There are a few things that are usually guaranteed to crush a writer. One of the things that ranks highest on the list is this statement. “Your characters are like cardboard. And that’s doing cardboard a disservice.” Like any other criticism, constructive or otherwise, that statement needs to be taken with a grain of salt. It doesn’t reflect on your talent as a writer, it only means that your characters need development.
Veronica Roth has unique talents as a writer. We all do in some form. She was certainly up on her character development game for some of the characters that featured in the first book of the Divergent trilogy. Unfortunately—and this didn’t change as the trilogy progressed—Four wasn’t one of them. Even though the components of a captivating character were mostly present, it was almost maddening to watch as each one slowly went to waste. Fortunately, the best thing about character issues is that they’re fairly easy to fix, as long as you avoid some major pitfalls.
Don’t overestimate your backstory.
By now, abusive parents are the ultimate cliche in YA literature. Authors have taken a very heartbreaking situation for thousands of teens and children—domestic abuse—and turned it into everyday fare for their YA protagonists. Tobias Eaton, also known as Four, had an abusive father. It feels like that we as readers or viewers are immediately expected to melt into sympathetic puddles once that revelation comes across the page. It’s not so.
Firstly, for the character’s backstory Ghost to work, we have to be attached to the character. Secondly, we have to have an emotional connection. With Tobias, my reaction is: “Oh, that’s awful.” I would have a similar reaction to seeing a sterile headline in the news. That’s horrible for a major character that I followed for three books.
Don’t rely on Pinterest.
I love Pinterest. I love stumbling across other people’s aesthetic boards and finding a few Pins to carry home to my own boards. I do think that Pinterest is highly overrated and can lead to the ultimate cliche: the hot, creepy boyfriend. There’s nothing wrong with having model-esque characters. Making their withering scowl or chiseled body one of the main facets of their personality is lazy writing. Additionally, it makes it seem like they are the romantic interest because of their good looks. There’s nothing wrong with a romantic lead being easy on the eyes, but don’t make it the main reason. As a writer friend of mine once said, “it’s called love at first sight, not lust at first sight.”
Don’t be lazy.
This ties back to the very first point. Don’t excuse your character’s obvious flaws. It feels like that because Tobias had a Horrible Childhood, we’re automatically supposed to excuse the fact that he’s a cardboard cutout. Don’t ever take your reader’s emotional engagement for granted. If you do, boredom and flat-out eye rolling can often result.
Like other character development issues, it mainly ties back to viewing each face in your story as a human being.
Don’t fall back on cliches. Don’t make their body the sole defining feature of their personality. Love your babies enough to give them a unique backstory, unique looks, a unique life. Your originality will make for a better story and a more dedicated fanbase.