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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

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From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

Filtering by Category: Characters

WDC Series: Unlikable Characters (That Readers Still Relate To)

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

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There’s something extraordinarily compelling about following the life of an antagonist, one that really drives readers to find out what makes villains tick.

But there’s a trick to writing a character like that, especially if you’re using them as your main character. They may be unlikable, but they still have to be relatable. If they’re not, readers won’t give a darn what happens to them, and they’ll stop reading long before any character development takes place. So how can you ensure relatability without sacrificing their position in the story?

Well, sometimes the answer to that is you don’t. To me, some of the most compelling characters are ones who make questionable choices but aren’t altogether bad people. They may be an antagonist, or they may not. In other cases, their intentions may be evil, but humanity gets the best of them, causing them to slip up. Both approaches share something in common, however: they contain a solid foundation for a dynamic character. And of all the things you need to make an unlikable character relatable, it’s the ability to give them dimension and depth.

Here are some tips for achieving that.

1. Focus on the flaws. Just as there are no perfect protagonists, there are no perfect antagonists either. We all have flaws, for better or worse, but we tend to shed such a negative light on them that it’s hard to see how they can be beneficial. For example, a typical villain might have a trait of dishonesty. Pretty straight forward. They’d likely use that trait to manipulate others into getting what they want, ultimately helping them achieve their goals.

But what if that character instead carries a flaw that doesn’t particularly sway them in one direction or the other, good or bad? A flaw like being timid or shy. Embracing such a flaw as they make their choices could lead to unexpected twists. Perhaps they lose the love of their life because they aren’t brazen enough to go after them. Or, if that flaw becomes such a hindrance to their goal that frustration and pain festers, they could use that flaw to get away with monumental crimes—like murder—for years without being caught. Correctly manipulated, their flaw could become an asset that turns them into incredibly dynamic, and relatable, creatures whose choices shape them into the person they become.

2. Consider a positive character arc for antagonists. Redeemable traits are often the go-to for writers trying to find a way to push the reader toward sympathy for the bad guy. But sometimes that’s not enough, and other times, it’s done in such a way that it comes across as cliché or predictable. One way to give your character that extra growth they need to make their good qualities believable is to push them to a place that’s unexpected. In a previous post, I talked about how blurring the line between good and evil is one way to give your antagonist depth and a more realistic quality. Taking that idea one step further and pushing them into a full-on positive character arc, rather than a negative one, might be the extra punch your character needs. Using that type of arc on a villain results in tremendous growth and a complex character. You have to be careful though, because it can be tricky to pull off in a way that’s genuine. The further in one direction a character is on the scale between good and evil, the tougher it can be to reel them back in and coax them to the other side.

3. Let their backstory drive them. A few months ago, I posted about secondary characters and how their complexity brings realism to their roles in relationship to the main character. The same is true for the antagonist of a story. By weaving in a character’s goals, motivation, flaws, and life experiences into the overall plot, a richness in their relationship with others is developed, leading to a very powerful connection with readers. This same idea can be used to create a compelling character arc, even for unlikable protagonists.

4. Bind their successes and failures to the main character. The dance between a protagonist and antagonist is much like a game of chess—every choice can affect strategy and the overall outcome. One wrong move could land either in checkmate, and both rely on others around them to reach their end goals. Sometimes that even means sacrificing those on their own team. Tethering the characters together in a way that limits their abilities will naturally create conflict and a compelling read.

5. Downfalls can be fascinating. Discovering the outcome of good character who makes a series of bad choices can be magnetizing for readers—much like a horrific car accident that you can’t pull yourself away from. Even small decisions can lead to more turmoil, oftentimes at a cost to a character’s own happiness and success. One of the most popular television shows that uses this approach is Breaking Bad, where every episode leaves Walter White in an even worse situation than the previous ones, with more at stake than ever. He continues to take risks that put himself and others in danger, but his character is created in such a way that leaves you so invested in him that you feel compelled to keep watching.

Unlikable characters can be amazing. They can be dynamic, captivating, and sometimes even more intricate than likable ones. But when it comes to creating an unlikable character, do so with purpose. What role do they play in the story being told? How do their actions affect those around them? Do changes occur within others or within themselves because of their involvement? Characters without purpose are nothing more than annoying wall fixtures made to look pretty. Sure, they might add a nice touch of diversity here and there, but they don’t propel the story forward, and they don’t stimulate growth. And when that happens, readers lose interest, and cutting them becomes the only good option.

WDC Series: Developing Supporting Characters

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

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What’s worse than a flat main character? A hoard of underdeveloped supporting characters, for one. In my years as an editor, I’ve seen a great share of new fiction writers fall victim to that flaw, sometimes without even knowing it. In fact, even if you’re a seasoned writer, this fatal shortcoming can still rear its ugly head from time to time.

