Get a Free Ebook

Five Inspirational Truths for Authors

Try our Video Classes

Downloadable in-depth learning, with pdf slides

Find out more about My Book Therapy

We want to help you up your writing game. If you are stuck, or just want a boost, please check us out!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Cardboard Characters

Here is a problem I find in my own writing and one I see in a lot of submissions:

Characters so focused on their own agendas that they don’t react like normal human beings to what is going on around them.

Let’s make a quick scene for a character with an agenda:
Sharon was thinking about the cute new boy in her math class as she walked to school with Julie. She wondered whether Julie thought he was cute or not. If Julie was interested, Sharon didn’t stand a chance. 
“So what do you think of Barney?” Sharon asked. “The new kid in Math.” 
 “Are you talking about the kid who—”
Before Julie could finish her sentence, a car screeched around the corner and smashed into a fire hydrant not fifteen feet from where the girls stood.
Julie screamed.
Water sprayed up like a geyser.
A man crawled out of the driver’s seat, getting soaked in the process.
“You know,” Sharon said, steering Julie away from the water. “Barney. The kid who just moved here from California. What do you think of him?”

Let Go of the Agenda

Speaking, one time about characters reacting in unrealistic ways, freelance editor Rebecca LuElla Miller said:
Never let a character act or speak just to convey information to the audience. They always have to act according to their own personalities. Ask yourself, “What would she say next?” rather than asking, “What does the reader need to know now?”
I would add, “They not only have to act according to their own personalities. They also need to react to the world in a natural way. “

So on the first draft, constantly ask yourself, “What would she do/say next?”

And then…

Be Aware When Editing

My characters most often fail to react to things that I’ve edited into a second or third draft.

I write the first draft with my scene agenda in mind. For the bit I gave you above we can see that Sharon’s agenda is to find out if Julie is interested in Barney.

When I go back for a second draft I often notice that I was writing fast on the first pass and my characters are having conversations with no scenery to show us where they are. So I add in things. They are walking down the street. What does it look like? It’s a big city so there are cars going by. Then I begin to try to do two things at once. “Hey,” I’ll think, “this is a good time to foreshadow the accident that is going to occur in chapter thirteen. I’ll have a car skid around the corner. That will set up the fact that it’s a dangerous corner.”

So I’ll add in the car skidding around the corner. And then sometimes I forget that the characters have to react to the new element I’ve just added in.

There are other causes to cardboard characters. Have you read any books or manuscripts with cardboard characters? What caused them to feel unreal?
photo credit: peasap via photopin cc 
Sally Apokedak is an associate agent with the Leslie H. Stobbe Literary Agency. She's in the process of building a dynamite list of authors.


  1. Good post, Sally. And, yes, I've read way too many novels with cardboard characters. They're near perfect, they give the Christian cliched response or inner thoughts, and/or they don't react humanly to other people or circumstances. Good illustration, although today's teens unfortunately would probably act indifferent to an accident like you described.

    1. Oh, I agree about characters who are too good/Christian. They don't ring true.

      Good point about the kids these days, too. But I'd think they'd react in some way. If only to be upset that the guy bleeding in the street had gotten spots on their shoes.


      But I'm kidding. I don't think kids are really any more self-centered today than they were in my day. We were perhaps better able to hide our selfishness because it wasn't socially acceptable.

    2. I should've stipulated that I love teens. But today's teens have been de-sensitized to many things and often fail to react with compassion, instead focusing on "inconvenience".

  2. Nothing screams "cardboard character" more to me than men who always know the right, uber-romantic thing to say. Yes, some men might tend MORE that way, but in the end, they're still men--and they think and talk differently than women. As authors, we have to either think like a man or try to "channel" what a guy would say (or NOT SAY, more likely) in a given instance. THEN we get some depth and believability in our male characters.

    1. I'm always a little nervous when I read these kinds of things. I have a hero in a book who is, I think, perfect. He's just so noble and good. And... I hate to say it, but the heroine is gorgeous.


      It was my fantasy at 16. I was writing the book to my sixteen-year-old self. And I wanted to be beautiful and have a wonderful hero in love with me. So that's what I put into my book. Hmm. I think my hero acts like a man, though, and not a woman.

      Very interesting, Heather. This is definitely worth thinking about. Thanks!

    2. Yes, Sally...I tend to find myself "falling" for my characters, too, so don't feel guilty!

      But still, no one is perfect. And I've noticed that guys tend to relate differently than women. One way to realize this is to play video games with them. They don't play like girls. They play to WIN. Sometimes I like hanging out w/dudes much more than women. They don't minx words (is that a saying?). I think the only time guys ARE very slick w/their words are when they're trying to WIN the girl. And even then, some are slicker than others.

      Seriously, though. Remember Meg Wallace in A Wrinkle in Time? She was such a gawpy, nerdy teen...then she turned beautiful as a grown-up. That's actually more like reality! And even Scarlett O'hara wasn't "beautiful," according to the book.

      Ah, well, obviously I could go on at length. All I know is that the characters who stick with me are the ones who aren't perfect!

    3. Yes, I agree. Perfect characters are not memorable at all.

      And I also agree that guys are different than girls.


Don't be shy. Share what's on your mind.