. For instance, maybe you choose the attributes of “generosity” and “cynicism,” or “cheerfulness” and “obstinacy.” Then just make sure those attributes are showing up in each scene. This can admittedly complicate your plotting since sometimes it would be a lot more convenient to the plot if the character were “hopeful” or “cooperative” instead of “cynical” and “obstinate.” But if you adhere to your character’s personality as authentically as possible, she will lead you to some interesting plot situations.

3. Don’t Assign Character Attributes, Then Focus on That Exclusively

However, the caveat for the above section is that you must let your character’s attributes develop naturally. You don’t want your story to end up sounding like you’re beating a drum with just one stick. If you decide your character is cheerful, but that’s all he is, he will of course end up being one-dimensional.

This is one reason it’s so helpful to choose contrasting attributes. How will the character balance an easygoing cheerfulness against his own immovable nature? Although you will almost certainly want to create a likable character, make sure you’re balancing attractive qualities with challenging ones. Romance leads who are all charm and gorgeousness are just as cardboard-y as action leads who never lose a fight or never suffer long-term consequences from their injuries. Those aren’t people; they’re stereotypes. And stereotypes can’t drive a plot.

4. Watch Out for Unnecessary Naivety or Ignorance

In order for simplistic (or just plain unrealistic) plots to work, writers sometimes resort to characters who can’t seem to see the forest for the trees. At best, they might conveniently need everything explained to them—so authors then have a chance to explain to the readers. Worse is when characters can’t seem to draw simple or obvious conclusions from the available clues—so the writer can then further draw out false suspense or inveigle the character into doing some cool plot thing that, if only he saw the writing on the wall, he would never do.

Naive female leads in romances often strain the bounds of credulity, but so do action heroes who are supposed to be legendary but who seem to lack even the most basic understanding of strategy or defense. Sometimes these attributes can be authentic characteristics, but too often they are just contrivances used to create plot dynamics that simply wouldn’t be possible if the characters were acting more realistically.

5. Avoid Emotional Outbursts With No Consequences

Emotional outbursts are the stuff of fiction. Proclamations of love in the rain. Furious rages and barroom brawls. Great suffering and great joy. It’s all good popcorn catharsis. Audiences love larger-than-life emotions. What audiences don’t love, however, is when the author uses plot contrivances to maneuver cardboard characters into emotional outbursts just for the sake of the outburst.

First off: See Point #4 above. Most people in real life don’t burst out with their emotions in dramatic or unusual (for them) ways without true incitement. This is because, according to the degree a person is socially aware and emotionally intelligent, he will realize that an emotional display of any kind is a cause that will elicit an effect.

Which brings us to second off: Please, pack your story with emotionally dramatic scenes. They’re my favorite. But make sure those emotions don’t exist in a vacuum. Whether it’s a proclamation of love or a display of temper, your character’s expression of himself should elicit realistic responses (aka, consequences—which don’t always have to be “bad”) from other characters.

6. Focus on Motive Rather Than Outcome

Stories get over-weighted onto the plot side of the balance when writers focus more on the outcome of a character’s actions rather on the character’s motive for that action. This isn’t to say the outcome isn’t important, but if you’re cramming your character into a showdown scene just because you happen to want a showdown in your story, that may end up feeling contrived. But still… you want that showdown!

So how can you weave it into your story in a way that feels authentic? The answer is to focus on the setup to the scene. What would authentically motivate this character to engage in a showdown? For that matter, ask yourself, “What would authentically motivate you?” Even if your personality is wildly different from your character’s, if you find there’s no way under the sun you would ever do that same action with so little motivation, then think about whether maybe your character’s inner development needs a little more work.

7. Never Bend Character to Fit Plot

This one can get tough. Plots are sprawling and often unwieldy things, and even the best writers can struggle to get them to run in tandem with their characters. Admittedly, sometimes exceptions must be made, in which characters do certain things that might not make 100% sense. This should be done seldom and only with a great deal of caution and sleight of hand, so hopefully readers neither notice nor mind.