But why does it happen? What makes supporting characters so difficult to write? I like to place the blame on those needy main characters and their tendency to be “firstborns.” They’re a lot like toddlers—demanding little creatures that crave your attention and insist on getting their way. When main characters aren’t in the spotlight, they throw tantrums and derail you from the plot. While it might be easy to give in and get caught up in their complex backstory, doing so leaves their crew of supporting characters quite pale in comparison.

You may wonder why supporting characters are so important. After all, isn’t the whole point of a story to tell the main character’s journey? Well, yes and no. You need supporting characters to flesh out the main character and to give your story layers of realism. Just as in real life, characters in books have friends. They’re closer to some than others, and each friendship is unique. Supporting characters can and should shape and influence main characters, making development possible for all involved.

Here are a few tips for achieving well-rounded supporting characters who play an active role in the plot:

  1. Give your supporting characters a rich backstory. Just as you would with your main character, it’s equally important to have fleshed-out secondary characters that you know well. Their past, their motivation, and their likes and dislikes will directly influence their actions. It’s also important to focus on their goals, because chances are, those goals will either help or hinder the goals of the main character, which will directly impact their relationship and encounters with them.
  2. Share the spotlight. If the main character hogs the spotlight for too long, a reader can become disinterested in the story. They might pull away or lessen their empathy for the main character or what happens to them—and that can lead to disaster. While your supporting characters should give way to the main character when necessary, it’s good to have them toe the line, sometimes even battling it out for the spotlight. Some of the most memorable books I’ve read give glorious moments to supporting characters, making me love them that much more. Those are the books that stick with me long after I’ve read them, their characters infinitely more realistic because of that single moment. Without it, the supporting characters become weak and useless, acting more like a prop than a person, in which case they’d be better off completely cut from the story.
  3. Balance the areas in which supporting characters are needed. Supporting characters are a lot like accessories—they should bring out the best in an outfit without overpowering the main ensemble. In other words, they should fit well with the rest of the story, but they still need to take a backseat to the main attraction. When you achieve that, you get a character that readers will care about, often even as much or more so than the main character.
  4. Make supporting characters as complex as your main characters without getting caught up in the details. It may be tempting to chart out every detail about each character you come up with, but don’t get bogged down in the process. As the author of the story, you can certainly venture off into the full life your side character leads, but for the sake of the main story, stick to the basics. You want a backstory that is enriched but still relates to the plot and the main character. This will make your supporting characters realistic while showing readers that they are part of something much bigger.
  5. Keep secondary characters to a minimum. While it’s true that some books will require more secondary characters than others (Harry Potter is an excellent example), having too many can confuse readers and will often result in an abundance of flat supporting characters rather than a few strong, well-developed ones. If you’ve reworked a character, fleshed out their backstory, and they still don’t add anything to your story, it’s time to give them the boot.

Supporting characters are the glue that holds a story together. Though they aren’t the main attraction, it’s okay—vital, even—to have memorable secondary characters that leave an impact on the reader, even if only for a moment. When done right, they can make the world you’ve created richer and more layered, and that’s something readers simply adore.

WDC Series: 5 Tips for Avoiding Stereotypes and Cookie-Cutter Characters

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

If you’ve ever read a review that criticized a book for having stereotypical characters or ones that lacked depth, you know just how much it likely affected the reader’s rating and overall enjoyment of it. Flat characters are hard to relate to, and they can take even the most extraordinary plot and transform it into a cure for insomnia. No one wants to read (or write) a book like that, yet there continues to be an influx of published works that receive that very critique. So how can you, as a writer, avoid such a thing?

The short answer is to make your characters unique—a feat that’s far easier said than done. So here are five tips for transforming your cookie-cutter characters into three-dimensional beings that captivate readers and leave them dying to find out what happens next.

  1. Pinpoint each character’s needs, wants, and motivation. Developing a strong character arc is key to giving your readers the dimension they crave. Not only are no two people alike, we’re all complex creatures with many things driving our actions. We succeed, we fail, and we make mistakes along the way. Our encounters with others not only shape our experiences in life, but they often influence the decisions we make. So why should your characters be any different?
  2. Give your characters flaws. Shortcomings make characters incredibly realistic, and even more important, relatable. Everyone has flaws, even the most successful person you’ve ever met. That cute guy you’ve been staring at all week? I guarantee you there’s something annoying about him. And when you look closely enough, he probably doesn’t have perfect skin, perfect abs, or flawless teeth. Maybe he’s even got a scar or two or a crooked nose. Flaws aren’t just skin deep either—even the most popular girl in school has insecurities about herself and will long for something she doesn’t have. By giving your characters faults, you add depth to them and avoid falling into the trap of stereotypes.
  3. Allow your characters to grow and evolve. Even if you have a well-developed character who’s easy to relate to and has adequate flaws, you’ll fall short if you don’t allow them to grow and evolve throughout the story. As I mentioned in the first tip, a character’s environment and interactions with other characters should impact them, even if the effect is subtle. Without that forward movement, characters can grow stale, much like plots do if there isn’t enough conflict or action. After all, it takes both characters and plot to drive a story forward. The best stories have mastered their pacing through a stellar balance of plot and character development.
  4. Blur the line between good and evil. Is your main character an antagonist or a protagonist? Once you have that figured out, make them SWAP SIDES. Then contemplate what would have to happen to pull them back to their original side. Pretty cool, huh? When the line is blurred between black and white, your characters will naturally evolve into complex creatures. Playing both sides of the field can make your character incredibly relatable, even if they’re not necessarily likeable (more on that in an upcoming post in the series), which is incredibly valuable when it comes to fleshing out secondary characters as well.
  5. Develop backstory that only you know as the author. When you have a rich backstory for each character, it’s much easier to see not only what drives them but also how they would react in multiple situations. The more you have established, the easier it is to keep them from falling flat. Character charts and questionnaires are a great place to start, but I’ve found that by focusing on their motivation and wants and needs first, then adding to the list of their traits as I write, I can give them an incredibly realistic depth through the process of writing in layers. But there are many ways of achieving this. If that sort of thing doesn’t float your boat, find another method that does. Also, don’t despair about the details that don’t make the final cut. Think of them as cool behind-the-scenes gems that only you and a select few people are privileged to know. They also make for great extras to include in your author newsletter if you have one!

