Skip to content

Top 5 Ways Writers Screw Up Their Characters

Don’t Screw Up Your Characters

Characters are the lifeblood of any great story, so we don’t want to screw up on this … BUT writers frequently do.

There are multiple, multiple ways to screw up on characterisation, but here are the typical ways …

  • Characters are ‘tropey’, ie. derivative of existing characters, so boring
  • They are stereotypes or recycle toxic myths and ideas
  • The characters feel inauthentic
  • Readers feel they can’t invest in the character’s journey for a specific craft reason (as opposed to personal reason)

So if we don’t want to screw up, we need to keep the above in mind.

Caring About Characters?

But wait … You’ve been given this feedback: “We need to care more about your characters.”

Immediate RED FLAG!!!

This is a useless piece of feedback. Put whomever gave it to you on the naughty step RIGHT NOW. Join me children in examining why this feedback sucks BIG TIME.

(Okay, okay, the feedback-giver *means* well. And yes, just like “Show It, Don’t Tell It”, this advice probably started off good stuff).

BUT I put it to you “we need to care more about your characters” creates waaaay more problems in drafts than it solves. Why?

Because writers end up spending SO LONG trying to make us “care” (WTF does that really mean anyway?), they end up shooting themselves in the foot story-wise.

Great characters are part of great STORIES. This means the two are inextricably linked. If they’re not, your story is officially a screw up.

So when writers get that ubiquitous, but crappy note “we need to care more about your characters”, they inevitably start focusing on character AT THE EXPENSE of plotting and story. YARGH!

How Writers Screw Up Their Characters

As we’ve established, writers screw up characters A LOT. I’m going to take a deep dive into WHY this happens and WHAT we can do about it. Ready? Then let’s go …

5) … They introduce their characters badly

Whether screenplay or novel, your character needs to be introduced in an interesting and dramatic way.

When we meet your character for the first time – especially your protagonist – s/he should be preferably DOING something that:

a) Tells us *something* about him/her in terms of personality

b) Gives us a sense of the storyworld/the tone

c) Gives us *some clue* or indicator about the situation at hand

Yet too often we meet characters waking up, getting ready for the day ahead and/or eating breakfast; coming down the stairs or from another room (usually when someone yells for them); sitting in cafes or restaurants musing; or sitting in their bedrooms doing the same. LE YAWN.

This is nearly always because writers mistakenly believe that seeing a character in their home environment (or similar) makes us “care” about them. IT DOESN’T. It’s just dull!

Remember, readers make all kinds of assumptions not only from your very first page, but from your opening image too!

Make sure you introduce your characters in ways we don’t see all the time to stand your best chances in the marketplace.

4) … They put too much tragic back story for characters “up front”

This is an issue that seems primarily a screenwriting-related problem. I loved the following dialogue in the brilliant WRECK-IT RALPH, which I watched recently with my Wee Girls:

RALPH: Jeez, she’s kinda intense, huh?

SOLDIER: It’s not her fault. She’s programmed with the most tragic backstory EVER.

In comparison to WRECK IT RALPH then, scribes DON’T play the notion of a tragic back story up front for laughs.

Instead, the reader will have to wade through stories of child abuse; adoption/rejection; rape; bereavement; self harm and recriminations – all before the actual main story gets going.

More often than not, this will mean going through an acre of flashback before the situation in hand kicks off, though sometimes there will be various arguments and/or a funeral, or even ALL OF THIS (yikes!).

Yet these huuuuuuuuge adverse life events are massive; to make them blithely “character building” feels like a slap in the face for the characters. Not convinced? Think about it:

“Oh my character has to deal with being held hostage in the bank where she works – BUT IT’S OKAY BECAUSE IN THE PAST SHE WAS ABUSED AS A CHILD, SO SHE CAN HANDLE THIS” — WTF???

Yeah, yeah ***of course*** writers don’t mean it this way. They’re trying to give their characters “layers” and make us “care” about them. I totally get that. But seriously, overly tragic back stories played up front are not the way.

Characters’ reactions and the way they deal with what’s happening to them in the “here and now” tells us SO MUCH more than acres of flashbacks or expositional dialogue about their traumatic childhoods.

3) … They “back end” (quiet at the back) characters’ motivations

And of course,  as with most things writing-related, there’s an opposite end of the scale too: we don’t know what characters’  motivations are in the first instance, because writers are so busy trying to make us “care” about them, usually with various flashbacks to stuff that happened “before”. So we don’t know what the characters want, why they want it, or when by. Instead we end up finding this out in retrospect. As a result it’s difficult to invest in those characters’ journeys.

Sometimes this happens in spec novels too, especially those where the scribe is writing in the first person. I’ve noticed writers attempting Young Adult in particular can have this issue. What tends to happen is the scribe is so busy “setting up” the character and the world s/he lives in (especially a school environment), they forget to tell the reader what the story is *really* about.

2) … They introduce too many characters

Sometimes a screenplay or novel will have a plethora of characters, often to persuade us what a great or upstanding protagonist we have. We’ll see the protagonist interract with all kinds of people, in all kinds of ways, usually all positive. Aaah. Sweet.


