We writers can get really, really attached to our characters. They become almost like family members. We want the best for them. Sometimes it can be difficult to see them make mistakes, to see their flaws, and to let the bad qualities shine through from time to time.
We can be way too nice to them.
But if you’re too easy to your characters, your novel might suffer. You might be missing opportunities to show the full range of their personality. Here are some tips for making sure your esteem for your characters doesn’t sink your novel.
Don’t let your characters be perfect
George R.R. Martin’s novel A Game of Thrones, and the Song of Ice and Fire series as a whole, is known for many things, including for serving as the basis of an HBO series and for being the gold standard for gritty modern fantasy. But above all, as a Better Book Titles blog parody joked, A Game of Thrones may as well be titled “Don’t Get Too Attached.”
When people warn you not to get too attached to Martin’s characters, they are usually referring to how the people who die in Martin’s novels aren’t the people you expect to die. He has a remarkable capacity for killing off characters. Anyone can die at any moment, and Martin uses this unpredictable atmosphere to terrific effect.
However, I’d argue that Martin’s lack of sentimentality goes even further, and there’s a lesson here for all writers: Martin lets his characters have flaws.
Every character in A Game of Thrones has a set of positive and negative qualities and shows a full range of humanity. Martin is not afraid to go dark. Even Ned Stark, arguably the noblest character in the book, has a somewhat inglorious past. He suffers from hubris. He can be sanctimonious. He is on the whole a good person, but he’s flawed.
Make your characters sweat
Sometimes we don’t think enough about how to test characters through their weaknesses. When you’re placing obstacles in your character’s way, don’t just think about how they can overcome these obstacles with their best qualities, think about situations that will challenge them and in which their bad qualities could lead to their possible defeat or downfall.
Let your characters fail sometimes. Let the reader see their bad side, their cranky side, or their hubristic side.
Better yet, construct the entire novel around the idea that you need to find a way to show the entire spectrum of your character. Sometimes they rise to the occasion and sometimes they are brought down a notch or three by their flaws. We should see all of their positive and negative qualities over the course of a novel.
Showing a few warts won’t make your readers dislike your characters. If anything, the characters will seem more human. Martin, for one, has no compunctions about showing his characters’ warts, or even reveling in them, as he trusts that the readers will still feel affection for the characters.
Strengths are very often the flip-side of weaknesses. If you’re only showing your characters’ good qualities, use this list of character strengths and weaknesses to brainstorm how even good qualities can sometimes trip up your characters.
Victories should feel “earned”
It’s not interesting to watch a character breeze through a novel and have all their problems effortlessly and magically disappear. It doesn’t feel believable when conflicts are instantly patched over and when characters are perfectly understanding of each other.
Always look for ways to ratchet up the tension and make your character work as hard as possible for their victories. Don’t constantly paper over conflict.
The effect of making your characters work hard is twofold: it shows more of their character when they have to summon the big guns of their personality and determination, and it feels more hard-won and satisfying to see them prevail they had to work extremely hard to get the things they want.
The harder the work, the sweeter the spoils.
Especially if you’re conflict-averse in real life, you might feel squeamish delving into gritty conflict and letting tension linger.
Push past it. Let things get uncomfortable. Learn to revel in awkward and painful conflicts between characters. Don’t be afraid to let people be jerks sometimes.
Above all, characters feel more human when we see the full spectrum of their personality and we feel more satisfied on their behalf when they have to really work to get the things they want. Don’t be too nice to them.
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Art: Detail of Der übermütige Bergsteigerbub by Hugo Engl
Mr. D says
I never watched or read Game of Thrones. But this is spot on.
Great advice. I remind myself of this daily, and I still kind of suck at it…But thank you for today's reminder.
Matthew MacNish says
It's one of Martin's biggest strengths. I'm absolutely awed by the fact that five books in, he now has me occasionally rooting for characters I used to abhor.
Well played, George. Well played.
LK Hunsaker says
While I understand the point and fully agree that all characters must have flaws, if I can't get attached to characters, I don't care about their story. I can accept bad things happening to them. That's life (and good fiction), but if I feel an author is unsentimental about his characters, I move along to a different author.