Most of the time, however, a character should be respected like a real-live human being—and not forced to do something she doesn’t want to do. That is, she shouldn’t be forced by you, the author. It’s a different proposition if the story, via the other characters, are messing with her day.

And that’s the whole point: throw whatever plot events you want at your characters but make sure they are reacting to them in ways that are unique and realistic to themselves. Your characters may have no choice about what happens to them; sometimes they may not even have a choice about what they do in response; but they should always have a choice about how they feel and rationalize about what happens.

8. Choose Authentic Character Reactions Over Dramatic Ones

Plot contrivances usually occur because the author is looking for drama instead of realism. The two are not incompatible. In fact, the best drama is often the kind that emerges from the most realistic situations. Let’s say your character does something heroic—like turn himself in for a crime he didn’t commit in order to protect someone else. That’s super dramatic, right?

Now, whether or not it’s also realistic and authentic will depend on how you play it out. If the character walks to his doom with chin held high, misty-eyed with his own martyrdom, unflinching in the face of a greater good—or if he insists, even in the face of reason, that this is the only choice—that’s just melodramatic. But if this same character spends sleepless nights agonizing over his decision and searching out every other possible alternative before taking the hit—not only is that much more realistic, it’s also much more dramatic. It feels real, so it has resonance. Where there’s resonance, there aren’t likely to be any cardboard characters or contrived plots.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What is your top trick to avoid cardboard characters and plot contrivances? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in Apple Podcast or Amazon Music).


Love Helping Writers Become Authors? You can now become a patron. (Huge thanks to those of you who are already part of my Patreon family!)

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

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. I write book reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and so much of what Weiland describes above is absolutely true. So often the characters are flat and the plot–even in genre stories that usually follow a given style (e.g. cozy mysteries)–is also flat. It would behoove many of these writers to read this blog.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you. One-stop-shopping link, to diagnose and remedy a problem that absolutely annoys me around the world and back 🙂

    Those storytelling sins are beautifully illustrated in whenever Producer Guy asks Screenwriter Guy in the Pitch Meetings:

    “Why does the character do this?”

    When Screenwriter Guy answers, “So the movie can happen” / “Unclear” / “Because,” that’s a clue the writer was committing one of the assorted storytelling sins outlined above, especially #7. I frequently find when I ask writers the same question, they turn out to be treating their character like a paper doll to be moved from one set-piece to the next.

    There’s a rule related to #8, which was spotted by the late David Farland: Characters who *under* react to situations.

    In the example on Farland’s blog, a character sees an apartment building destroyed in an explosion, and simply nods and says he’s glad he wasn’t in it at the time. Except, the character’s mother lived in that building, and she was in her apartment at the time of the explosion. Normal people have … thoughts … about their mothers dying fiery deaths, but this particular cardboard character did not.

    It’s hard to get invested in a story populated by cardboard cutouts.

    Great post, and great advice.

  3. When you mentioned contrasting character traits, it made me all warm and fuzzy because I have characters who do that! One is both just and merciful (which sometimes makes him scary) another is kind and generous, but also impulsive, careless, and prone to take his friends for granted.

  4. Great stuff here, K.M.! Absolutely loved your examples, they were spot-on.

  5. Thank you for this post, Ms. Weiland! It is just what I need to properly evaluate my novel as I enter the editing stage. As much as I love her, my heroine seems a little off to me. I think this might help me figure out why!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Honestly, one of the toughest parts of writing is trying to master portraying our characters on the page with the same vim and personality we experience in our heads. Get that right and so much else falls into place. Happy editing! 🙂

  6. Peter Moore says

    How would you handle overreactions related to PTSD? Those can appear too dramatic for the reader, but are realistic responses to specific stimuli. My main character has severe abandonment/betrayal issues. In one scene, she is suddenly left alone in a dark place, which results in her experiencing a bad panic attack. She confides to her companion what caused her anxiety, which might be ‘telling,’ but at least reminds the reader why the emotional outburst came out.