And before you say it: YES, technically novels can have as many characters as they want. But — and there’s always a but with me! — they need to have a reason to be present in the narrative. The reason can be anything the writer wants, but broken down, those characters need to relate to:

a) Plot

b) another character

c) arena (or storyworld)

d) theme

e) all of the above

Otherwise your characters simply float about randomly and the reader can’t “connect” with them. FACT. Sorry!

It’s the same with screenplays, but more condensed. Being much “shorter” than novels (both literally and figuratively), this is inevitable, yet many screenplays – whether feature length or TV pilot –  have what I call a “Mer De Noms” (sea of names). I simply can’t keep track of them all. This is usually because in addition to that sea of names, I can’t discern each character’s role function. More on this after the last jump.

1) … They give characters No Discernible Role Function

This is probably the top screenplay characterisation problem EVER and usually happens because scribes are so busy trying to persuade readers to “care” about characters, they forget *why* the characters are part of the story in the first place.

We all hear about “differentiating characters”, so many scribes spend a lot of time trying to make each one SOUND or LOOK different. And this is a good start. But sounding or looking “different” does not great characterisation make. Why?

Because great characters are what they DO. 

In other words then, the characters in your screenplay all have to DO different things in order to be “differentiated”.

For the above, they need a specific role function, ie:

Protagonist: Usually “for” the “main theme” of the story. 

Antagonist: Usually “against” the “main theme” of the story. 

With protagonists and antagonists in mind, it’s usual the protagonist drives the story, though sometimes it’s the other way round and the antagonist will instead. Occasionally, we will have a passive protagonist (especially in the case of the Comedy genre), but if this happens, another character (antagonist OR an important secondary) will usually “take the reins” and give them back to the protagonist in the resolution.

Secondary Characters: These guys can boiled down to this notion – they HELP or HINDER the protagonist or antagonist in their respective missions. 

From the above, secondary characters may perform very tried and tested roles like Mentor; Second In Command; Henchman; Love Interest; Best Friend; Comic Relief and so on.

Peripheral Character: These guys reflect the story’s intentions and/or facillitate the plot or (usually) the main characters’ motivations in some way (or the opposite). 

A good example here would be characters who are placed in the narrative simply to die as in the Horror genre, or war and disaster movies. Peripheral characters don’t have to die though; sometimes in Comedies and Thrillers a peripheral character may obstruct our protagonist in his/her mission, like the Jobsworth Official who won’t help, or a Police Officer who arrests the protagonist or turns them away.


Next time you get the feedback “we need to care more about your characters”, make sure you give that feedback-giver a bop on the nose. Or preferably, refer them to this post. And yourself.

Remember, if you don’t want to screw up on characterisation, keep the following in mind …

  • Great characters come from great stories. They are inextricably linked.
  • Good characterisation makes use of back story, but not at the expense of the “here and now”.
  • Great characters have role functions/ a reason WHY they’re part of the story.
  • Good characterisation is about a character’s reactions to the situation in hand.
  • Great characters are what they DO.

Good luck! Don’t Screw Up …

Share this:

33 thoughts on “Top 5 Ways Writers Screw Up Their Characters”

  1. Agree with your great blog post except to say that a reviewer might make that note – and then if they are worth their weight in salt – back it up with suggestions and probably many of the five points you have outlined. It is not a bad or useless note in and of itself – in fact, it is a very important note. If we don’t care about your characters, it’s hard to care about anything else. So I say don’t bop your review quite yet – read on into their notes and see if you can find some tangible ways to correct the problem. 🙂

  2. Of course, if the reviewer says WHY we could care more about the characters then obviously it’s great advice. But too often I find people give it in a “get out of jail free” card kind of way, aka “I’m not sure why I didn’t like the character/s, ergo it must the writer’s fault.” This then becomes appallingly bad feedback and the number of times I’ve had to talk Bang2writers down off the “writing window ledge” over it is uncountable! 🙂

  3. Excellent. I have a client who repeatedly resorts to more than one of these ineffective “solutions”. I’m going to send this – maybe you can get through to him.

  4. Pingback: Screenwriting Around The Web #3 | The Screenwriting Spark

  5. Excellent article. I agree with you on all points, and I especially like how you used Wreck-It Ralph as an example. I find that movie to be an excellent example of story-writing and planting clues throughout the story without making things too obvious.

    1. Hi C. David, glad you like the article. LOVE Wreck-It Ralph, I think the last 20 years of family movies is a real golden age, TBH.

  6. I agree, Lucy. When the writers get the right story together, it can be something fantastic. Honestly, I sometimes see better storytelling in family films than regular ones. There is so much to learn from Wreck-It Ralph. I teach middle school reading and writing, and I often use films as examples for concepts. Not everyone has read the same books, but we all have movies in common. For example, I used Wreck-It Ralph as an example of how the main character demonstrates the change from their journey. An excellent film.

  7. This post is great. I have read (and written *cringe*) stories were the author tries to hard to make the reader care. They try so hard that they sometimes forget the story entirely. I normally end up disliking the character, just because the author tries so hard.
    It’s funny I found this post as just a few days ago I received a WIP story back with the feedback the reader needs more reason to care about so-and-so. The problem is said character is the main antagonist, and at this point in the work you should not care about him. In fact you properly should hate him. He does actually have more of a story, I am just not to that point yet.
    Truly I think if your character can cause any emotion in the reader than they can’t be to bad.