But then, I'm not an action/horror/thriller reader, so I suppose there's a difference.
I actually have this issue in one of my books: do you stay unattached to protect yourself or do you allow the full experience and deal willingly with the pain that comes of it?
Yes give them flaws and kill them off if you need to, but make sure it matters to your readers by attaching them first.
Ted Fox says
I think this has an interesting connection to writing humor. If I don't take time to poke fun at my own faults and idiosyncrasies–and believe me, there's plenty of material–everything I do is less funny.
Leah Petersen says
Love the "cover"! So true. I can't think of another author who provokes such a visceral reaction in me. I'm almost scared to (finally) read the latest one.
This post reminds me of an LOL I saw:
Lisa Yarde says
Martin has the ability to make you become very attached to his characters, in that he makes you care about them, warts and all. He also humanizes his villains; while you can't wait for them to get theirs, you can at least appreciate the crappy place where they're coming from. Some of my favorite characters are his villains. I was TICKED when he killed off a central character in his book, but it was a gutsy move and yet another nod to the realism with which he imbues his characters. Martin's world in ASOF&I is just like ours, where anyone can die at any time.
Carmen Ferreiro says
I agree with the premise that an author must create fully human characters, which mean the characters cannot be perfect. But they must be sympathetic enough for the reader to relate to them, get attached to them.
If later in the story these characters die, the reader will mourn them. And maybe hate the writer for it. But if we don't get attached to the characters and we don't care whether they live or die, why should we care to read the book?
Rebecca Enzor says
I really enjoy the authors who aren't afraid to do really really bad things to their characters. And I don't just mean superficial bad things, but things that the characters will never recover from, either physically or emotionally. I'm on Book Two right now, and although there are certain characters that I hate, I love to hate them and love to read about them. Especially when they get hurt >:)
Jeremy Bates says
Enjoyed looking at this, very good stuff, appreciate it.
There are flaws, and then there are mistakes…like having a rape victim fall in love with her rapist. Suuuuuuuure. Now that's fantasy.
I haven't actually cracked the books (just watched the HBO series), so I realize that the event in question may have been more nuanced in the books. Still, I didn't gain a lot of confidence in the series after that mondo heap of fail.
Love the cover!
Intersting post, and great writing advice. I definitely agree on one point and partially agree with the other.
What I agree with is giving your characters flaws until it hurts, while still making them endearing/likeable and not too irritating (for the protag.)
What I semi agree with is killing off favorite characters. I think it depends on your audience.
For me, once I get attached to a character, I really don't like it if the author kills them. If that happens repeatedly, I really, really don't like it. It makes me feel sad and I feel jerked around emotionally. So, I stop reading, as in throw the book against the wall and vow never to read this author again. Which I did with Martin.
However, judging by Martin's popularity, many people don't mind losing characters, they're more into the overall tapestry and atmosphere of the story. So, I think there can be a brilliance to ruthlessly killing off characters if it fits your story, but not every reader will like it.
Like LKHunsaker pointed out, it's probably partly a genre thing. YA authors may not want to kill off all their characters, for example, but Fantasy/Sci Fi have more leeway.
Either way, always best to be true to the story you are writing.
Thanks for the topic!
Ann Best says
As in fiction, so also in "real" life. Except sometimes you DO get attached to the characters (I'm thinking of my late beloved younger sister), but that's the way it is. It's what actually adds depth to our experiences here on planet earth IMO.
Ann Best, Author of In the Mirror & Other Memoirs
I like to be objective with my characters at all times. It's not always easy.
Leo Godin says
What's amazing about Martin, is his ability to develop a character arc over several books. Even after book four, which I just finished, you learn new and interesting things about characters, and you still care about them.
Marsha Sigman says
The man is a genius. It was impossible not to fall in love with Ned Stark despite his flaws and feel real grief at the way his part in the story turned out.
I have said this before and I'll say it again. The way Martin can juggle so many characters with their own story arcs, and keep them all real and entertaining is just…magic.
