Why Your Characters Are Boring

I’m writing the first draft of my novel. It’s not nearly as inspired as my imagination had painted it before I started. It comes across flat, one-dimensional, and it’s difficult to love the characters (let alone know who the characters are).

It’s funny because before I started, I wrote character arcs, explored their deepest fears, and I had their background fleshed-out.

But when I read the first ten pages of my draft, none of that came across.

Have you ever had that problem, a character you know so well refuses to show who they really are on paper?


Girl going on an adventure


What was wrong

You know what the issue was?

Yearning.

There just wasn’t enough of it. Practically none, as a matter of fact. I included enough background information about my character, I gave him a few obstacles to tug at the reader’s heartstrings, and he had a sense of humor so he was likable.

And still, he was flat. He didn’t want anything. There wasn’t any intense inner struggle that manifested in the first few pages.

You see, yearn is an intense word. It’s to have an intense feeling of longing for something, typically something that one has lost or been separated from. And if a character doesn’t deeply desire something he can’t have, any scene you write is not really a scene – it’s just filler crap.


An Open Book


You’re doing scenes wrong

And that’s when I realized, in the first ten pages, I didn’t write a single scene.

For a scene to truly be a scene, each character in the scene has to want something. There has to be conflict, an obstacle inhibiting the character from getting what they want, and before the scene ends, one of the characters has to be different as a result of that scene.

Example: If Joe walks into the coffee shop wanting to propose to Jenny, by the end of the scene based on what Jenny says, Joe doesn’t want to propose.

There’s a value change. Every scene needs character change. You read that correctly, every single scene.

No exceptions.

I found that the first ten pages of my novel was filler crap. (You see? I’m not only hard on you, I’m hard on myself too. Makes it even that way.)

I had to reread it and ask myself, “What does my character want in the first ten pages?” And when I discovered he didn’t want anything, I had to ask, “What should he want?”


Clutching a book


How to fix it

This is a little exercise. It’s helped me rescue flat characters more than I’d care to admit.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • What does she want?
  • Why does she want it?
  • What does she NOT want?
  • What are the repercussions of her desire?
  • Where in the scene is her desire revealed to the audience?
  • How does the audience know what she wants? Through dialogue, actions, or interior thinking?
  • What or who prohibits her from achieving it?

Every scene needs these answered. Sometimes the audience will know the desire before the scene begins, but there must be conflict, there must be intense yearning, and there must be repercussions to that desire.

If you don’t have that, it’s not a scene at all.


Question(s) of the day: What part of a scene do you struggle with most? Do your characters yearn in every scene? Could that be intensified?

6 Comments

  1. Definitely a problem in my drafts. Good post. I’m bookmarking this!

    • bdschmitt

      July 14, 2015 at 2:39 pm

      Glad I’m not alone in this! It’s disheartening to find, but I’m excited to dive into the revision process and really make my characters come alive!

  2. I’ve been told that my strongest areas as a writer are character development and dialogue, so I can’t say I struggle too much with that part. It’s difficult to find the balance between always needing to have a reason to turn the page vs what people do in real life. In real life, in my head, there are boring periods. Same with fictional characters, if they’re real, they’ll have boring periods. Finding the perfect balance, which is different for each story, is the challenge in my opinion. Hopefully that’s an on topic comment, that’s what came to mind.

    • bdschmitt

      July 14, 2015 at 5:02 pm

      What do you mean by “if they’re real, they’ll have boring periods?” When I hear “boring” I think of when a book is so freaking dull I have to put it down or I’ll fall asleep. Maybe you mean “boring” differently, because I would never want a single moment to be like that in my novel, even if there’s no adrenaline pumping, I still want it interesting.

      • Not that kind of boring! haha. I’ve read books like that and never picked them up again because there was absolutely nothing compelling- character and plot. By boring I mean slow speed. Those moments where it’s a lot of slow/rambling internal dialogue where characters are thinking about the weather, or mundane things. The way to keep it interesting is to always keep tying it back to a point of interest. Maybe it’s a difference of opinion, but I don’t mind “slow” periods in books, as long as there is a point to it. Does that help? I can try and articulate more if that isn’t coming across right.

        • bdschmitt

          July 14, 2015 at 5:22 pm

          Lol, I didn’t think you were advocating for falling asleep mid-page.

          Whether “slow” or “fast,” furthering the plot or the depth of the character is always a must. Yes, naturally there will be slower parts though.

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