10 Signs You’re Introducing a Boring Character
And how you can ensure they hook us from page one.
Your character might be complex and dynamic, but if your opening pages make for a boring introduction, the reader probably won’t hang around long enough to find out. Here are ten signs your opening scene might need to go back into the oven, and bake a little longer.
Introducing a Boring Character – Warning Sign #10
The Forest From the Trees
What’s the first sign your character introduction needs work? If you’re certain it’s a winner, but you’re yet to finish your novel’s first draft. You may be following an outline, but at this point you haven’t undergone the full journey from problem to climax and finally, resolution. Chances are you just don’t know your protagonist well enough to present them in a truly authentic, strategic way. Finish the first draft and get some much needed perspective, before tackling the introduction again.
Introducing a Boring Character – Warning Sign #9
We hit page three and we’re sitting there scratching our heads. You’ve given us a setting, action and dialogue, but you’ve forgotten to give us a name. Yes, it happens, particularly to those writing in first person narrative. Make sure you find a way to slip the character’s name somewhere on page one (or soon after). It creates a little anchor in our heads for us to attach traits and back story to so that the character doesn’t remain abstract, like a stranger we’re following down the street. Other key attributes, like age, race and gender, should also be clarified as quickly as possible. Don’t allow the reader to form one mental picture, and then suddenly reveal something different.
Introducing a Boring Character – Warning Sign #8
Staring Into Space (Sci-Fi not included)
I don’t know how many openers I’ve read that begin with the character musing as they gaze into a mirror, take in a view, sit in traffic, partake in morning ablutions, or <insert banal, sedentary activity here>. This is great for your background notes or character profile, but not the way to hook a reader into a riveting plot line. So, if your character isn’t staring off into space, musing about their life/problems/dreams or whatever, what are they doing?
Something interesting, is a great place to start.
Allow us to draw conclusions about the character by seeing how they interact with the world around them.
First Draft: A journalist sits in his office, ruminating about how he hates his job as a paid hack. He stares at the sprawling view before him, feeling empty and frustrated.
I’m going to give this writer the benefit of the doubt and imagine that these ruminations are really well-written, but even so it sounds pretty flat, right?
Second Draft: We open with a scene of the same journalist arriving at an accident. Instead of going to help the injured people, he chases down the witnesses, hunting for a story. People lie dying and he’s on his knees, snapping pictures as the police arrive.
Whoa. No one needs to tell us he’s a hack, that much is clear, and more! Right away we have a vivid idea of who this guy is, and what his problems are. As the old adage goes, actions speak louder than words. In keeping with this rule, try to avoid opening with long, ‘static’ descriptions of landscapes, towns, or any kind of setting. Once upon a time that style was popular with classical writers, but readers’ expectations have shifted since then. They want you to get to the action, quickly.
Introducing a Boring Character – Warning Sign #7
Action – Overload
Now I’m going to contradict myself. I recently read an opening chapter where a police detective and his partner were caught in a violent shootout. Two pages in, the detective’s partner was mortally wounded and I sat there thinking, Why should I care? I barely know the guy! I might be a heartless monster, but it’s not enough to simply describe something sad; you need to make a reader care by engaging them emotionally. Show us a person’s vulnerabilities and dreams, and we become invested in their welfare. It’s the difference between frowning at a TV report declaring hundreds have died in a bomb blast, versus dissolving into tears at the passing of your twelve-year-old labrador. Empathy and emotion aren’t logical; they’re based in familiarity and understanding.
Aside from action, this also applies to info dumps. Avoid the long explanation of how the world was destroyed by aliens, and introduce us instead to the young boy climbing out of the burning rubble of his home.
Introducing a Boring Character – Warning Sign #6
Unruly auburn hair framed deep green eyes the color of moss. She’d always hated her hour glass figure, but it still seemed to attract lingering glances wherever she went…
The description above fits half the female protagonists I come across. Funnily enough the heroes rarely have red hair, so it’s some kind of weird gender-based double standard. But the main problem is that these kinds of descriptions feel forced, as if we have to sit still and listen while the picture is ‘set up’ for us. Instead, allow the reader to step effortlessly into your world and absorb a thousand tiny little brushstrokes that come together to create a beautiful image. Tie subtle hints into your action (she ran a hand through her spiky, black hair etc) instead of reporting it all for us in one dating-profile-style slog.
