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When Characters Go Bad

As writers, we’re forever creating characters. It’s kinda what we do. And you would think these characters would be grateful to us–we give them life, we give them a story and purpose, we love and nurture them and help them grow. But sometimes, this isn’t the case. Like a rebellious teenager who won’t listen to anything you say, some of them just aren’t grateful at all that you gave them life and they want to spend all their time and energy acting up. The nerve!

The truth is, not all characters are our precious babies, and I’m not just talking about the villains and bad guys. Some characters just suck. A bad character can mess up a good story, and sometimes you have to kill them or cut them. In addition to being a writer, you’re now forced to be a murderer. Congratulations!

Here are some of those wayward, pesky character types who just stomp all over our story and screw everything up, necessitating either a harsh correcting, or an untimely severing:

  • The character who tries to take over. This character was just supposed to be a side character supporting the protagonist. Two chapters later, you’re telling us more about their life than about the main character. Where did the main character even go? Suddenly, the side character is hogging the spotlight and telling you this is the book you really meant to write.
  • The character who won’t cooperate. Sometimes you can’t get characters into the scenes and positions you want them in. Try as you might, it’s like attempting to push a muffin through a tennis racket. They just don’t fit, they’re awkward, and there’s crumbs everywhere.
  • The character who is void of personality. Despite giving this character some lovely traits, they just fall flat. Their dialog is boring. Their personality is a gaping vacuum. Why can’t you bring them to life? They’re a shuffling zombie. Maybe you should turn this into a zombie novel.
  • The character with no name. Why can’t you figure out a name for this character, and why does nothing sound right when you try it out? Why do they not want a name? Can you just name a character Asshole?
  • The character who chews the scenery. For some reason, every time you write this character, they’re way too dramatic, over the top, colorful, and absurd. You try to tone it down but they just return worse than before in the next scene, wearing clown shoes and shouting about fluctuations in the stock market.
  • The background character who just makes themselves at home. They were supposed to be briefly in one scene and now they’re in twelve? How did this happen?
  • The mystery character. You’re editing your manuscript and suddenly a character appears that you don’t remember writing. They seem awfully important and yet you can find no reference to them earlier in the story. Were you asleep when you wrote this? Was it aliens?
  • The twin characters. These two characters act, talk, and even kind of look alike and you totally didn’t mean to do that. It’s hard to distinguish them. One of them needs a makeover. Time to hit Sephora.

Bad characters are everywhere…be on the lookout! They can creep into your story at any time. The worst is when a good character goes bad–it will break your heart! Have you had to deal with bad characters?

Megan Morgan View All

Urban fantasy and paranormal romance author.

17 thoughts on “When Characters Go Bad Leave a comment

  1. The mystery character appears for me all the time or one that was supposed to be important who just disappears. I even forget what I’ve named someone and they end up reappearing with a new one later in the story!

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  2. I don’t know if she’s a bad character, but I do have one where she gets pretty horrible and mean in an attempt to pretend she’s okay. I had one beta reader say she really didn’t like her in certain parts, but that was kinda what I was going for. I’m just not sure if she’s too unlikable and have been tweaking her a little.

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    • I’ve written characters like that–their whole point was to become a better person over the course of the story, so they started out pretty bad. If it’s what you’re going for, it’s okay!

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  3. I’m sitting here laughing at this cast of obnoxious misfits and picturing them all at a party, doing the typical things people do at parties when there’s that weird cross-section of personalities. And the nameless guy looks like Guy Fleegman from Galaxy Quest.

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  4. Funny, informative and oh so true.
    One of the minor characters in my latest effort was frightened and on the run because he was carrying fearful knowledge (Fantasy). He was supposed to develop through the efforts and mentoring of one group who rescued him. He didn’t. So they helpfully and gently killed him off for me, on the basis it was the kindest thing to do as he would suffer terribly when other forces caught up with him and so was a security risk.
    It gave two ‘nice guy’ minor characters a chance to show their harsher, tough-choices sides.
    In the same book a sharp-witted, ambitious criminal gradually pushed his way to the fore, which actually made sense. He would wouldn’t he?

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    • At least your characters were kind enough to kill him off for you. It’s always good when you have someone else to do the dirty work. 😉

      Sometimes it seems like the characters know more about the story than we do, so we just have to step aside and let them tell it!

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  5. Great post! I’ve had to delete/combine lots of characters in my day. There was one major character I left without a name (referring to him as “the valet”), but I did that in order to reinforce the point that he was being abused by his master, who had done his best to take away the valet’s individuality.

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  6. A few years ago on an abandoned project I once gave a serial killer and a police officer the same name in the same book. To this day I don’t know how I managed that and it’s what made me give up on the project. I felt like if I didn’t notice that mistake sooner then my heart wasn’t really in it.

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    • Aww, man. I guess you could get away with saying a lot of people in the real world have the same name. It could even eat at the police officer that the killer had the same name as him. I’m sorry it got abandoned, though!

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  7. I have a character who wants to take over. He’s a Chinese-American immigrant with a Midwestern accent named Bud Blossom. He was in ONE STORY, and now he wants to be in everything. All my other characters have taken to giving each other Looks and saying, “It’s all about Bud.” Every now and then, I write a story for him, but I never let him be the focal character; he’s better when he’s pushing. He’s taken over my blog a couple of times.

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