Emma Cunningham says
Martin does do a remarkable job of suspense because you're always afraid to get attached to anyone. And many of his characters are truly awful people, and yet you like them regardless.
C Morgan says
Yeaaaaah…so I was gonna kill off one of my main characters at the end of the first novel….now, not so sure….so this certainly true.
Martin is a master of it, though, I've never known (and doubt I will) anyone who can kill off characters you root for then end up making you root for people you once considered "bad". I'm in awe.
I couldn't agree more! I've read the first two books in this series and try to NOT let myself care too much, because I have seen deaths of my favorite characters…and fear those that are coming. It probably doesn't help that my husband (who's read the series multiple times) just keeps saying, "It will only get worse!"
Steven J. Wangsness says
Oh, yeah, some of the characters in my book, including the protagonist, are *very* flawed.
BTW, is it just me, or doesn't that guy on the cover look like Mel Gibson?
Robena Grant says
Haven't read the books, but I do agree that characters need flaws. However they also have to be redeemable (except for maybe the antagonist, even though he needs a few softer traits to round him out) and I don't care to read anything that doesn't have a satisfying ending. Life is too short, and there are too many fabulous books that warm my heart to be bothered reading about loved characters who are offed. : )
LOVE A Song of Ice and Fire! And you know what? I love it for the characters. They seem real, exactly because of what you said — he doesn't have any perfect characters or utterly demonic characters.
Steven, "That guy on the cover" is Sean Bean.
I think people often think that Mr. Martin has no attachment to his characters, but that's not true, he's just good at pushing through it to do what needs to be done. I've got one famous death scene in mind where he said that it was the last one he wrote for the book because he found it to be particularly difficult.
I actually find it much easier to get attached to other writers' characters than my own, since I'm along for the journey and want things to turn out well. Whereas my own, I'm the puppetmaster deciding what they do. If I'm going to kill or maim a character I don't find it difficult because I'd (usually) always intended for it to happen. I'm more likely to be cackling madly at the thought of how a reader might react.
I suppose that makes me a heartless bounder?
Kristin Laughtin says
Yes! More than his willingness to kill off characters the reader thinks should live (and normally would, following established tropes), Martin is brilliant at giving layers to his characters. His "good" characters have flaws, flaws that get people hurt and/or lead to their downfalls, but he is also remarkably skilled at taking characters you hate and making them relatable, even redeeming them. How many of us hated Jaime and Theon in the first few books, only to begin cheering for them or pitying them as their stories progressed? Just as one has to be unsentimental about the good guys, one has to realize that most stories benefit from having bad guys that are normal people, with strengths and weaknesses, rather than just evil archetypes.
I think the "flawed" character thing is pretty well established, but I'm tired of the current crop of MCs whose "flaw" is reckless righteousness. You know, they make crazy choices in order to help or save someone else, the fallout makes someone mad at the MC, and the MC is in a shame spiral about how their bad decision making caused all this trouble.
It's kind of like the job interview trick where you have to answer the "what's your weakness" question in such a way that you spin it into a strength. A really well-rounded character has an actual flaw, not a good quality that is manipulated to a point of weakness. Maybe she's alcoholic, maybe she doesn't like being told what to do so she can't keep a job, something along those lines.
You get real flaws more in lit fic than genre but I'd like to see something crop up in my genre heroes. I mean, besides being loyal to their own detriment.
Bryan Russell says
I think I'm now hooked on Better Book Titles.
P A Wilson says
I loved the books but I have to say I hated that he killed off his characters – they were so real to me.
Then I killed off one of my own characters in Imperative. I knew it had to happen but I didn't realize that my readers would feel so strongly that most of the feedback is 'i hated that you did that' are they coming back in a future book?'
That means it was the right thing to do.
And definitely don't get too attached to the horses!
(I haven't read the series, but loved loved loved the first season on HBO and am very excited for 2nd. Winter is coming!)
