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Don’t Write the Bland and the Boring

May 2, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 2, 2011

Can you imagine a soap opera called The Bland and the Boring in which nothing happens, where characters live trauma-free, drama-free lives of bliss? What kind of soap opera could succeed in a world of bliss? Drama free and bland might be the remedy someone seeks when his life is out of whack, events tumbling around him beyond his ability to stop or direct. But when life is always the same, people yearn for different. For exciting. For thrilling.

They seek adventure or danger, maybe something just a little unusual to interrupt the tenor of their placid days. Or maybe something more than a bit unusual, something stupendous to shake the very foundations of their lives.

In The Bland and the Boring, there’d be no cliffhangers, no anxiety, no reason for the viewer to either sit on the edge of her seat or return the next day or the next week.

A real person may want a life of predictability, of sameness, but soap opera characters can’t seek out such a life. A soap opera wouldn’t be a soap opera without ups and downs and even more downs. Without a world out of control.

Fiction characters both on screen and on the page require lives of volatility and change and conflict. They need anything but peace. They need events intruding and messing up their plans. They need other characters to challenge them, to put obstacles in their paths. They need confrontation and trials.

A story without drama, without conflict, and without incident is no story. It’s a travelogue or an essay.

Story deals with events happening to people, events that have meaning for people. Story is the unusual, the unexpected. Many times it’s the unwanted, the feared, that which a character has guarded against for years.

Story is what happens when characters face events that set their equilibrium spinning and when they have to make decisions that could cause even more disruption in their lives.

Story needs not only characters and events but an audience. And no audience is going to sit through nothing.

They’re not going to read through nothing either.

There are hundreds, thousands, of ways to keep a story from being bland or boring. Writers can play with plot and pacing and setting and description and dialogue . . .

Writers can also manipulate character, create characters who instantly grab a reader’s attention from the moment of introduction or who grow on a reader as the story unfolds.

Let’s talk a bit about this one dimension of story, about character. About bold characters. About characters who take risks and who, by doing so, intrigue readers.

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Readers come to stories to get lost in the adventure or to solve mysteries or to imagine themselves as someone other than who they are.

They’re not looking for calm and placid and ordinary. They’re looking for characters who step up to the challenges that come at them. They’re looking for characters who stand out. They want characters who face, not run from, their fears.

They want characters who can do and say and think what they can’t allow themselves to imagine doing and saying. The thinking? Many do think what they can’t say. But others even tightly rein in their thoughts, unwilling to let their minds go places a “good person” shouldn’t venture into.

Yet, a character could go there. A character could tell off his boss, his father, or the Pope.

A character can step up and step out. He can make demands or ultimatums that you and I can’t.

One character can get into another’s face and demand action. A kidnapper could kill his hostage and a father might kill the kidnapper in retaliation. That’s not likely to happen in our real lives, though it could. But in story, in fiction, maybe it should.

Characters should act in ways contrary to the normal, to the expected.

They should turn left instead of going straight.

They should cry instead of being stoic or act instead of dissolving into tears or stand firm instead of caving when faced with opposition.

Characters can, and should, say the unexpected, align themselves with forces they’d normally shun in order to reach their goals, escalate a problem rather than diffuse it.

A character can take risks. They should take risks. They must take risks.

This is not an article delving deep into difficult writing concepts. It’s a reminder for writers to create characters who can be pushed beyond the common and expected, and then push those characters over the edge.

Tips to make characters more than bland and boring—

Put characters into unfamiliar situations.

Give characters challenges both internal and external.

Take away character support systems.

Limit character choices to two and make both abhorrent to your character.

Make a character say or do something a “normal” person wouldn’t do.

Make a character bold in a way he couldn’t imagine being when the story opened.

Have a character make a horrible mistake when he’s trying to fix a problem or answer a challenge and yet make it impossible for him to quit, to step off the path set before him.

Make your heroine take a risk. Then another. Then one more. Escalate the consequences should the risks prove beyond her ability to master.

Make readers care what happens to the character and to those affected by her actions.

Make the only true choice one that costs your protagonist dearly.