  8. Pingback: Screenwriting Sparks Around The Web #7 | The Screenwriting Spark

  9. Lucy, I love you!

    I recently got feedback on a screenplay, and got that comment about the character not being likable because he made a bad choice in the second act.

    It is weird that readers in contests or evaluation services have a totally different read then gatekeepers in the industry.

    1. TBH, I think it depends on the individual, but also where they are in their career. The “younger” a gatekeeper is (not in years themselves, but career), the more stock they will put in what others say – ie. bosses, Gurus, books and so-called “accepted” methods. As they grow more “mature”, the more they will trust their own guts on what is “best” for the story. I know this happened with me, certainly.

  10. Only one little thing: It was Felix that said the line mentioned, not Ralph. Otherwise, this article helped me realize that I was doing okay with my characters.

  11. Pingback: Top 5 Lists for Writers | Endless Realms

  12. Pingback: 99 Essential Quotes on Character Creation

  13. Pingback: Ultimate Screenwriting Guide: How To Write Great Supporting Characters In Your Screenplay | The Screenwriting Spark

    1. I’m not angry, “smack talk” is how this blog is written. Plus this article’s one of the most popular on the site, hit 10K+ times. But thanks for your feedback 😉

  14. “We need to care more about your characters” is pretty standard stuff on series and serials. Good luck with the naughty step. The desired response is usually a scene where wo/man does something brilliant, hilarious one-liner, kisses kids/spouse before bounding out to a chorus of ‘we laaaaaahvh you mummy/daddy’. SPLAT. Meteor/dinosaur/first stage of rocket (that she KNEW had O ring issues) lands on house.

    A note of caution about character introduction though, this active intro may work in film but quickly becomes tiresome in series and serials. It’s hugely overdone in medical shows where the new doc invariably comes in as a tousled hero. Try Up in the Air for a wonderful teaser intro. It also happens to be one of my favourite movies.

  15. What about when you mess up and a reader wonders why they are even together in the first place? From a wattpad critic:

    “I have no idea why the Paladin and Merryn are traveling together.
    I mean, I know you said it’s because he’s honorbound to help people out, but you
    REALLY need a more sturdy reason than that. They just sort of… decide to go together. Right after she threatens to kill him. I don’t know about you, but that whole scene is just really really flimsy. It’s not believable. I understand why YOU want them to go together, but why do THEY want to go together?

    You really REALLY have to work on that, a lot. I really have no interest in Merryn or the paladin’s relationship. They have no spark, their conversations don’t interest me at all. I’ve found myself several times just wanting to skim, and that’s a problem.
    I want to like them, I want to be engaged in their friendship or allyship,
    but… It’s just too mayonnaise. I can’t get behind it.”

    I thought this was made clear by the previous chapters. Dang it.

    Does this problem have a term, that I can search for? Thank you for any help.

    1. This is a tough one to gauge I’m afraid, though it does sound suspiciously like the reader is saying “I don’t care about your characters”! My advice would be to look at your feedback – is it just ONE reader who “doesn’t care”, or many? Only if the latter applies would I say worry about it. Hope this helps.

  16. Hello! I like this article a lot (sorry If I make any mistakes in my comment, I’m not a native speaker of English), but I have some trouble understanding the back story part. I’m writing a novel at the moment, and my main character’s motives are triggered by past events. These past events however are nothing like childhood abuse and stuff. These are very recent events, that caused the death of her teacher/master, in a very nasty way, and now she wants a healthy type of revenge by having the police find out about their crimes and have judgement executed upon them, and have her master’s honour restored. I think it is important to understand the motives of the character as soon as possible, which requires flashbacks to this event early on. Am I right to say, that this kind of past event does not fall into the overly dramatized back story? It’s not something that happened to the character in the far past that made her personality but has no real effect on the story. To be honest, there’s a loooot of stuff that happened to my characters prior to the present, especially the other main character, but those are all stuff that contribute to the story in a crucial way. So as long as I don’t spend too much time telling these past events, or If I try to spread the information about them throughout the whole story, and just care more about moving forward, there should be no problem right? Because it’s a story that heavily builds upon past events, like a detective trying to find out what happened before. But is it okay, as long as they do by confronting each other, and taking steppes forward?

    1. Hello lurker, I wouldn’t like to say for definite because I haven’t read your screenplay, but from the gist of what you say, it sounds like these flashbacks are plot-driven rather than “character building”, so yes, you understood my point correctly.

  17. Super ideas. Agree with all of them. I think the big problem is that the rules of conventional writing says that you should show your character in their natural habitat and build their world before the first conflict arises in the first 10 minutes. Now there are only going to be so many new ideas to start a film with, so unfortunately, most of the films start in a bedroom or a living room.

  18. Thanks for this. Especially liked number 4. I’ve seen it so many times. As for characters waking up etc..I actually see that on TV programs. If done right, it can work, but otherwise is boring.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *