How to kill off your characters without even trying

One of the things I enjoyed most about writing my cozy Birder Murder mysteries was coming up with inventive scenarios in which my protagonist found dead bodies. Since this happened in the first chapter, the rest of the novel was a twisting path to solve the ‘why?’ and the ‘who done it?’ behind the dead body. I found that rather than making a book easy to write, starting with a victim really puts a writer under the gun…so to speak.

When it comes to developing your non-dead characters, however, there are plenty of easy ways to kill them off, even if you don’t mean to. Let’s take a look at the quickest ways to inadvertently make your characters lifeless, dull, unrealistic, and totally unengaging:

  1. Don’t let them speak. Dialogue is one of the best ways to develop your character’s character. Without dialogue, your reader gets descriptions upon descriptions of what a character thinks and does, but never an insight into actual verbal interaction with another character. Spoken language reveals nuances that make a character come alive. Does a character speak a regional dialect, peppering the conversation with unique turns of speech, or does he stutter in frustration? If your reader doesn’t ‘hear’ your character, you’re not making use of one of the five senses. Shortchange your reader of ‘listening’ and that character loses a dimension of personality, along with sympathy.
  2. Let them talk too much. We all know people who don’t let you get a word into the conversation; those are the people we try to avoid! A fictional character who does this is beyond insufferable, becoming a ‘talking head’ who drives the pace of the story to a dead stop. It’s also a classic case of telling, instead of showing. Balance action with dialogue to create a rounded character.
  3. Make them perfect! This may be the fastest route to killing a character before the story even gets started. Who cares about someone who has no faults, no misgivings, no dark sides, no shortcomings? Readers aren’t reading to learn about someone’s perfect life. Readers want to see their own failings, confusions, regrets, and wounds in a character, so they can relate and find the possibility of healing and hope in their own lives. A perfect character is flat. No one needs them…especially an author.
  4. Make them predictable. If your heroine always falls for the wrong guy, your reader will give up on her. If your hero always wins, how boring is that? If your reader knows how the book will end after reading Chapter One, why bother reading the rest? The best characters make mistakes, eventually learn from them, and become better people. (Not perfect people, per #3 above.) Great characters are works in progress, even after the last page. If your reader doesn’t imagine what happens to a character after the end of the story, that’s a sure sign the character never really ‘lived’ for the reader.

Are you creating characters that live? What are your best tips?

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This entry was posted in Fiction, Writing Craft and tagged , , , by jandunlap. Bookmark the permalink.

About jandunlap

"Archangels Book I: Heaven's Gate" is Jan's new Christian suspense novel that melds cutting-edge science with faith. She is also the author of "Saved by Gracie," her best-selling humorous spiritual memoir and the Birder Murder Mystery series that follows the adventures of ace birder/high school counselor Bob White, who has a bad habit of finding bodies when he birds. When she's not playing with fictional devices, Jan is a birdwatcher, a featured speaker, and the proud mother of five children. She welcomes visitors at jandunlap.com.

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