Lately, I’ve had bad luck picking books to read. I think my book club will mutiny if I choose one more novel that Barnes & Noble labels either “literary” or “on sale.” I just finished a novel I really wanted to like. But it turned out like the Mexican fast-food I had the other day—mediocre—despite how much I was craving a taco.

So I’ve been asking myself what it was I didn’t like about these books. And to be fair, I’ve also asked myself what I did like. All my answers boiled down to the subject of character.

I figured it couldn’t hurt to take a brief look at my discoveries for the purpose of improving my own writing.

Great Characters. Not enough development.
One of the books I read—a lauded literary work that’s been made into a movie—had some fascinating characters. The author did an incredible job describing the intricacies of human nature that make characters come alive.

But at the end of the novel, I had a bad taste in my mouth. These unique individuals never managed to rise above, accomplish anything, shine. I wanted more from them. I wanted to spend more time with them, not just exploring the quirks and traits that made them interesting, but also watching them change and grow.

Lackluster Characters. Plenty going on.
I found myself ho-humming through two of my recent reads. Not for lack of action or tension, but because I simply didn’t care about the protagonist. How could I solve the problem of lackluster characters in my own story?

-Up the empathy factor. Make the character more noble, more needy, more haunted, more drunk, more delusional. Whatever it takes, make readers feel more.

-Up the stakes. I confess I’ve been stuck on the current chapter I’m writing. I finally realized that it’s time to up the stakes once again. The initial excitement and conflict of the novel has lulled, and I need to inflict more drama on my hapless heroine.

-Up the antagonism. In real life, nothing can reveal the true depth of our character like a personal attack. So if I want to portray a popping personality in my novel, why not increase that antagonist’s animosity?

Too Many POVs.
Now there are plenty of authors who can handle multiple POVs with mastery, but I get frustrated when a character’s POV is introduced for the purpose of one or two scenes. I feel like my time and emotional effort has been wasted. Bottom line for me to remember: reworking the scene into another, more prominent, character’s POV may prove challenging, but it’s better than pulling the reader’s focus in too many directions.

I hope my ‘thinking out loud’ has helped you ponder some character complexities in your own work. Does anyone else have any character pet peeves? Something that irked you in a book you read or in your own story? Please share. But if you’re using an example from another author’s work, be respectful. Don’t include names or details. Just tell us what you can learn from a less-than-riveting read.

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