Most Common Writing Mistakes: Do Readers See Your Characters the Way You Want Them To?

The wrong choice of just a single word can be enough to give readers a completely different (and, from the writer’s viewpoint, wrong) perspective of a character. Despite the fact that we often see our characters in crisp, glorious, mega-wattage detail, we sometimes have a difficult time sharing those details with our readers. We want readers to see our characters as vulnerable but strong, imperfect but brave, haunted but smart. We want readers to see our characters from every angle, so they can also see in our characters a wonderfully human mix of good and bad, strong and weak, perfect and imperfect.

Achieving Balanced Characters

So far, so good. But few writers are able to achieve this balance the first time they release their bucking bronc of a story out of the chute. Too often, we accidentally pile too much weight on one side or the other of the scale—and end up giving readers a skewed perception of our characters.

Let’s say your character is an average Joe, a cop who’s devoted to the badge, but who struggles to balance the tough realities of his job—particularly one failed assignment that got him shot and his partner killed—with the demands of his wife and kids. Now, you, as the author, know Joe is a very realistic, likable guy. He’s occasionally heroic, but also occasionally scared. For every day he’s sad about his partner’s death, he’s also hopeful about his son’s future. He’s sometimes angry with his wife’s inability to understand his job’s stress, but he’s also aware it’s his responsibility to be there for his family.

Characters Who Are Too Good to Be True

There are many ways you might write Joe. At one extreme, in your attempt to show his heroic, devoted public servant side, you might leave out some of the weaker, less likable details of his personality and end up with a less than relatable, possibly even laughable version:

Joe put the good of the city ahead of everything else—always. He was just that kind of guy. He never complained, because he knew he had nothing to complain about. He’d capture the bad guys, save the world, and be home in time to tuck in the kids.

Characters Who Are Too Bad to Be Bearable

On the other hand, you might be worried about Joe coming across as too good to be true, so you decide to focus on his problems, in order to make him more relatable to readers. This is an excellent plan. But you have to be careful not to turn him from relatable to pitiable. We want to present our character’s faults, but if we dwell on them too much, we end up with a character who screams “oh please, oh please, everyone throw a pity party for poor little ol’ me!” For example, if we were going to don our party hats and throw confetti in Joe’s honor, we might end up with a celebration that looks something like this:

Joe nursed the day’s fifth round of coffee and donuts. It was tough being a cop in NYC—and didn’t he know it? Or maybe it was just that he didn’t measure up. Why didn’t the commissioner just fire him and get it over with? He was a pathetic excuse for a cop. Pa-thet-tic. Hadn’t he already admitted to everyone that he was responsible for his partner’s death? While he was at it, he should probably admit he was also a pathetic excuse for a father. Of course, he didn’t have to tell his wife that. She already knew.

Now if you’re using this paragraph to introduce a severely depressed character, this internal whingeing might not be such a bad thing. But what this paragraph does not do is give us a balanced character. This isn’t an average Joe struggling onward to be the best man he can be in spite of his circumstances. This is a man who’s blubbering hot, salty tears into his coffee.
When you write your story, but particularly as you revise, be on the watch for the balance that emerges about your character from the details you present—particularly his internal narrative. Balance means you present just as much good about the character as bad. Readers like characters with problems (yes, even the occasional blubbering cop), but they also like characters who climb to their feet after being knocked down instead of lying on the mat with their eyes rolled back in their sockets.

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever gotten feedback that indicated a reader thought your character was more pathetic than you wanted him to be?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I’ve had feedback that was close–my opening chapter especially started off initially as way too over dramatic. I killed it with my writing without realizing it. Once it was pointed out to me, I was able to fix it pretty quickly.

    Finding balance in our characters (and showing that balance) isn’t an easy thing and you make a really great point. Especially when you’re revising, it’s a good idea to make sure the way we characterize our protagonists doesn’t sway one way or the other if we don’t want it to.

  2. Usually I leave out too much so that my reader is left wondering what my character feels. I tend to expect everyone to just know. silly me.

  3. @Ava: In my own writing, I find it helpful to just let loose and overwrite – both the too perfect and the too pathetic. Once I’ve gotten it out of my system and established the character’s highs and lows, it’s easier to go back and trim the prose back to a suitable balance.

    @Mshatch: That’s a tremendously easy pitfall to tumble into. We see our worlds and our characters so vividly that we sometimes forget readers aren’t seeing exactly the same thing.

  4. Not for a whole book, but I have had beta-readers tell me a certain scene or two are (unintentionally) pathetic. Usually, this is fixable, but sometimes, it is intentional.

  5. Sometimes an author really will have a good reason for letting a character appear pathetic. It’s those unintentional moments that cause us problems.

  6. The feedback I’ve gotten is that most of my characters are likable. I killed off one that everyone loved, though, and my writers group got very upset.

  7. Have to be careful with that! I’ve done that a time or two myself in early versions.

  8. I’ve been accused of always showing my characters at their worst. Ouch. It’s just as hard to balance our characters as it is to balance ourselves. Tightrope, anyone?

  9. I had that happen in a script that I wrote earlier this year. My test-reader/editor got to the end where I had written a turbo-charged emotional cry-fest (romantic comedy/drama), and she told me to tone it down a bit at my characters were TOO weepy and emotional, which made it come off as ‘unrealistic’ and broke the emotional attachment/suspension of disbelief for her.

  10. Good advice! I haven’t had feedback on my characters, but after reading this post, I suspect my characters swing the other way: Too Good to be True.

  11. @Jan: Writing is a balance in almost every facet. Just as soon as we think we’ve got one facet mastered, we fall over the tightrope somewhere else.

    @Christopher: Often, we’ll overwrite emotions in the first draft. What feels right in the heat of the moment when we’re writing doesn’t alway read as well in the dry, intellectual phase of proofreading.

    @Matthew: Feedback is important in early drafts. Much as we might want to be, we can never be entirely objective about our own characters.

  12. Great post! I’ll defo revise my characters now, one of them comes across as wayyy to innocent.

  13. Solid advice, I’m a large advocate for using subtle details and adjustments to tell the most about the characters. Sometimes we need to examine a reaction to a small thing to reveal something larger.

  14. It’s very easy for me to create a perfectly good protagonist. It hurts to give them flaws. I guess I get too much of a fatherly affection for my characters. 😉

    Thnx for another wonderful post!

  15. @Aimee: That’s what revisions are for. It’s never too late to make changes – until publication, and then both you and your readers are stuck!

    @PW: I’m a huge advocate of subtlety as well, but we also need to make sure we don’t take even that to an extreme. It can be easy to think we’re being clever and subtle, only to have readers inform us we’re being *so* subtle they missed the clues altogether.

    @Gideon: We want readers to love our characters, so we can sometimes shy away from giving the characters faults. But, ironically, it’s the faults that often make readers love the characters all the more.

  16. I agree with PW, and try to avoid telegraphing my characters’ feelings too clearly. A sigh here, a pause there, often these sorts of things seem to me to be enough to emote trouble beneath the surface without breaking into hysterics. I do worry though, as you suggest, KM, that too little detail might leave a reader with a bit of a cold impression. It is a tricky balancing act, but I find that often what works for me is to imagine how badly the character would react in real life and then turn it down a notch. Once upon a time I might have said turn it up instead, to heighten the drama, but audiences today (and editors in particular) seem turned off by melodrama and lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth. I think it is likely because people are exposed to so much media and so many stories today we do not really need to be told exactly how upset x character will be in y situation. They want palpable feelings from characters, but they are often willing to do some of the work already, so you don’t want to end up with an overdose.

  17. When it doubt, give the story to the beta readers. Nothing clears up authorial confusion faster than an objective opinion or two.

  18. When I get a mismatch feedback, I find it often has to do with cultural or generational differences.

    That can be tricky to resolve. Sometimes it leaves you with a choice of pleasing one audience over another. But it’s very important to know about, and using a variety of beta readers is critical to seeing some things.

  19. My rule of thumb on judging feedback is that two people have to agree on it. One of those people (the most important person) is myself. But, even if I initially disagree with someone’s comment, if someone else independently says the same thing, I know I need to listen up and give it a second look.

  20. James Ross says:

    Yeah. I wanted to portray Kissla as being a lunatic-hard commander who plays mindgames on her soldiers, who she thinks are completely unprepared for combat. She has tricked him into thinking she’s a peasant, a cowardly peasant, then suddenly just shows up as her real self and takes charge of a mission. And yeah, after she knocks him in the dirt, she’s pretty impressed that he doesn’t go home crying for Mommy. The rest of them pretty much run when they see her coming.

    My reader didn’t get “hard-boiled lunatic with an axe to grind.” She got, “softy commander lets sexist pig walk all over her and is impressed with him.” Sigh.

    It’s still in mothballs. I wonder if I should drag it out and see if I can’t show her right without losing my in-media-res beginning.

  21. I laughed out loud at the pathetic description! I’ve only just started my first novel, so I have nothing further to add. The characters in my story will have to deal with gothic creepiness when all I’ve done is write comedy, so we’ll see how that works out. Love the website, very helpful!

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