    BTW, I ‘interviewed’ her. She admits that she gets nervous whenever she’s by herself, especially if it happens unexpectedly.

    • Peter, maybe I am wrong, but I would be stepping back and asking how does this particular overreaction drive the plot forward? If it is essential to the plot, then I would be planting “seeds” further back into the story so that the outburst becomes something already hinted at—sort of a ticking time bomb. You know something is coming, but don’t know how it manifests or exactly when. This builds tension, leading to the dramatic event. The seeds could replace the “telling” you describe by laying the groundwork ahead of time. Instead of dumping the complete explanation after the fact, slowly build the rational for the cause piece by piece.

      If the specific scene does not move the plot forward, then I would cut it.

      • Peter Moore says

        Thanks Marv. Her backstory is revealed throughout the story. The trauma she experienced is an integral part of her personality. This particular scene along with a couple others are seeds which help build the tension leading to later beats, especially the climax (i.e., how is she going to react to the final confrontation?).

        Think of a story about a war veteran (not my genre or character). You couldn’t write about him and ignore how the horrors he went through affected him. That would be unrealistic.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I would look at introducing dramatic irony where appropriate. For example, having the character’s inner experience described “bigger” than the starkness of the outer experience. Or “showing” the character absolutely freaking out on the outside while keeping her internal narrative jarringly calm and sparse.

      • Peter Moore says

        Thanks. Ironic contradiction would work. An internal semi-flashback is probably realistic for PTSD victims. She could also believably have a followup ‘Don’t worry. I’m fine’ denial response to a friend’s concern alongside an internal acceptance that this is how life works.

        However, I think the frightening lack of control people experience during panic attacks is more common than a calm internal narrative. The second might seem manipulative and contrived to readers.

        • Sylvia Taylor says

          I agree with your description of a panic attack. I had one unexpectedly at my first Covid injection. I was completely out of control of my body’s reaation, whilst inwardly I was trying like hell to control it!

          • I have PTSD and panic attacks. The attacks vary. Is your character ordinarily stoic? I try to be. I don’t want to scare my family, so a lot of times when I have a panic attack and strive to control it. I’m often successful. So, I’ll be completely freaking out inside, but no one knows unless I start having cardiac-like symptoms. Sometimes, however, I’m trembling and sweating and obviously not doing well while internally, I’m doing everything I can to regain control. It’s a complicated problem that’s rarely captured well.

        • M.A. Smith says

          Peter, your last two comments, I believe, are spot on. I had a panic attack with a complete meltdown last week. There was NO calm internal anything happening. My outburst was all reactionary; the “calm” came a day or two later. That’s when I replayed the incident in my head and realized I was out of control and could/should have reacted rationally. And people telling me to “calm down” did not help. Experiencing these attacks, if I were to read something similar in a book, I’d think “Um, yeah, doesn’t happen like that. At. All.”

  7. The heart of acting technique is to focus on what the character wants. The same is true of writing fiction, honestly. If characters sincerely pursues what they want (even if their Lie makes them do it in a counterproductive way) it will feel genuine.

    I suppose the way to make a character do something which goes against their obvious self-interest is to make their self-sabotage spring from their Lie.

  8. Another helpful article. I think your plot and your characters need to be like a family, and I mean a loving family that works things out together. I’ve heard those exist.

  9. When I’m creating a character, I use your book, Creating Character Arcs, to help me flesh him out. He’ll change a bit as I write and get to know him better, but starting out with his Truth and Lie really helps.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, my characters always change a bit when I actually start writing them in narrative form. But I like having that structural basis to fall back on too.

  10. >6. Focus on Motive Rather Than Outcome
    >”What would authentically motivate this character to engage in a showdown?”

    Think of every option a reasonable person would use instead of a showdown–and then take them away. The bigger the showdown, the more desperate the character should be.