Create an antagonist who is a true threat to your protagonist. Not just someone who irks him, but a character who challenges the protagonist’s convictions or morals. A true challenger who shakes your protagonist’s very foundations, those personal beliefs and standards that make him who he is.

Re-think a character’s actions or words if they come too easily; consider the effect when that character does the opposite of what you’ve written for him.

Set aside your own fears of being over the top or too outlandish or simply too much. Be as bold as your characters. Write a great story rather than a safe one.

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I mentioned earlier that characters need confrontation and trials. They need obstacles and challenges in order to grow.

When all is normal, characters have no need for change or growth. No need to do anything different. Without challenge, there is no need to develop new skills or tap into strengths long abandoned.

But faced with trial and obstacle and confrontation, a character has a need to be more, to be different. To step into the unknown with skills untested.

Thus the risk.

A character who must act but fears that his actions are not enough for success, who fears that the very steps he must take will instead cause greater calamity, that character faces risk.

Stephen doesn’t believe he can possibly defeat Jack. Yet he has to try. He has to prove he’s a man, that he will defend his family to the death. And inside, he fears going after Jack will mean his death.

Yet, you’ve given him no choice. His wife and son can be rescued by no one else. He has to face his nemesis, his fear of flying, his demons—whatever fears, flaws, or weaknesses you’ve written into his character. He must face all those barriers that stand between him and his family’s safety.

But a bold character can try what he’s never tried. He may be unsuccessful—and he knows that going in—but he has no choice. And if he has to break the law or a vow he made against taking another life, he’ll do it to save those he loves.

A risk doesn’t have to deal with literal life and death issues to be a bona fide risk. Being the first to declare love is risky. Speaking aloud the dream of one’s heart is a risk. Offering an opinion different from everyone else in the crowd or peer group is risky.

Standing up for an unpopular person or for an unpopular viewpoint can be a knee-shaking risk.

Even admitting to past mistakes is a risk. Will friends turn away? Will loved ones shun the character who admits to killing a child while driving under the influence as a teen? What if the character is now a minister who preaches against the evils of drinking and driving? Is his confession even riskier?

When you’re writing and designing challenges for your characters—both antagonist and protagonist—give them tests and dilemmas that cost, that move them beyond who they think they are.

Don’t allow characters to play it safe. Force them to step out.

Don’t let them turn away at the slightest defiance from another character. Instead, make them do something outrageous—something memorable—that readers will notice. That they’ll be in awe of. That will touch their emotions so deeply they won’t be able to quickly escape the impact of the action you wrote for your character.

Think—and write—memorable actions for your characters. Stay far from the common.

And while you’re forcing your characters into risky words and actions, take risks yourself. Don’t write merely what other writers have, words that allow you to fit comfortably among the crowd. Write new. Write different. Write plots and characters that touch your readers, that make an impact.

Shake up your readers. Shake up your writing.

Don’t invite readers into an episode of The Bland and the Boring; give them instead The Bold and the Daring.

Write characters who do the unexpected. Challenge your characters and surprise your readers.

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Tags: , ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

18 Responses to “Don’t Write the Bland and the Boring”

  1. Courtney says:

    This is one of the most inspiring articles I have read all week! Thank you for sharing:)

  2. My pleasure, Courtney. Thanks for letting me know you enjoyed it.

  3. Wow, there are so many memorable quotes in this post. I’ll be re-reading several times to process them all. Thank you!

  4. Sarah, you are most welcome. I’m glad you found something you could use.

  5. PW Creighton says:

    There’s a lot of great info and tips there. I think one of the strongest methods to making memorable and believable characters is to develop a full psychological persona for each character. They shift from superficial actors to the individuals you want them to be. They become more relatable and identifiable, then you throw everything you can at them in a coherent fashion..

  6. PW, you’re so right. When we know our characters, we know how they’ll react. And then we can purposely write events and other characters that will challenge them and push their buttons in ways that make sense.

  7. Thanks for this post, so spot-on and full of useful information that I, too, plan to read it more than once in order to take it all in.

