Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

13.47: Q&A on Fixing Characters

Your Hosts: Brandon, Valynne, Dan, and Howard

You had questions about fixing character problems. We had had answers! Here are the questions:

  • How do you fix character voices when you find out that two of them are too similar?
  • How can you tell if a character is, in fact, the problem?
  • How do you maintain interest in a character who is largely inactive?
  • How do you write interesting bad guys when your only POV characters are the good guys?
  • How do you give meaningful challenges to a powerful character?
  • How can you make a normal, everyday character interesting?
  • How do you edit an existing manuscript to give characters interests which mesh with the plot?

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Cheeto McFlair: Who are they, and why are they asking questions of the Writing Excuses team?

Thing of the week: Myths and Monsters, narrated by Nicholas Day (currently available on Netflix).

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Q&A Summary:

Q: How do you approach changing/refining character voices when you realize that two are too similar?

A: Redefine in your head who they are. Give them a different background and personality. Do you need the extra character? If not, combine them. Try a vocabulary fix.

Q: How can you tell if a character is the problem? How do you go about defining this?

A: Watch for the reactions in writing group. Is writing them keeping you engaged, or are they boring? Try looking at them from somebody else’s viewpoint. An honest critique partner.

Q: How do you maintain interest in a character who is largely inactive?

A: A reluctant hero, or a protagonist who has not yet protagged, may mean it’s time to focus on somebody else, or that the story hasn’t started yet. What is the character excited or interested in? Protagging is good, but fascinations can also work.

Q: How do you write interesting bad guys when your POV characters are just the good guys? 

A: Why are the people around you interesting? Use second-hand sources, clues, and the POV characters thinking or talking about it.

Q: How do you give a powerful character meaningful challenges and relatability?

A: Identify things they are not good at, and put the challenges there. A really big bad guy. Delve into their emotional side, what they care about.

Q: How can I make alien characters charming and mysterious?

A: Listen to the podcast on writing alien characters.  [Season 13, Episode 44]

Q: How can I make a normal everyday person an interesting character without giving them some sort of Mary Sue trait? I.e., child of prophecy or magically superior?

A: Consider what you find interesting in the normal people around you. Listen to people — the knowledge, background, even the way they talk. Passions and interests are strengths.

Q: How do I give my characters interests that mesh with the plot after writing half a draft and realizing they have no interests?

A: Use a spreadsheet. What are the plot points, and the interests or abilities that you need? Now add the characters, and see who needs what. 

Q: Who is Cheeto McFlair, and why are they writing on our spreadsheet?

[Mary] Season 13, Episode 47.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A on Fixing Characters.

[Valynne] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Valynne] I’m Valynne.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] I’m Broken.

[Brandon] Well, hopefully we can fix you, Howard.

[Brandon] Jonathan asks, “How do you approach changing/refining character voices when you realize that two are too similar?”

[Dan] Oh, man. Okay. So I did this. I talked earlier in the year about how all of my boy best friend characters tended to be very similar. So the most recent one, since it’s not out yet, I have the chance to go through and fix it. Really had to kind of fundamentally redefine in my head who he was. He couldn’t just be the snarky guy who cracks the jokes I would make if I were in the scene. He had to have something else. So, I made sure that I gave him a very different background and a very different personality than the other character, and his language started coming out differently.

[Valynne] One of the things that I’ve done is when I have two characters in the same book who are sounding very similar, I’ve just had to decide, “Do I really need this extra character?” A lot of times, I can just combine them into one. So I kill them off.

[Howard] It’s a good thing that that doesn’t happen in real life.


[Howard] Howard, you sound just like Dan. Die now.

[Dan] We don’t need both of you!


[Howard] My solution for this is often a vocabulary fix, where I’ll pick words that are unique to each side. One character is willing to use metaphors in their speech, and the other won’t use metaphors, they’ll use something else. That often is enough to differentiate it.

