As an agent, I look at a lot of different things when I’m reading submissions — strong writing, engaging story, excellent build up of suspense, and compelling characters. These are all important, but that last one in particular can really throw me out of a read if you haven’t managed to create a realistic, believable protagonist, or if your villain comes across as flat. It would be impossible for me to compile a comprehensive list of all the ways I see characterizations go astray, but I will focus on some of the most frequent issues to give you a place to start.
One of the most common problems I see with characters — especially the protagonist — is that they ultimately come across as far too perfect. Because they are often driving the story, they succeed too easily in order to allow the author to move the plot forward. Whatever obstacles pop up, the protagonist miraculously has all the skills required to solve them and keep going. The result is someone who is just a little too smart, a little too action-oriented, and just plain boring. A perfect character is an unbelievable character, and very difficult to identify with because, as much as we’d all love to ignore our own faults, we know that we have them and that everyone else has them, too. Make sure your character needs to struggle; if they’re intellectual give them physical obstacles to overcome; if they’re a loner, force them to work in a team situation. Take your character’s major characteristics and mix them up, making sure that they are better at some things and not good at others. Not only will you have a more believable and interesting character, but you’ll allow room for growth along their character arc. Just be sure they don’t end up perfect at the end, merely ahead of where they started.
Another issue writers have with characters is developing a believable range of emotions for them. Too often, each character seems to represent a certain level of emotion — a happy or sarcastic character who provides quips and comic relief, the grumpy character who dwells on the worse-case scenarios and points out all the problems, the smart character with the dry wit and the quick answer. Even if characters have their roles and their strengths, they should not fall into these sorts of ruts, and their emotional arcs need to be more complex. Particularly with the protagonist, it’s vital to communicate the character’s emotions in a way that the reader can understand them, because often they drive their decisions and actions. Your reader might not always agree with how the character feels and what they do, but if you can put them inside the character’s emotional state, you can allow them to understand those choices and continue along for the ride. In some cases that will mean not showing the emotion itself, but instead focusing on how the character struggles with their feelings. Not everyone is willing to allow their emotions to show in their expressions. In fact, many people work very hard to keep those things to themselves. But something always leaks out and gives them away. Think about how that applies to your characters in your given situations.
The folks at the Writing Excuses podcast have a series of episodes focusing on character development, and I highly recommend you check out Three-Pronged Character Development and Showing Emotion in particular for additional thoughts and a few writing exercises to help address these issues. Happy writing!