    I’m an agented, YA writer on sub (Round One) and my rejections, while full of praise for writing, voice, and characters (phew!) are coming back with revise&resubmit requests essentially asking me to further jack up the conflict.

    So, thanks for this timely post. No matter how great the writing or voice or characters, without a high level of conflict, the story may just miss. And neither I, (nor anyone else, I’m sure) wants to “just miss”, or “almost” get that offer.

    As I finish up revisions, I’m finding one aspect standing out most of all: bravery. “Write bravely”, is my new motto. I’m much braver than I was when I first wrote this novel and it’s making all the difference in my revisions.

    Again, thanks for a wonderful blog!

  8. Emily, congratulations on acquiring an agent and jumping into submissions. Those are great milestones. And what great responses to your submissions. Much better than a standard rejection letter.

    What’s funny about conflict is that many of us shun it in real life, so we write our characters with those same instincts. We take a step back instead of two steps forward. But characters don’t have to step back. They get to say and do what we can only dream of saying and doing. Isn’t it fun when we turn them loose to be strong and daring or outrageous?

    I have no doubt you’ll start pushing your characters into conflict, thus upping the appeal for your manuscripts. And I hope you enjoy every minute of doing so.

  9. Thanks, Beth, for the congratulations!

    Being out on sub is extremely exciting, and I do believe that when it’s my turn, it’ll be my turn. In the meantime, I continue to learn all I can in order to grow my craft. As a self-taught writer, I really appreciate your blog entries, which teach me so much.

    In my novel, a teen girl is grounded over the summer and essentially, in this isolated state, along with grieving the death of her best friend, starts to go crazy.

    The problem was keeping up the conflict in a situation such as a summer grounding, where parents are divorced/absent and the interaction is pretty much between a girl and her dog. : )

    I had to revise out the grounding and turn summer into the school year; two changes which solved the issues immediately.

    Also, the best thing about conflict is the opportunity for more character interaction and dialogue, both of which pick up a ms’s pace and add tension.

    So, all in all, I’m happy not only with the changes, but with all I’ve learned from doing so, which will also benefit future novels. Hooray! Most of all, I’m so grateful to the editors for their feedback, and the chance to resubmit. I think the hardest part of both querying and subs ARE form rejections. Many of us are willing to revise, if we only knew what wasn’t working.

  10. Emily, what you said about learning being helpful to writing future novels is so true. I’m guessing that every writer sees tremendous differences between the first manuscript and the fourth or fifth.

    And while it’s a great boost to get feedback from agents and editors, they simply don’t often have time to tell writers what’s not working. When any of them do tell a writer what works and what needs improvement, that says they see something in a manuscript worth encouraging. I hope they’re rewarded with many more great submissions in return for the encouragement they give out.

    And I hope the writers who get that encouragement are able to take those suggestions and make even better stories from them. As you obviously are, I hope they are truly encouraged and then tackle their projects one more time with even more determination.

  11. I so agree!

    I came back to write a p.s. to my last comment to say that, of course, editors are not our crit partners or beta buddies. It’s not their job to help unsigned writers on that level. Then I saw your reply. : )

    Which is why I’m so grateful for the feedback I received, and yes, that the editors saw something in my work, enough to devote their time to providing feedback and suggestions. So kind of them. Especially when they have no idea how their efforts might be received.

    Some writers prickle at suggestions of revisions. But what all of us must remember is that our writing, once it’s on submission to agents or editors, shifts into the realm of business. Art is wonderful, and wanting to cling to ones exclusive vision of a story understandable, since it’s our original creation, but if a writer is expecting to be paid for their work, they must remain open to revisions, changes, the way of the marketplace.

    Like other comparisons, a book, from conception to shelf space, really does take a village.

    As for revisions themselves, all writing is practice, whether further drafts of the same novel, or writing the next one. We improve by doing the writing, itself.

    Hopefully we love the work because we love the writing.

  12. Emily, we must’ve been on the same wavelength.

  13. I’m using these tips in all my fictional stories. Thanks a million.

  14. Jacqueline, I’m glad you’ll be able to use them. Thanks for letting me know you were here.

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