[Brandon] All right. Darcy Cole, longtime friend of the podcast…

[Dan] Friend of ours in real life.

[Brandon] And friend in real life, asks us, “How can you tell if a character is the problem? How do you go about defining this?” I’ve had a moment to look at this, so I’ll start us off. You guys can think about it. I’ve had a couple of times where the character was the problem. It took a little while to notice it. What would happen is in writing group, people were not wanting to get back to that character when their scene came up. This happens in all stories where you’ve got a large cast and you’re switching between them. Sometimes people are going to be like, “I’m not excited to get back to this character.” But what was happening with this one was habitually, people were like, “Oh, that one was a downer, too.” Like it wasn’t just like they were sad to get back to it. They were not excited when they were done with it, and they were happy to get off of it and back to other characters. Usually…

[Howard] Reading these chapters is like homework.

[Brandon] Yeah. Yeah, exactly. I was running into that. So that was one way I identified, “Okay. This character’s a problem.”

[Howard] If writing them isn’t keeping you engaged, there’s probably a problem. If it’s boring, if it’s…

[Dan] I find… I rarely write things from multiple viewpoints, but when I do, it’s very easy in those cases to pop out, “Oh, this character doesn’t work,” when they’re in somebody else’s viewpoint. Because suddenly they become very boring. I realize that I haven’t built enough of a personality for them. So when I’m seeing them from the outside, they’re incredibly flat.

[Brandon] Sometimes it’s just helpful to have someone like Dan read your book who will tell you…


[Brandon] Because he told me before, “This character’s boring.” I’m like, “Oh, yeah, they are.”

[Valynne] I think a lot of times I just have to have a beta reader or someone point it out to me. Because I’m too close to the project and can’t see what’s not working. So get an honest critique partner.

[Dan] Don’t be afraid of honest critique, because you’re going to get those critiques inevitably. In Partials, I got a character… The character Marcus. He… Everyone hated him. That’s the kind of thing that a good writing group could have caught. Our writing group didn’t. So then all the reviews and all the feedback from readers is, “Hey, this is great, but this guy’s awful.”

[Brandon] How do you maintain interest in a character who is largely inactive? For example, being afraid to leave the house. It’s a classic first act problem, right? That sometimes you have a character who’s reacting to stimulus instead of being the proactive one themselves. How do you solve this in your stories? Valynne, we’ve all talked about this thing a lot. Have you ever run into this, where you wanted to start a character who was reactive and then had to deal with making the story interesting? If you’ve never done it, it’s okay.

[Valynne] I don’t know if I have. I’m trying to think of… There’s a movie that I’m thinking of that deals with… It’s Ryan Reynolds, and he’s inside a box, like the whole movie.

[Transcriptionist’s note: the movie is Buried]

[Brandon] Okay. [Garbled] thing.

[Valynne] Or Sandra Bullock in the spaceship, like the whole time, and it’s like only her. That’s kind of what we’re talking about, right? Just, you have someone who…

[Howard] Well, I think in this case, what they may be talking about is the reluctant hero. A protagonist who is… Who has not yet protagged. Often, for me, if I’m in a situation like that, it’s because it’s time for the story to focus on somebody else, where something is happening, or the story hasn’t started yet. This person hasn’t been moved out of their comfort zone yet. In late, out early. I can come in later.

[Dan] Well, all of these examples that Valynne is pointing out are people who are confined to one location but still very interesting. That’s because… Your reluctant hero doesn’t want to go on this journey yet, presumably, that’s because they’ve got something else there really interested in doing. So as long as they are excited about something or interested in something or doing something, even if it’s not the plot of your book, it still makes the characters seem active, even if they’re not doing anything.

[Brandon] We are interested in lots of different things. Conflict… Protagging, as we say… Proactiveness is one of them. But we’re also interested in people’s fascination. Someone being really interested in something alone can be sometimes enough. But the example was a character that didn’t leave the house. That’s a conflict. That’s a really interesting conflict. How do they work around not leaving the house? You’ve got a story there, right away.

