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.
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 AgendaSpeaking, 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?”
Be Aware When EditingMy 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?
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.