Stupid Things Characters Do

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It seems like there are a lot of good stories have characters who do things that are a little less than intelligent. We all have our list of things that characters do that just rub us the wrong way. Here’s mine.

Lack Priorities – I’m talking about the character who is running for their life, but has to go back to get the camera or favorite knick-knack.

Ignore Good Advice – “Don’t go into the woods in the dark,” “Don’t go into the basement,” “Don’t spend the night locked in that haunted, abandoned prison,” “Stay away from the creepy creature with glowing eyes,” “Run!” Horror movie characters are especially good at not following directions, but the problem is common in other genres as well.

Fail To Have A Plan B – If the best plan a group of characters can come up with is “Hey, let’s storm that fortified and heavily guarded fortress with just the five of us,” maybe they should sit down and do a little more brainstorming.

They Trust The Wrong People – Sometimes that weird person who shows up in the nick of time with that inside information is too good to be true.

They Don’t Let People Die – When an idiot runs off on his own despite knowing the danger, maybe the rest of the group should just let him go. Letting stupid, unnecessary people die can only increase everyone else’s chance for survival. Also goes for that heroic rescue which kills off three times as many people than gets saved.

No Fight Or Flight Response – When confronted with danger most people either try to fight their way out of it or they try to run from it. Standing around doing nothing should not be an option.

Character Motivations

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Why do characters do what they do? What would make one character kill another character? Or cheat on them? Or run away from them? The answer of course is that every character has (or should have) a motive. Motivation is important, for heroes, villain, and minor characters. Most people, and by extension characters, are lazy. If you could get everything you needed or wanted without having to lift a finger, most people would jump at the opportunity. Therefore, most characters want to stay the way they are at the beginning of your story. Change is hard. In order to get your characters moving in the right direction, or at all, you need to give them a reason. A realistic reason.

Motives are not the same things as events. Your character doesn’t leave home because his mother was killed. Your character leaves home because he wants revenge. That is the thought that gets him moving. Here is a small list of some common character motivations.

  • An habitual learned behavior
  • A character’s personality/nature
  • To hide a secret
  • To expose a secret
  • Greed
  • Revenge
  • Jealousy
  • Obsession/Lust/Love
  • Hate
  • Fear
  • Mental disorder/drugs
  • To protect something (loved one, honor, status, etc.)
  • Empathy/Sympathy
  • Ego
  • Outside Control (mind control, demonic possession, etc.)
  • Fanaticism/Religion
  • Survival
  • Freedom
  • Thrill of the hunt/chase/etc.

Note: I have seen lists as small as two and, if you really want to argue the fact, you could probably say that everything boils down to fear, but when you get down to planning out a story you would have to be more specific anyway.

Making Characters Unique

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Everyone knows that characters should be unique and easy to identify from each other, but this is sometimes easier said than done. I find that while my main character is usually unique, the secondary characters have a tendency to blend together. It requires me to be extra vigilant in giving those characters a special way to remember them. This challenge is sometimes made harder by the fact that they don’t show up and speak as often as the main characters. Here is a list to help you give your characters a couple traits to make them more memorable.

  • Names – Making the character names descriptive can also make them more memorable. Imagine calling a scruffy, thief character “Ratface.”
  • Age – While not always appropriate, putting a character in a different age group can make them stand out, or even add subtleties to their personality.

Personality

  • Apathetic
  • Anal
  • Unapologetically self-centered
  • mood swings
  • obsessive compulsive behaviors
  • pet peeves
  • disgustingly cheerful (especially in the mornings)
  • gossiping busybody
  • compulsive liar

Language

  • Accent (be careful, if it’s too hard to read you may lose your audience)
  • Very formal/ informal
  • Very polite/rude
  • misquotes sayings and proverbs
  • Always tries to use big words
  • hates using and or hearing certain words
  • talkative
  • never talks