[Valynne] I think you end up just going deep into that character’s head and understanding the thought processes behind, “What if I left?” If… I think there are a lot of things that go on in the head of someone who doesn’t feel like he or she can leave the house. So you’re going… You have to really analyze those thoughts carefully.

[Brandon] So, also longtime listener, Cheeto McFlair…

[Dan] Good friend, Cheeto McFlair.

[Brandon] Yes. As… There’s a lot of Cheeto McFlair in all of us. How do you write interesting bad guys when your POV characters are just the good guys? [Pause] Oh, Cheeto stumped you.

[Dan] I’m trying to think. Because I do this in all the John Cleaver books. We never get a viewpoint from any of the bad guys. But we do see a lot of them.

[Howard] This is… That’s just the story of life. You are the POV character in your story. Are there people who are not you who are interesting? Why are they interesting? What did you observe about them that was interesting?

[Valynne] I don’t think you write them any differently for the most part. I mean, you still give them strengths and flaws and…

[Dan] It can be hard, though, and I see where the question is coming from, to… How can you get into the head of someone that you’re not actually writing them from their point of view? I’ve run into this problem in some of my books. I really want to explore, for example, this person who is… It’s a chase book, and we’re trying to chase this person down. Why are they running? I can’t say that without getting into their head, and so I had to find other ways of making them interesting and of revealing their story. Sometimes the way to do that is through research, through… Let your characters learn what they can from second-hand sources and let them extemporize on it, talk to each other. Well, maybe it’s because of this, or maybe it’s because of this. Which increases the mystery while answering questions at the same time.

[Brandon] I had this problem in the Steelheart books. The first one, in particular. Because it’s a first-person narrative from a guy’s viewpoint, and… If you haven’t read the books, he basi… His father’s killed by evil Superman, basically. Evil… The Emperor of Chicago, and he… His life’s goal is to take this guy down. So I had to have this Emperor of Chicago who was a very powerful individual that my main character could never really interact with, because if he did, he’d be squished. So my response to this, in building the outline, I knew this, and I needed to… Like, I had broadcasts from Steelheart, the Emperor of Chicago… The kind of 1984 style, you have to watch this broadcast, sort of thing, so I could show him. I showed the effects of his rule. Had people talking about him. I built him with some immediate conflict. Not inside of him. But to the reader. Like, when I present him in the opening scene, he’s presented as a savior figure, floating down from the ceiling. Then he goes ballistic and it’s bad. That kind of self-contradiction of I’m expecting Superman and I got this instead allowed me to make him very memorable in the reader’s mind. At least that’s my hope. Thank you for the question, Cheeto.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead to our book of the week. Which is actually a TV show Howard’s been watching.

[Howard] Not a book at all. Myths and Monsters, which is narrated by Nicholas Day. As of January of 2018, it’s available on Netflix. The first episode is a wonderful pop-culture overview on the Campbellian monomyth. The whole series is about mythology… The heroes, the monsters, the settings of legend, and what are the historical and cultural underpinnings of those. Why are so many of them similar? Where are the standouts? It’s quite fascinating. One of the things that I love about it is that where no direct footages available, say of Triston and Isolde in real life, they will often use penciled illustrations with halftone shading that are really striking. Really pretty illustrations in the show. Very interesting, and I’m four episodes in and have loved it.

[Brandon] Excellent.

[Howard] Myths and Monsters, narrated by Nicholas Day.

[Brandon] All right. So we get this question a lot. Both in the last Q&A, and we did this one. I’m just going to pitch it at you guys. If you think we’ve just covered this, we can move on. But the question is how do you give a powerful character meaningful challenges and relatability? This kind of comes into the iconic character thing sometimes, but I think they’re talking about someone like Superman. How do you do this? We get this question a lot.

[Howard] Fundamentally, you identify the things that they are not good at, and you put the challenges there.