Introducing a Boring Character – Warning Sign #5
Don’t Lose the Compass
Is your character a bit of a free-spirit, going along for the ride? That might seem nice in reality, but in fiction it just won’t cut it. A character’s goals might change throughout, but if they don’t have any at all the plot will lack direction and purpose. It’s not enough for us to watch someone walk around and interact with their daily life, or simply deal with problems/opportunities as they pop up. That makes them passive; their choices become meaningless reactions and we have less reason to stand at the sidelines and cheer them onward.
Introducing a Boring Character – Warning Sign #4
Perfectionism is Worse Than Boring: It’s Death
Has your character been victimized throughout their life, but never done anything wrong? Or perhaps they’re just all-round fun, flirtatious and interesting; lovable in every way. Victimization / Perfection equals boring for three primary reasons: #1: If they’re a perpetual victim, the reader will assume the narration is self-serving. If the protagonist is perfect, the reader will envy them, instead of empathizing with (and caring about) them. #2: Both types of character lack tension, so there is no simmering intrigue to pull the reader in. The victim’s already dis-empowered and lost, while Miss Perfect is too wonderful to suffer from conflict or weakness. And #3; they’re phony. Do you know anyone who’s perfect, or for that matter totally blameless?
Bonus points: For the romance writers out there, you can apply the same principles to creating a dynamic romantic hero. Resist the temptation to make him #1. rich, #2. handsome and #3. kind. These are the primary ‘virtues’ of a hero, and he’s only allowed to embody 2 out of 3. So if he’s a wealthy, good looking CEO, he needs to be an asshole. Or if he’s the hot, muscled guy with a heart of gold, he also needs to be the penniless stable-hand our aristocratic heroine must admire in secret. At the end of the book he’s allowed to embody all three, but at the start we need to find him lacking in some respect.
Introducing a Boring Character – Warning Sign #3
You’ve Killed Them Off
One of my pet peeves as an assessor is when an author goes for a cheap trick to achieve shock value. Examples include, the character who is killed or almost killed, but wakes up to reveal it was only a dream. Or, in chapter one the character we’re following is killed, but chapter two reveals they were only a minor character anyway. Readers invest a certain level of trust in your ability to take them on a journey with integrity. If you make them feel surprise, or sadness and they then find out they’ve been tricked, you’ve forfeited their trust for the remainder of the story.
Introducing a Boring Character – Warning Sign #2
There is a reason editors, publishers and agents hate prologues, and it’s more than just some global conspiracy to save paper. Most of the time, prologues delay us from meeting our main character (the person we want to connect with), and hamper plots that can function perfectly well without them. Readers don’t want to start a story twice; losing themselves in a time and place only to be suddenly wrenched into another time and place. YES, fantastic books have been published with prologues, but use them at your peril. They fail more often than they triumph.
Introducing a Boring Character – Warning Sign #1
The Dark Cell
Why get stuck on the who, what, when and where, if we can jump straight into a page of fast-paced dialogue, or an emotional torrent of thoughts and feelings.
It all boils down to context. We can’t care if we don’t understand the basic dynamics of the situation. How much world-detail you need to set up depends on the type of book; a contemporary romance obviously requires less scene-setting than a fantasy novel. At the very least, let us know where the character is, what they’re doing and which other characters have joined them in the scene. Ensure the context is there for their actions and dialogue to make sense. E.g. we might see a woman slipping on a lacy red bra and praying to Jesus, but if Rhonda is a secretive, sixty-year-old nun in a convent, that’s very different to meeting Rhonda, the twenty-year-old stripper with a heart of gold.
Are you writing an opening scene at the moment?
Pop your message or question in the comments below!