When Good Characters Go Bad

What makes a character a “bad” character? Not bad in the moral sense, but where the character falls apart in the work itself.

I’ve been thinking about this after discussing this recently, and I think it’s important for all works of fiction, and equally so for fantasy. Fantasy often has specific things that lead to characters turning awful and unreadable. So let’s dive into it.

The Characters Don’t Change

One of my writing instructors taught us is that the protagonist isn’t just the main character, the protagonist is the one who undergoes the most significant change throughout the story.

So while this is super important for protagonists, it applies to all characters on some level.

The change is fundamental to the arc. The character’s arc is how he/she goes from being at Point A (at the beginning) to Point B by the end.

The problems happen when a character starts somewhere and stays that way for the entirety of the story. Dealing in absolutes like this is dangerous for writing, as I’ve found.

The Lord of the Rings is a good example. Frodo starts off as a pretty normal hobbit, content in his world. He never turns evil, but his naivety is shattered by the story’s end. He almost succumbs to the One Ring’s power and is pretty sobered by the time he leaves with the elves.

Samwise also undergoes a significant change. A scared guy who thought of himself as a coward finds his courage and confidence. Aragorn was reluctant to become king, but embraces it at the story’s end.

We love our characters, we don’t like it when bad things happen to them. The traits they start with are often ones that we feel define them in some way. This character is the ultimate “good guy” who believes that people are inherently good. They can start that way, but they better have different feelings on the matter at the end.

Wherever you start your characters at, it should be the complete opposite by the story’s end. It doesn’t have to all be horrible and devastating but it needs to be significant. It needs to be a change.

Unlikable Characters

There’s a difference between “I don’t like this character because he/she is a bad person, but is well-written” and “I don’t like this character because they are poorly written.”

Ramsay Bolton in A Song of Ice and Fire is pretty unlikable. He’s horrible, nasty, and in his heart is everything we call “evil”. We wouldn’t be upset if something bad happened to him. However, to use the tired example, Bella Swan is unlikable because she isn’t written well. She does things that don’t make sense, she’s rude to people who care about her, she’s pretty passive and borderline ridiculous.

Ramsay Bolton isn’t poorly written. He does his job being a bad guy and making the audience hate him. Bella Swan isn’t supposed to be hated by the reader, but she is (at least by many) anyway.

That’s a good tell. If the author is saying “I want you to like this character and root for them” but you and a good portion of your fellow readers don’t, it’s a good sign the character isn’t written well.

No Goals

I don’t see this happen as much with protagonists, as their goal is usually the point of the story, but the thing is every single character needs a goal. No matter how small their part in the story or how insignificant their goal to the overall story, they all need to want something.

A character who wants nothing will do nothing. Bottom line, that’s no good and you’re going to end up with some cardboard cutout of a person.

This is one of the easiest fixes. Look at the character and give them something to want.

Dumb Goals

Not all goals are equal in my opinion.

If your sidekick character’s goal is just to be there for the protagonist and comfort him/her out of the goodness of their own heart, with no agenda of their own, there’s a problem. It doesn’t have to be a sneaky agenda, but they should want something other than just hanging out and being pals with the protagonist.

A side character’s goal needs to be their own. It can be connected to the protagonist, but not about the protagonist themselves.

In the same vein, your protagonist too can fall prey to dumb goals. Which brings me to:

Poorly Defined or Vague Goals

I once wrote a short play in a playwriting class. The play was about a woman, whose family had been through tough times, wanting to give her family a nice holiday.

The problem was that was too vague. “I want to have a good holiday” is a poorly defined goal. The better option was: “I want to have a perfect holiday. I want perfect food, perfect presents, everyone is dressed nice , the perfect holiday card photo, perfect decorations, and I want everyone to cooperate with me on this.”

There’s a key difference. The first goal made it too easy for the protagonist to get what she wanted. I learned a lot more about her character, and the others, by making her goal more specific. There was a lot more that could go wrong. Her teenage sister didn’t want to wear a dumb holiday dress for the holiday card, the food could have been over cooked and ruined, someone didn’t like their present, etc.

The more specific you get, the more that can go wrong. The more that can go wrong, the more conflict you have. Especially if there’s a character who stands in the way of the goal, like the teenage sister hating the holiday and thinking everything her sister is doing is dumb or annoying. I learned that the protagonist was super controlling, and there were really subtle ways to express that.

If your characters aren’t leaping off the page for you, try to narrow their focus. Make their goals more specific and less overarching.

