Warnings: talk about racism, homophobia, sexism, slurs, abuse, and rape.
1. They’re too perfect
A good example for this would actually be Superman. This might be surprising, given that he is, by and large, well liked, or he certainly seems to be. However, in my many discussions with fellow comic book fans, he tends to be most peoples “least favorite big hero”, and for one reason: he’s just too good. He’s boring. He has no personality because his personality is good. Even his flaws show him as a good person; the only weaknesses he has are kryptonite, which is a rock and therefore has nothing to do with character weakness, and his love for his family and Louis Lane.
Now, you might be thinking “but I want my protagonist to be good. They’re the hero!” And that’s all fine. People can be good and still have faults. A character’s will to do good despite their fears, their weaknesses, is why we like them. We can’t get into the heads of a character who is too good; perfection just isn’t relatable.
2. They committed one of the 7 Deadly Character Sins
There are some things a character just can’t do without becoming universally and irreversibly despised.
1. Kill the dog – There is a reason there is an entire website devoted to letting you make sure that, if there’s a dog in a movie, it doesn’t die. People don’t want to see man’s best friend be killed, and if it is, you had best bet that it’ll either be from an accident, natural causes, or killed by the enemy. No good person kills a dog. End of story.
2. Kill a kid – In the same vein as killing the dog, you can’t have someone kill a kid and still be the story’s good guy. There are a few exceptions (mercy killings, for instance), but even in those cases, the character had better be thoroughly torn up about it afterwards.
3. Racism & 4. Sexism – To be entirely frank, sometimes it’s necessary for a character to be racist or sexist. If it’s a historical setting, for instance, it would be weird for there not to be period-correct racism/sexism. However, unless this is, A) something the character learns is wrong through the course of the story, or B) done clearly as an anti-racism/anti-sexism message showing how wrong it is, then it’s highly unlikely the character will garner much sympathy. One of the main things to watch out here is the use of slurs. If a character is racist or sexist unintentionally, then they’re probably redeemable by the end of the story if done right, but as soon as one of the really bad slurs come out of their mouth, the kind that are represented only by their first letter-dash-“word”, then they’ve pretty much become a lost cause.
5. Homophobia – Much like racism and sexism, this is something that can be needed in a story, especially historical ones or ones around LGBTQIA characters. However, unlike those above, it is something to be extra cautious about, if only because a larger chunk of the population still carries homophobic values. The more recent and volatile an issue is in today’s society, the more cautious one needs to be when trying to use it as one of their hero’s faults.
6. Domestic Abuse/Violent Temper – People instinctively get nervous around people with violent tempers. It’s self protection; no one wants to be around someone who they think might hurt them. No one wants to read about them, either. This goes doubly for someone who is shown abusing their partner.
7. Rape – Unlike the rest of this list, rape is without exceptions to the rule and without redemption. As soon as a character has committed rape, they are evil without a doubt, and even if the character spends the entire story trying to make up for their actions, it’s highly likely that most readers will still view them without the least bit of sympathy by the end of the story.
3. Too Embarrassing
There is nothing that readers empathize with so much as embarrassment. The squirming discomfort of reading about a character in an awkward situation or the communal shame of feeling a character’s own stupidity when they do or say something absolutely foolish, if done right, can work well to get a reader to sympathize with your character. However, if it happens too much or in too drastic a degree, all you’re going to do is make your reader uncomfortable. No one likes to feel embarrassed, even by proxy. And be careful; just like when we remember that stupid thing we said five years ago and still groan aloud despite the fact that everyone else has surely forgotten it even happened, embarrassing moments are one of the most likely to stick with your reader and become memorable.
4. All Quirk, No Personality
Every time I see a character described as “quirky” on the back of a book jacket, I put it right back on the shelf, and I know I’m not alone in this. Quirky has come to translate to “annoying and devoid of personality”, and for good reason. All too often people think that quirks are the same as personality traits. When I ask people to tell me about their characters and they start saying things like, “oh, well, she always fiddles with her necklace and always wears one blue sock and puts her spare change into meters that have run out while he’s walking around”, then I know we have a problem. Our character’s personality should not be summed down into a handful of little habits.
Mind you, quirks aren’t all bad things. For one, they’re practically necessary. Everyone does something that people would call a quirk; I myself mismatch my shoelaces. It’s just what I do. A character that doesn’t have any quirks will seem flat. However, quirks should have meaning, should hint at something deeper, either personality traits or something in their past; I wear mismatched laces because it’s one of the few ways I can have individuality while in my work uniform. Likewise, a character who toys with their necklace might have been given it by someone they care about, or it could have a meaning to the pendant, such as touching a cross or a dead brother’s dogtags. Quirks should not define your character’s personality, but they can be used to help show and explain it.
I’m not just talking about the bad boy or the girl next door. I’m also talking about stereotyping via race, religion, sexuality, age, and sex/gender. Who a person is is effected by these factors, of course. You don’t want to be colorblind, or make your 20 year old read like he’s eighty. But you also need to keep away from the sort of characters that one might see on Glee: the fashionista gay boy, the dumb blonde cheerleader, the quiet, shy girl of indeterminate East-Asian heritage.
These problems come out most often in fantasy stories, often times when dealing with different types of magic; there’s the black person who does voodoo and the Chinese guy who turns into a dragon and the white hippie girl who controls plants. While sometimes this makes sense — based on the myths of the area, for instance — it more often than not results in a lack of interest from your readers. If I can give a good guess of what your character’s powers are going to be by your physical description of them, you might want to shake things up.
6. Illogical Characterization
There are a lot of reasons your character might be unrealistic. Check it out in next weeks post, The 7 Fantasies of Character Creation: Why Your Character is Unrealistic.
7. Down Into Death
We all like to see the good guy taken down a notch. In fact, as stated in point number one, your protagonist needs to have some unpleasant features about him. However, one fatal flaw is to knock them down too close to the end of the story. A character needs to have flaws and conflict, but they also need time to come back from them. We need to see them picking themselves up and making up for their mistakes, or at least have reason enough to believe that they will. If a story ends or, even worse, if the character dies right after something really bad is relieved about them or they make a terrible mistake, then your reader won’t have any reason to feel sympathy for them.
It’s all good for a character to have morals and beliefs. In fact, they pretty much have to have them, even if their beliefs are jaded or skewed. Often times, Authors share their own beliefs by putting them into their main character. Which is fine, if done right. However, their beliefs can’t take the place of their character’s personality, and certainly shouldn’t control the entire plot. A good example of this issue would be Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
The author clearly uses the entire plot to show readers in a not so subtle way why he thinks that TV obsession, bratty dispositions, and obesity are ruining the youth, and how he quite clearly claims that it is all the parent’s fault that the children are who they are. It also has a class-based message, though for once it’s about showing that the poor who have to work for what they get are better than the rich (never mind that Charlie is handed an entire company at the end), and clearly uses the trope of “if you’re good, good things will come to you (even without working for it)”.