How To Avoid Writing Cardboard Cut Out Characters Into Fiction

Cardboard characters are often the result of a writer’s creative self-indulgence and intense emotional connection to their stories. Sometimes we are just too damn close to the action to see what’s obvious to outsiders. The result is characters that lack depth, texture or detail to be appealing to strangers.

Handwriting done with a pencil

The writing process sure gives writers a warm and fuzzy sensation. It’s creative and wonderfully cathartic but the therapy it provides writers does nothing for a reader’s experience of those stories. More and more books with under-baked characters make it onto the shelves each week. It’s getting hard for readers to select a quality story without bumping into one of them.

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Writers need to know that their characters have to be accessible to readers, and easily relatable. Sure, make them fly and breathe fire if you must, but also show us their vulnerabilities. We want to believe they are more like us than we are prepared to admit. It makes us want to get to know them more because it reminds us of our own foibles.

Here are my easy cardboard-character-busting tips:

  • Take a break from the writing project after the first pass is done
  • Build-in relatable character traits
  • Write with empathy
  • Find motivators in characters to make the reader love or hate them
  • Redeeming traits (especially for evil characters)
  • Take another break

Empathy, that’s what it’s all about. Writers not only need to be more empathetic toward their characters but to their reading audiences who are about to fall in love (or hate) with the characters they make. Being too close to a story can be detrimental to this process. Readers can lose their way as they are made to leap over great holes in a story’s plot and feel nothing for the characters in it. The way I overcome this problem is to take a break from the work. Whenever I finish a new story, I leave it alone and forget it for a while. I find that two weeks is about the right length of time to allow my brain to divorce itself from the relationship I had with the text and the people I created with it.

Longer is better but impatience takes over. I like to get into sculpting the story by chipping off the sticky-out bits and filling in those holes. The two-week break also allows me to think about the character’s specifics, as often, the first write-up only reveals the skeleton of a story. At this stage, the characters are little more than place-markers with a name and a few basic descriptors. Fourteen days allows me to give them a revealing limp, a nervous twitch, a need to remain aloof, an attraction to tall men, a fear of heights, or a dark past. My brain will start adding in the muscle, blood and nervous system in the next few passes. Hopefully, even the evilest of my characters will have a redeeming quality to which everyone can relate and enjoy.

And then I take another break.

Yes, I never make my writing projects an endless chain of work from day one to The End. I like to sever the link every once in a while to reset my mind, eyes and, more importantly, my sanity. Dark fiction tends to take this writer down too many dangerous rabbit holes. I like to re-place my feet on this side of reality for peace of mind.

-M

Five women’s bodies are discovered after the nights of thunderstorms. Their spouses are suspected of the crimes, but it becomes clear that someone else is responsible. There’s no blood and few clues. A storm photographer who specializes in taking pictures of lightning may be the only witness.

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