Actions Don’t Make Sense

In Twilight, Bella Swan goes to a new school. Almost immediately another girl reaches out to her and invites Bella to sit with her at lunch. Sounds like every awkward new kid’s dream, right? Nope! Bella Swan thinks this girl, who is genuinely just trying to be nice, is shallow and annoying. Yet, Bella sits with the girl at lunch anyway!

When I first read Twilight (I only made it to chapter 7), this was when I knew for sure that I was in for it.

Does Bella have a reason to suspect this girl of being a shallow annoyance? Have other mean girls pretended to be nice to her and turned out to not be? We never get any information on that. Instead, we learn that Bella is judgmental and puts people into stereotypes. Okay, that’s fine, but then why would Bella choose to sit with her anyway if she just wants to be left alone?

If anything, I admire the “shallow and annoying” girl more than Bella because this girl was just trying to be nice and make a new friend. Bella was the jerk in the situation. The problem is, Bella is the one we’re supposed to like!

Your character’s actions need to make sense. If their actions are out of character, you need to find a way to justify them. If your lowly peasant becomes a powerful commander, then why would he order a slaughter of an entire village full of normal peasants? Would your wealthy daughter of a Lord really hate all other wealthy people because she resents being wealthy?

When you do these things, you tell the reader a few things. Your characters act nonsensically and it’s part of their character. That’s one thing, you can work with that. You cannot, however, ask the reader to then root for your character and think their actions  are totally justified. They’re not.

The Flaws Aren’t Real Flaws

I’ve written about flaws before, but I’m doing it again because it fits here. There are, in my opinion, a few layers to flaws, and “flaws” are not created equal.

  1. Quirk.
  2. Flaw
  3. Handicap or Constraint

A quirk is something that doesn’t have a huge impact on the plot at large and is internal to the character. These are often turned around to be endearing at best, and at worst mildly irritating or embarrassing. A character that is clumsy is a quirk. They could feasibly take steps to become more coordinated (if they are able bodied), but it’s not a huge deal. The worst that happens is they fall down while dancing at the tavern, or bump into door frames.

A quirk becomes a flaw, when it is consequential to the story. The character drops and breaks a precious artifact due to the fact that they are clumsy. This artifact is the only thing that stands between them and saving the world. Now it’s broken, and it’s a really bad situation because they weren’t careful enough.

A flaw is something internal that the character could feasibly overcome, and either does or does not by the end of the story. The flaw must have a big impact on the plot. Being a coward is a good example. The character runs away from a confrontation and all of his/her friends are kidnapped because they didn’t do anything about it when they could have. They either must overcome this flaw to save their friends or don’t and things get worse.

A handicap is something external that is imposed on the character that limits their ability to do the thing they have to do. This can also be an obstacle. Your character desperately needs to go and become an adventurer, but they are stuck in their town providing for their siblings because their parents are dead.

The problems happen when these things are confused, or 1 and 3 are used as “flaws” when they aren’t true flaws. A flaw needs to be internal (and therefore not a handicap) and it must have an impact on the plot (and therefore not a quirk). A true flaw isn’t cute. Having a temper isn’t cute if it gets you in trouble. Being lazy isn’t cute if it makes you neglect your work.

Again, a pretty simple fix. Examine your characters and figure out if their flaws are real ones.

The Problem With Protagonists

I’ve touched on this, but I’ll do so again. Fantasy falls into this trap a lot, I feel, and it’s a pretty easy thing to fix.

What happens is that the writer makes the protagonist too awesome. They have awesome powers, all their friends and sidekicks love them, the protagonist never does anything wrong except for an honest mistake that is usually just not their fault. People fall in love with him/her left and right, they aren’t stereotypically attractive, yet they’re everyone’s type. All their flaws are construed to be endearing or cute. They start off being good and noble, and stay good and noble without any significant change to their character for the entire story.

We pour a lot into our protagonists. They have the story resting on their shoulders and we want them to succeed, but when we focus too much on making our protagonists unequivocally awesome, we run into issues, and our protagonists fall apart.

Good guys make bad choices. There are things that are their fault. They aren’t more sacred than anyone else in the world you created. They can have all the good intentions in the world and still screw up and it can be their own damn fault.

Passive Characters

This is a problem I’ve admittedly had, especially in first drafts. I had this idea for a really cool character that I felt was important and I really liked. The problem was, they didn’t do anything. They were along for the ride and all of their actions were reactions to what’s going on around them.

