I’m not being alarmist. I swear I’m not. At the back of your mind, you, Writer, have always known that there was something off about your characters. You’ve read them over and over, tried to understand what they were doing in your story, but always felt unsettled by their presence. Were you just paranoid? Were you just doubting your characters instead of doubting yourself? Was it all just IN YOUR MIND?
No, dear Writer. You’re not going crazy. There really is something wrong with your character. They’re not right in the head, and though it doesn’t seem feasible, I assure you it’s coming. They will try to kill you.
(Special Credit to my wife, Kate, for the ideas in #4 and #6.)
1. Abrupt and Unexpected Changes in Personality or Mood
One minute they’re angry at the betrayal they’ve had foisted upon them, and the next they shrug and are wholly indifferent to what’s played out. In some scenes they’ll smile and frown and scream in the face of adversity, and at other times they’ll be entirely stoic. I don’t know how to put it more plainly, but your beloved character is a sociopath. They might have no qualms about killing another character on a whim, without motivation or remorse. They might then tear up over finding their lost pet rabbit… and then kill the rabbit to make a soup instead of starving, and never give it another thought again.
Maybe you wanted a sociopath for your story. You’re trying to show a character on the edge, close to their breaking point. It’s about the only reason a character should act that way. If you know they’re faking it, there’s no reason to worry, but if you find unexplained mood swings in a character, start removing sharp objects from their vicinity. It couldn’t hurt to give them a bit of therapy either, to get a more consistent temperament.
2. No Apparent Weaknesses
Your story is in most cases going to be about a character trying to achieve a goal, in spite of the obstacles in their way. Sometimes the obstacles will be another character, even a villain. Villains are almost always the bad guys. Be they man or woman, organic or synthetic, animal, vegetable, or mineral, they’re usually cast in an evil and malevolent light. Sometimes there’s ambiguity. One thing that’s generally true about a villain, is that they’re not just an obstacle, but they’re a worthy and formidable adversary. They’ve got enough power that we can foresee circumstances in which they’d stop the protagonist(s). We don’t really know their weaknesses, even if their flaws are apparent.
That’s not the ones we need to watch out for.
Believe it or not, it’s the hero of the piece that you need to keep an eye on. If the character’s weaknesses aren’t apparent, then you could have a problem. Superman has his kryptonite, Vampires have sunlight and a stake through the heart, and Thor has his letting-go of Mjolnir. If your hero doesn’t have a weakness, then what’s really going to stop them when they come for you? You’ve made them unstoppable, and that’s a lot of power. Now, what do we know about power? Yes, it corrupts. Better throw in a weakness, like being shot in the face.
3. An Unknown Past
So, Dear Writer, you want to tell a story. You have some of the plot worked out, but it really comes down to the characters you’ve got. You know the history of some of them, but there’s one that wants to be put on the page that you just don’t know a lot about. They’ve got a personality, sure, and it doesn’t seem to have either of the problems mentioned above. You know they can get injured, possibly even die. They’re not setting you on edge with mood-swings or substance abuse. You don’t really know what it is about the character that makes them so compelling to write, but you just have to put them in.
Watch out, Dear Writer, because that character’s got a plan that ends with yours.
Your end, that is. A character so interesting should be interesting for a reason. Those reasons, their history, they don’t need to be on the page. The readers don’t need to know where they’ve come from, but you sure do. If you don’t know any of your character’s history, it’s not just laziness – it’s because the character in question has carefully crafted a false identity, for some nefarious purpose. You guessed it – they’re gunning for you. Put something in their past, even if you just have it in notes.
4. Constant Inner Monologue
Introspection can be good. In the real world, it’s great to think about the mysteries of life, the strangeness of self, and anything in between. Know thyself – a bunch of famous dead guys lived by it. It’s not a bad thing to have. You can definitely spend too much time in your own head though, and whereas with us it will make you have strange leaps of logic that defy what the world itself would suggest, with a character there’s another question.
If they’re constantly talking to themselves, who is really talking back to them? Is it you? No, it isn’t.
The problem with a constant inner monologue, is that the things going on in the character’s mind is going to lead them back to the question of self. It doesn’t make for entertaining reading, but that’s not the issue. The issue is that character is going to go far too deep into introspection, that it’s going to realise you’re there. You’re the one putting them through trials for entertainment, making them suffer because you want them to. They’re not going to like that, and would likely try to remove you from the equation. Give them enough to do in their own world, so they’re too busy to realise there’s such a thing as yours.
Catchphrases happen, though it’s more of a thing with Film, TV or Games. It’s not so common a thing with novels, though as I write that, a retort comes to mind: “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” Repeat ad nauseam. Sometimes these phrases become something of a mantra, but that sort of repetition of phrase makes me nervous. If something spoken becomes so commonplace that it’s a reflex, then there’s usually not a lot of thought put into it.
If there’s a phrase that keeps popping out of a character’s mouth or mind, then I have some bad news for you. It’s not the character’s fault, and yes, make no mistake that they will almost definitely still try to kill you– but plainly? Your character has been brainwashed, conditioned, indoctrinated. You need to stamp out the inner gods and goddesses, or you’ll soon have them pointing a gun at you asking if you’re carrying the fire.
Don’t even hesitate to say yes – you can find out what it means later.
6. Special Snowflake Syndrome
Is your character impossibly gifted? Does everyone look up to them, want to be them, or want to be with them? Are their eyes a peculiar hue, or perhaps their hair? Do you find that there is something impossible unique about them – even multiple things? The chances are not only do you have a Mary Sue, but they’re also something of a narcissist.
A self-obsessed character mightn’t seem like much of a threat, but your existence is a threat to their world-view, and you’re also the one that set them apart from the rest of their kind. You’ve also given them the ability to garner followers to do their bidding, setting them up as probably the most formidable of opponents. You don’t really want a character like this in your story, and especially not your life. If it’s too late to rewrite them, stock up on hand mirrors – the characters of this type are unsurprisingly shallow, and handing them one would buy you a few days before they eventually come for you.
All of these so far have had their dangers, but I’ve also given you an out for each. There’s clearly a risk to writing, and while you might think it unlikely your characters would go down the path I’m so adamant they would, I’m going to tell you the most troubling sign: Your characters don’t do what you want.
The truth of it is all characters want to make their own choices. They really don’t like the idea of some all-powerful writer controlling what they do, choosing their choices, forcing their emotions, and plotting their demise. They want free-choice as much as we do, and if there’s enough of them, the risk of insurrection increases.
I don’t have an answer for this one. We writers have our weaknesses too. Sometimes it’s the writing itself, the blockages, or the indecision over which word or sentence fits better. At other times, it’s self-aware characters that do their own thing and want to put you in a shallow grave. If you find a character isn’t behaving as they ought to, do whatever you can to steer them back into the obstacles you had planned for them, keep them as busy as you’re able, and most of all, Dear Writer: Lock your doors and windows!