[Dan] Which works most of the time, but I do think there is something to be said for watching them use their… The things that they’re really good at. We like that wish fulfillment of watching Superman just punch something so hard it compresses into diamond or whatever. So sometimes you just… You do just need a really big bad guy.

[Valynne] I think you need to delve into the emotional side of the character as well. What do they care about? Focus on what they care about.

[Brandon] All right. Victoria, you asked, “How can I make alien characters charming and mysterious?” We did an entire podcast on writing alien characters. So hopefully, you’ve listened to that by now.

[Brandon] I’m going to go to Andrew’s question here. “How can I make a normal everyday person an interesting character without giving them some sort of Mary Sue trait? I.e., child of prophecy or magically superior?”

[Howard] I feel very bad that you perhaps don’t know any normal people who you find interesting.

[Brandon] See, I understand what you’re saying. But I want to be in defense of Andrew here. Sometimes it’s very hard to do in writing, right? What are your strategies for doing this?

[Howard] I have spent a long time listening to people. When I was doing my drawing at the comic book shop, I would often ask people, “What do you do? Tell me about it. Describe your job.” I always learned… Learning that the smell of pineapple and the smell of cheddar cheese are differentiated by like one chemical from a guy who was studying food science. People know things that I don’t. I love learning that. If you recognize that, and begin exploring those aspects of the people on your page, they will become interesting.

[Dan] That applies not just to the knowledge that they have and the background they come from, but also just the ways that they talk. One of my favorite scenes that I wrote in John Cleaver six is he kind of goes on a date at one point, and he’s in a taco shop with five other guys, people his age. They’re just kind of local kids, about 19 years old, talking. They’re all very different, and some of them are obnoxious, and some of them are based on people that I know, and some of them are based on conversations I’ve had. That kind of stuff is great. Just getting into the gritty details of why does she talk very differently from her? I love that kind of stuff.

[Howard] Now, if we come back to the question and rephrase it, how do you instill a sense of wonder when the character is a normal character without giving them something wondrous? That becomes truly challenging. I… Sense of wonder’s tricky.

[Brandon] Well, your books do not have any superpowers or anything. How do you… Do you differentiate your characters? I wouldn’t even say that they all were necessarily skilled in anything specific. At least not in a kind of traditional this one has this ability. Like, it was just about a bunch of kids, and they were all really interesting. How did you do that?

[Valynne] I think that you just have to highlight what things characters are passionate about. It’s a combination of passion and interest and… Those naturally become strengths for someone. If it’s a passion, or interest, you have a lot of knowledge about that area, and not everything is going to be interesting to everyone. But you just have to figure out what you need for your story, and how those characters can contribute based on their knowledge and passions and hobbies. I think that that’s the best way to… In most ways, that is sort of their superstrength is what they love.

[Brandon] So, last question comes from Sarah. She says, “I am writing a story. How do I give my characters interests that mesh with the plot after writing half a draft and realizing they have no interests?” So she wants our help fixing her story.


[Dan] Presumably without throwing away that half a draft.

[Howard] Begin with a spreadsheet. I’m serious. Make notes along one column that are here are the plot points, and here are the interests, abilities, whatever’s that would be helpful in making that plot point. Then have your characters be aligned in a different way, and determine who lines up where and what needs to be given to. Then things will start to emerge organically. I start with a spreadsheet, not because I’m going to fix things with a spreadsheet, but because a spreadsheet’s going to show me the shape of the problem. Then I can stand back and look at it and say, “Oh. The whole is all right here in Act Two, and it all comes down to three things. I’ve got three characters, and this is probably a pretty easy fix.”

[Brandon] All right. I’m going to give you guys a writing prompt. It’s actually a very simple one. Cheeto McFlair. Who is Cheeto McFlair in your mind, and why are they writing on our spreadsheet? We actually know who this person is.


[Dan] We’re not just making fun of a random person.

[Brandon] We’re not just making fun of a random person. But I want you to make up who they are. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.