A character, particularly main characters, need to take the initiative. They need to be active. They need to make choices, sometimes difficult ones. This needs to begin ASAP for characters. Instead of a character getting into a fight because someone else started it, maybe they started the fight. Instead of the character being constantly told what the next step is, maybe they decide for themselves.

Their actions can be correct or incorrect. Right or wrong. The point is that they need to act and not react. The world doesn’t happen around them. They happen to the world.

Stakes are Too Low

This is a plot thing, but it can apply for characters. I, the reader, need to believe that the stakes are high enough for your character. They need to have something to lose, and if that thing isn’t good enough, then their actions don’t make sense or feel overdramatic.

This can be at any level. In a children’s book, getting grounded is the worst possible thing that can happen so the kid-protagonist weaves a web of lies to cover up that they were the one who broke the lamp.

Hamlet killing his uncle-dad-king wasn’t as easy as slitting his throat in his sleep. His immortal soul was at risk if he got it wrong. He lost the love of his life (in more ways than one) in the process. His life was at risk for killing his uncle who was also his king. His father’s immortal soul was also trapped until Hamlet avenged him. Hamlet’s place in line for the throne of Denmark was at stake as well. (I could talk about Hamlet for hours, but you get my point).

These are things that Hamlet deeply cares about. They are very concerning to him. He is very personally invested in his goal.

The stakes can be as severe as they need to be, but it needs to be something that the character will lose should they fail. If the stakes are too low, they will behave recklessly, they’ll be less careful, and so on.

Up the ante.

Motivations or Lack of

Your character wants to depose the evil king and save the world. Why?

Frodo’s motivation for destroying the One Ring wasn’t just saving the world. It was about his home. The Shire, his friends and neighbors. What would happen to them and his way of life should he fail.

In The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the player character, Geralt of Rivia doesn’t want to find and help Ciri just because the Wild Hunt is bad. He wanted to find and help the young woman he loved like his own daughter. His main motivation was to help his daughter, not save the world.

Your character can absolutely want to get rid of the bad guy, but their motivation for this should be internal. It needs to be deeply personal, contingent on who they are and their experience of their world.

Obstacles are Too Easy

All Frodo had to do was stroll into Mordor, plop the Ring into the fiery pit, and be on his merry way. Except it wasn’t that easy.

Powerful forces were after them, his friends (and he himself in the end) were corrupted by the One Ring’s power, there was war all over the place, the geography of the land was its own obstacle, and he only had Gollum in some parts to help guide him and Sam. There were significant obstacles and dangers everywhere, and they grew more severe as the journey went on.

Your character’s obstacles shouldn’t be easy to overcome, at least not for them. Whatever stands in their way, internal and external, needs to be actually difficult.

What happens otherwise is your characters are too overpowered, too lucky, or the villains too stupid to make the story strong.

Rethink your obstacles. What is actually difficult? What stands in their way? Up the difficulty level and make it questionable whether or not they will actually succeed and come out unscathed. In fact, don’t let them come out unscathed, even if they do succeed.

Inconsistency

If you’ve established that your character is super clumsy and this cannot be overcome or is inherent to their character, then why the hell does this character become the greatest swordsman/swords-woman the world has ever known?

Let’s say I’m a character in a story. I am in real life allergic to garlic (I’ve heard all your vampire jokes before). The next scene in my story shouldn’t be me chomping down on garlic bread. It will never happen, not intentionally. Now, if I was stranded on a remote island where garlic bread goes on trees, then I might, but those are extenuating circumstances.

If you’ve established a hardline, the character should only violate their own rule when they absolutely have to. It’s a last line of defense, it’s because this is the only way for them.

A character who can’t swim and is terrified of water isn’t going to paddle around in the lake. Instead, they jump overboard because otherwise the pirates will kill them.

Parting Words

Good characters can go wrong. You can write anything you want, but it’s the execution that count. Develop your characters well within the limits you’ve established and write a great story.

What Next?

  • Go back through your work and see how you can improve your characters.
  • Get beta readers to look over your work. Ask them specific questions about the characters.
  • Ask yourself questions. Does this character’s actions make sense? Is this a fleshed out goal?

Writing Prompt

Create a character in a scene or short story. Here are some things to consider:

  • Give them a real flaw.
  • What is their goal? Motivation? Obstacle?
  • What do they stand to lose if they fail?
  • How do they change? What is their arc?
  • What actions do they take to drive the story forward?

Happy Writing!

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