Vicki Orians says
I have heard nothing but great things about this series. Book one is sitting on my bookshelf. Maybe it's time I read it. 🙂
Natalie Aguirre says
Okay you've got me steeling myself for more deaths in season 2. I love that series. Can't wait till April 1st.
Perhaps it's because I'm an older reader, but I vehemntly disagree, Nathan. If there's one thing that turns me off a book or a show it's 'uglified' characters. I couldn't watch Game of Thrones for that reason. I love projects populated mostly with characters who are inspirational and loveable. Can't connect otherwise.
I'll go as far as to say that I think one of the strengths – and charms – of a story lies in having the 'bad' guy as likeable, too. It certainly adds to the fun factor if the antagonist has likeable qualities, but is flawed through, perhaps, wrong thinking in one area of his life. I think, in reality beyond fiction, we mostly tend to be way too paranoid about others, when in reality everyone does the best they know how at the time, and misunderstandings and lack of knowledge lie at the heart of all human conflict.
Maria S McDonald says
I completely agree with you. Having never read the book, but started watching the series, I was flabbergasted (to say the least) when one of the main characters died.
And yes, 'detaching' myself from the characters I've moulded from thin air is hard. You want them to be perfect, I guess, because you want them, in some ways, to avoid and/or fix those mistakes we've made in real life (if that makes sense).
All of the ancient heroes had flaws and some of them died. Back then to be a hero meant you were almost obligated to have a flaw to set the hero apart from and above the ordinary human. Gods were flawed and didn't suffer the consequence. Heroes suffered their consequence from Gilgamesh to Achilles to Roland, etc. As far as "modern" fiction goes, authors not only kill off their heroes, but occasionally bring them back (Tolien, John Barth). But I guess the question is whether today's readers will go with this treatment of characters they love. Actually, the real question is whether it's worse to kill off a hero or to leave a pedantic response.
— SK Figler@gmail.com
I love Martin for many reasons, including his often spot-on dialogue (particularly where Tyrion Lannister is concerned). But, as you so correctly pointed out, one more thing to love about Martin is how completely in control he is-he jerks the reader left, right, up, and down until they can do nothing less than keep reading because nothing and no one is safe.
In my only adult novel, I had a villain that I always knew would die in the end. Until I wrote it. By the time I reached the end I loved him too much to kill him. And I went against my better judgement to keep him alive.
And by doing so, I weakened the ending. If I ever drag that script out of it's dusty box and decide to rewrite it, I will go back to my original ending and kill him. Even if it breaks my heart.
I watched the series on HBO and am now reading the last two books concurrently. And I so admire what Martin has accomplished. I think it's rather brave to kill off beloved characters if it serves the plot and stays true to the world in which you've created. And I think most of the time his "deaths" have accomplished both those goals.
M. G. Pereira says
I haven't encountered an idea in my own writing that would benefit from the same motto, and yet I think stories like that are awesome and would love to write one someday.
Meanwhile, I'm working on a crazy writing project and post about it on my blog. If anyone is interested, I'd love more readers and comments 🙂 https://writermeetslife.blogspot.com/
Sheron McCartha/www.scifibookreview.com says
Yes, okay. To make the characters real, they have to have a few warts. But the reader has to care about the his characters, or why bother with the story? They have to be rooting for them, crying with them, triumphing with them when they win. I was reading Martin and was a big fan, but now i'm weary. He's getting too "gritty" and playing god with a nasty smile. He makes all noble action dust and who needs that? Life is hard enough. He's gone too far. It's a shame, because his words sing on the page.
Anthony J. Langford says
Isn't the point, to take risks? Killing off main characters is one aspect, but the writer takes many risks and it pays off.
Nothing irks more than safe, cliched writing, no matter how popular the genre, or how rounded the characters. It's not about the potential kill factor, but about having some balls….
Checking these books off my To Read List.
I love flaws and dimension, but fantasy is littered with this kind of writing. And killing off characters is such a weak way of getting a reader to emote. There is a whole range of human emotions, why is grief always in the spotlight?
I love your blog.
I'm a major lurker on this blog, and I haven't commented for a long time. But, I love your blog. Thank you for all your wonderful advice.