Cardboard Characters

Here is a problem I find in my own writing and one
I see in a lot of submissions:

Characters so focused on
their own agendas that they don’t react like normal human beings to what is
going on around them.

Let’s make a quick scene for a
character with an agenda:

Sharon was thinking about the cute new
boy in her math class as she walked to school with Julie. She wondered whether
Julie thought he was cute or not. If Julie was interested, Sharon didn’t stand
a chance. 

“So what do you think of Barney?” Sharon
asked. “The new kid in Math.” 

 “Are
you talking about the kid who—”

Before Julie could finish her sentence, a
car screeched around the corner and smashed into a fire hydrant not fifteen
feet from where the girls stood.

Julie screamed.

Water sprayed up like a geyser.

A man crawled out of the driver’s seat,
getting soaked in the process.

“You know,” Sharon said, steering Julie
away from the water. “Barney. The kid who just moved here from California. What
do you think of him?”


Let Go of the Agenda

Speaking, one time about characters reacting in unrealistic ways, freelance editor
Rebecca LuElla Miller said:

Never let a character act or speak just to convey information to
the audience. They always have to act according to their own personalities. Ask
yourself, “What would she say next?” rather than asking, “What does the reader
need to know now?”

I would add, “They not only have to act according to their own
personalities. They also need to react to the world in a natural way. “
So on the first draft, constantly ask yourself, “What would she
do/say next?”
And then…

Be Aware When Editing

My characters most often fail
to react to things that I’ve edited into a second or third draft.

I write the first draft with my scene agenda in mind. For the bit
I gave you above we can see that Sharon’s agenda is to find out if Julie is
interested in Barney.
When I go back for a second
draft I often notice that I was writing fast on the first pass and my
characters are having conversations with no scenery to show us where they are.
So I add in things. They are walking down the street. What does it look like?
It’s a big city so there are cars going by. Then I begin to try to do two
things at once. “Hey,” I’ll think, “this is a good time to foreshadow the
accident that is going to occur in chapter thirteen. I’ll have a car skid
around the corner. That will set up the fact that it’s a dangerous corner.”
So I’ll add in the car skidding
around the corner. And then sometimes I forget that the characters have to
react to the new element I’ve just added in.
There are other causes to cardboard characters. Have you read any
books or manuscripts with cardboard characters? What caused them to feel
unreal?
photo credit: peasap via photopin cc 

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Sally Apokedak is an associate agent with the Leslie H. Stobbe Literary Agency. She’s in the process of building a dynamite list of authors.