    >7. Never Bend Character to Fit Plot
    This is a weakness that is easy for the author to rationalize away since characters are supposed to change. Also, having a character unexpectedly act out of character (seemingly) can add an element of mystery that makes us look further.

    But the action should be grounded in a belief or value the character holds. It may be that the character was misinformed, it may be a secondary value the character holds even when it conflicts with a more primary value. (Every rule has an exception, no?)

    At the very least, before any abrupt character change, that potential for change should be foreshadowed. In a worst case scenario, the author’s concept of the character may change so fundamentally as they write that they’re forced to either go back and replot earlier contradictory actions, or even get rid of the character entirely and replace them with another.

    In any of these cases, inconsistent actions need to be addressed in the story and never just ignored as the plot moves on.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, it’s all about setting up a realistic context. Huge, dramatic events and unexpected reactions often make for some of the best scenes in fiction. But they have to make sense within the context.

  11. Thank you K.M. W for delivering another Gold Standard post!

  12. Ralph from Chicago says

    Do characters in Murder Mysteries (detectives, CSI, …) need character arcs? Since they are usually reacting to a murder (trying to discover ‘who done it’ then arrest and get a confession), they aren’t really going on a journey. Or are they? I’m a new hobbyist writer with an idea for 2-3 books in a series that popped up during early COVID months; most characters and scenes were developed as Prompts.

  13. The is the perfect post for my writing journey at this time. Recently, I have been experiencing extreme writer’s block because I’ve always loved genre stories, but lately I haven’t been “feeling it” when it comes to the truthfulness of the standard conventions of these genres.

    I keep wrestling with questions like: “If this evil force is truly evil, how can anyone possibly stand up to it?” “If these two people love each other so much, why aren’t they acting like it already?” and “If this situation could be resolved by the blossoming wisdom of these particular young protagonists, why is the whole world they’re living in such a hot mess?”

    Maybe this is a sign my perspective as a writer is maturing. However, I hope it doesn’t mean I’m moving away from romance or fantasy genres altogether! I would really like to get to a point where my writing continues to be fun and hopeful, but also deepens in terms of truthfulness, complexity, and logical consistency.

    Another point your post made me think of is how disappointed I’ve felt lately by big-budget stories where the plot requirements are dictated by outside forces. I find that the more a story is part of a franchised “universe” with lots of existing or anticipated prequels, sequels, and tie-ins, the more likely it is to have cardboard characters making unbelievable choices in order to resolve questions like: “Why doesn’t A character from the TV show know about B character from the movies?” “How did C character who might get spin-off manage to survive that otherwise fatal situation?” and “Why is there a problem that character D inexplicably created and that character E bizarrely can only solve with the tie-in product?”

    To that point, I found the recent “Obi-Wan Kenobi” series to be an interesting mix of extremely silly plot contrivances necessitated by all the requirements of the franchise and of brilliantly used character complexity to bridge seeming inconsistencies between the prequels and sequels. If you ever get around to watching and reviewing it, I’d love your take on this series as it relates to plot structure, believability, and perhaps also the Crone Arc. (“I have encountered DEATH and discovered from a more SPIRITUAL PERSPECTIVE that all of this nonsense kind of makes sense! Now I am FREED from my limited mortal constraints to subscribe to Disney + for ALL ETERNITY!” is, one has to admit, a novel take on the arc.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I heart all of this so hard. I was going to quote some of your paragraphs back, but then I just kept copying until I realized I’d copied the whole comment. So, yeah. 😉

      I watched Obi-Wan this week and agree with what you say. There were lots of little things I liked about it, but overall it did feel like a lot of wasted potential. Definitely agree that it’s a Crone Arc though, which is pretty awesome as a lead-in to the character’s Mentor/Mage status in A New Hope

  14. Thanks so much for this post! One of my biggest fears is making a plot overcomplicated because something doesn’t make sense and I need to fix it, so learning about how to avoid contrivance is definitely something I’ll keep in mind. Thanks again!
    E. M. Foster

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.