Clothing

  • Favorite article of clothing or jewelry
  • flashy dresser
  • wears a funky hat
  • old fashioned style
  • unwashed and/or wrinkled
  • skimpy/inappropriate
  • heavy makeup
  • clashing colors
  • untied shoes

Physical

  • limp
  • peg leg
  • big/small feet
  • big/small hands
  • beady eyes
  • wide set eyes
  • pointy nose
  • bugged out eyes
  • eye patch
  • cane
  • messy/uncombed hair
  • strange-colored/dyed hair
  • strange-colored eyes
  • beauty mark
  • birth mark
  • warts
  • piercings
  • extremely tall/short
  • stumbles
  • shuffles feet
  • scars
  • weird haircut
  • nervous tic

How To Kill Off Your Characters

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Are you drawing a blank when it comes to killing off your characters? Here is a list of ways you could get rid of them.

  • poison (real or made-up)
  • beheading/decapitation
  • defenestration
  • dying of old age
  • burned at the stake
  • tortured to death
  • drowning
  • in a fire
  • jump off a cliff
  • pushed out of a plane
  • hit by lightning
  • suffocation/choking
  • hanging
  • pagan ritual/human sacrifice
  • car crash
  • explosion (bomb, chemicals, etc.)
  • trampled (by people or animals)
  • beaten to death
  • tornado
  • hurricane
  • volcano
  • smothered to death
  • earthquake
  • surgery gone wrong
  • hit/run over by a train
  • broken neck
  • playing a dangerous sport
  • killed by ghosts/supernatural entity
  • spontaneous human combustion
  • stabbed
  • infection/gangrene
  • shot (gun, arrows, etc.)
  • scaphism
  • hit by a falling object
  • starvation
  • exposure
  • dehydration
  • hypothermia
  • disease
  • die of laughter
  • wild animals
  • avalanche
  • falling down an elevator shaft
  • crushed
  • mudslide
  • wild fire
  • blood poisoning
  • brain hemorrhage
  • ruptured appendix
  • nuclear explosion
  • lost in space
  • by robot
  • parasites
  • overdose on drugs
  • decompression sickness
  • heavy metal poisoning
  • acid
  • water intoxication
  • alcohol poisoning
  • living mummification
  • allergic reaction
  • killer bees
  • radiation sickness

Points Of View

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Many writers, myself included, struggle with this aspect of writing, especially in the first draft. As far as I am concerned, I know how I want my story to sound, but it is very easy to forget that there are rules regarding point of view. It can be very easy to accidentally switch between first and third person, or from objective to limited omniscient, without even realizing it. Deciding what point of view to use should be a part of the planning process. After the first drafts are completed, they should also be scrutinized to make sure that any changes in point of view are intentional and not accidental. To help you keep track, here is my guide to points of view.

 

First-Person: I, We, Me, Us, Our

Second-Person: You, Your

Third-Person: He, She, It, They, Their

 

Objective: The author doesn’t state more than what can be inferred from the story’s action and dialogue. Nothing is disclosed about what the character’s think and feel. The author is a detached observer.

Omniscient: The author knows and tells everything about the characters. What they think and feel, as well as what they physically experience can be described to readers.

Limited Omniscient: The author only has unlimited knowledge of one character. This is a sort of halfway point between objective and omniscient.

 

I think it is important to note that second-person point of view has mostly fallen out of favor. It can be annoying to readers and seems pretty hard to pull off even in the best of circumstances. If you try it, be aware that you will probably be fighting an uphill battle. About the only example I can think of that I have seen that uses second-person were the old “choose your own adventure” books. (I feel nostalgic!)

Another note on stream-of-consciousness, which is also difficult to pull off, is that it is not a separate point of view from the ones mentioned above. It is an example of limited omniscient, although not the most common. The only difference is you get all the thoughts of your character and not just the ones that are connected to the story. This technique is more common than using second-person, but can still be annoying and unreadable if done poorly. Use at your own risk.

 

Which will allow you to most effectively develop your characters and story? What will allow you to give just enough needed information without giving too much away too soon? What will help your story flow naturally?

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