Chances are if a book is terrible, you’ll stop reading it. Pretty simple here but there’s also a disadvantage to tossing a bad book. You don’t get to explore from start to finish why it is ‘bad’ (as in poorly written, has undeveloped characters and meaningless plot twists, etc.; not as in an evil book as there is no such thing haha) and how as a writer you can point out the issues within your own work. Luckily for us, we have television and movies that take a fraction of the time to view.
When you are trying to care about a character but they are flat, uninteresting, unrelatable and plain corny:
There’s nothing worse than the main character being the most uninteresting person you’ve ever met with no depth that you have to question if the writer(s) have ever left their homes to talk with real life people. Sometimes the character’s goal hardly drives us to want to stay and that is a good reason to change the channel or open a different book. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of these characters out there. They’re full of potential living in the creator’s head, but only a trickle of who they are make it on page.
Not that it’s raved as good by normal standards, 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James is riddled with flat characters and a protagonist (Anastasia Steele) we simply don’t give a shit about (and says ‘Holy Cow’ too much. We get it: you’re a virgin, as if virgins in their twenties would say that). The popularity of books is the weaving of a weird Twilight fan fiction and S&M. Remove the second part and not much is going on. The movie is pretty much the same and there is absolutely no chemistry…between anyone. One can argue “what does that have to do with writing if the actors suck?” (Jamie Dornan who plays Christian Grey is excellent in The Fall, btw, so it has nothing to do with acting). Well, I’d say it fits the book to a T, so the writing itself has failed to have characters who can interact well. On the other side of the spectrum, we have Jessica Jones (Marvel comics turned TV series) who is an unhinged drunken PI with super-human strength. She’s far from perfect and her actions (or lackthereof for eliminating her antagonist) says a lot about the internal struggle she experiences. Yeah, all that happening without getting in her head via first person narration like in the 50 Shades book.
What that means for your writing: Telling you not to create boring characters does nobody any good and it’s obvious. BUT when birthing these characters, it’s vital to pay attention to reactions–how they react to pain, to problems, with other people and their overall weakness. They can be as strong as Jessica Jones and still struggle with everything they do, hoping their actions don’t cause a catastrophe. They may become dynamic or should- a protagonist without change or growth isn’t much of a story. Without internal and external conflict, the reader won’t emotionally invest in reading something that’s more than an episode of a show or feature film. If you say “well, that’s hard” then welcome to Writing 101.
Now that I’ve got you thinking, here’s a few characters that certainly (whether from their books or shows/movies) are memorable for being well written:
- Ramsay Bolton, Game of Thrones/ A Song of Ice and Fire series (Most evil character I can think of – both in the books and certainly in the show)
- Pure. Evil. Ramsay has no soul nor respect for any life. He’s an excellent villain to study.
- The entire cast of Lost, especially Ben Linus (if you’ve seen it, you get it!)
- If you’re in a villain mood, check out Ben Linus – he differs in so many ways from Ramsay Bolton but is just as cruel in his own manner.
- Lexa, Octavia, Idra and Clarke from the CW show The 100
- Extremely strong women that grow over time and experience some pretty hard loses. If you haven’t seen this show, it’s definitely worth it. The writers have really done well in developing the characters.
- Francis Underwood – House of Cards (American version)
- Cold and calculating, like a true politician.
- Carol Pelletier, The Walking Dead (because…she…just..won’t…die.)
- She has been through some horrific ordeals, from losing her daughter to having to lose more of her friends (some by her own hand) until the recent season where she just can’t do it anymore.)
- Ethan Burke, Wayward Pines (Guy who can’t stop running, but still does #hero)
- Matt Dillon was a good pick for Burke and I highly recommend studying him from the show to books.
- Helena, Orphan Black (and the other characters played by Tatiana Maslany)
- Annalise Keating, How To Get Away With Murder
- An excellent show with a fantastic lead – just watch it!
- Barbara Kean, Penguin, James Gordon, Harvey Bullock and badass Scottish Alfred from the hit TV show Gotham (which I pegged as being a terrible idea-glad I was wrong).
- Wilson Fisk, Daredevil
- Unique role from the Law & Order alum. He doesn’t disappoint.
- Titus Andromedon, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
- Hilarious and the best part of the show.
- Eliot Alderson, Mr. Robot
- Jessica Jones from the series of the same name
- All 200+ characters from the 1990’s show Twin Peaks 🙂
So go and watch, learn, see great characters and poorly written characters, and try to give your own work fresh eyes.