Recommended read: If your characters just aren’t cooperating for you, check out K.M. Weiland’s book Creating Character Arcs for further ideas on how to develop amazing characters. It’s an excellent book well worth the read.

WDC Series: 5 Tips for Introducing New Characters

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Characters are the life of the party. Their individual quirks can completely turn the plot on its head and send the story spiraling in a new direction. As a writer, I love incorporating new characters, because I see it as an opportunity for plot twists, growth, and complexity in books. But as a reader, I know how disappointing the story can be if the characters are not written well. You want their introduction to feel natural while providing enough information to give you an accurate taste of their personality. So what are effective ways to achieve that?

  1. Bring new characters in at crucial moments. By having a new character waltz into the scene when tension is high and emotions are wavering, they have a direct impact on the plot—and oftentimes, the other characters. This will allow their character arc to unfold naturally and will also encourage their interaction within the scene. Even though this is usually a planned opportunity, if done correctly, it won’t feel rigid.
  2. Make the character relatable, even if they’re not likable. This is one of my favorite tricks, because complex characters will always have at least one facet of themselves that readers can relate to. Villains have weaknesses, just as protagonists do. Both strive to reach a personal goal and both must work through obstacles to obtain them—or otherwise fail doing so. That makes each not only human but also relatable to the reader.
  3. New characters should bring a unique flavor or viewpoint to the story. As with scenes, if a character doesn’t alter the course of the plot or have a direct impact on another character in at least one scene in the book, even if only briefly, there’s no need for them to be in the story. The impact of their role is key to holding readers’ interests and keeping the writing concise.
  4. Keep physical descriptions to a minimum. This can be woven in as the scene unfolds. One great way for pegging which features you should use are those that the main POV character might notice most. Not only does that enhance the personality of your main character and their viewpoint, but it will also help you avoid boring info dumps and prevent you from describing the same types of physical features on each character you introduce.
  5. Have a backstory ready—but don’t share it with the reader! In one of my writing and editing tips on Tumblr, I mentioned seeing backstory as a privilege solely for the author—and perhaps the team working to create this book, such as beta readers and the editor. It’s important to know what drives each character you bring into the story, because it directly affects their actions. But that doesn’t mean the reader needs to know every minuscule detail about it. A great rule of thumb is to share just the information that must be revealed for the purposes of the plot. If the information is something that can be withheld until the climax of the plot or another crucial moment, and is then delivered as part of it, that’s even better. Also bear in mind that only a fraction of the backstory drawn up in the beginning stages usually survives the editing process to make it to the final draft.

Writing Dynamic Characters (WDC): An Introduction to the Series

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Time to kick things off about characters! Over the next several months, I’ll be talking about everything it takes to create realistic, dynamic, and well-developed characters. For instance, how do you transform a stereotypical character with a vague archetype into a unique and utterly compelling persona that readers can’t get enough of?

I have loads of other topics planned too, but here are a few of the main ones:

  • how to write character flaws
  • writing unlikable characters that readers can still relate to
  • writing complex villains
  • using dialogue to further develop characters

Now, while I do want to give you guys plenty of techniques to apply to your own writing, I’m not going to pretend that character development is my strong suit, because it’s not. It’s taken me many years to hone my skills and grow in this particular area, and I’m still learning. But I’m going to share tips based on my own experiences and research. I’ll also be sharing tips from trusted resources that I’ve used myself.

If you have any additional topics you’d like addressed, please let me know! I'm particularly interested in ones that haven’t yet been covered, as all posts in this series will be used in my nonfiction project. I also highly recommend K.M. Weiland’s books on writing. She has an amazing array of books geared toward writers, including a personal favorite of mine, Creating Character Arcs. She periodically puts it on sale, so if you don’t already follow her author page on Facebook, I highly recommend it.