5 Critical Character Mistakes to Avoid in Your Writing

by: Stephanie O’Brien

Sometimes, characters make mistakes. A character who never screws up is unrelatable and unrealistic, and every good writer adds some flaws to each member of their cast – unless a character’s unnatural perfection adds to the story in some way.

But there are some mistakes that even smart characters make far too often, and they’re a good way to make the audience wonder if the creator of the story is as foolish as the people inside it.

Here are five mistakes that fictional characters frequently make, the outcomes those mistakes are used to create, and how to create those outcomes without making your audience want to facepalm.

Mistake #1: Shaking fallen comrades instead of fighting

The scenario:
Badass McKillsalot is fighting in top form. He’s protecting his friends, cutting down bad guys, saving the day…

But then he takes a hit and collapses. What does his nearest comrade-in-arms do?

He runs to the fallen warrior’s side and starts shaking him. Because shaking always cures injuries, instead of making them worse. It also magically wards off the additional attackers who are now free to target the shaker’s back.

Oh wait… it doesn’t.

So why do characters do it?

What it’s used for:
There are a few reasons why you might be tempted to have a character shake McKillsalot after he keels over.

Maybe they’re inexperienced, foolish, panicked, or all of the above – a valid, in-character reason.

Or maybe you wanted to leave them open to attack, to have them waste some time, or to show how much they care about the injured fighter… in which case, there are better ways to go about it.

A smarter thing to do instead:
If you want to put the would-be shaker out of action for a moment, or to make them vulnerable to attack, you can:

  1. Have them take a glancing blow that briefly stuns or staggers them.
  2. Have them be briefly distracted by the sight of their friend getting hurt, without going so far as to make them ignore the existence of the ongoing battle in favour of shaking the wounded party.

If you want to show how much they care about the person who got hurt, it would be better if they:

  1. Administered some sort of medical treatment that’s more effective than shaking a wounded person, or
  2. Showed their care by continuing to fight, so that the enemies who are still actively attacking can’t kill the downed McKillsalot.

If you DO choose to have the character shake the injured person, I recommend incorporating it into the story and their character development somehow. Have somebody call them out on ignoring their enemies and wasting time in mid-battle, or have them realize their mistake and decide to do better next time.

Mistake #2: Staying silent, even when honesty would get better results

The scenario:
Remember that time when Spider-Man missed Mary Jane’s play because he got in an accident? And instead of telling her what happened, he just stood around looking awkward and apologetic, and letting her think he didn’t care enough to try to get there on time?

Characters often have reasons to tell lies or half-truths. But sometimes, they withhold a perfectly innocent and understandable truth for no apparent reason or lie even when it’s immediately obvious that telling the truth would create a better outcome for everyone.

What it’s used for:
This tactic is often used by writers who want to create comedic misunderstandings, keep a character in the dark, or cause angst. All good and worthy goals – but not at the cost of stretching plausibility or frustrating the audience.

A smarter thing to do instead:
If a character must withhold the truth, make sure there’s a plausible, in-character reason for them to do so.

And if they lie even when there’s no good reason to, I recommend incorporating that into their personality.

Maybe something happened in their past that made them afraid to let people know anything about themselves. Perhaps they enjoy the pity party that comes from being misunderstood, or they see themselves as a misunderstood person and subconsciously try to create that reality. Or maybe they have a saviour complex that makes them reluctant to reveal anything that could make other people worry about them.

If your character has a good reason to be secretive, by all means, use it to give them an extra layer of depth.

But if there simply is no reason for them not to tell the truth, I recommend using some creativity and finding a better source of angst, comedy or tension.

Mistake #3: Saying there’s no time to explain when there obviously is

The scenario:
Character A needs Character B to do something. B wants to know the reason behind A’s request, but according to A, “There’s no time to explain”… even though the explanation would have taken less time than the resulting argument did.

There have been times when I’ve seen characters claim that the situation was too complicated to explain, or that the explanation would take too long when I could think for ten seconds and come up with an explanation that would take ten words or less.

So why is arguing about explanations so much more appealing to some characters than simply explaining themselves?

What it’s used for:
Sometimes, it’s simply a lazy way for the writer to get out of having to come up with a concise explanation. (Pro tip: don’t be that writer.) Other times, they may want to show that Character B trusts Character A, even though A doesn’t trust B enough to give them the truth.

It could also be that the writer doesn’t know how B would react, so they don’t give them anything to react to. An understandable reason – but still a cheap cop-out.

A smarter thing to do instead:
As with the second mistake, if a character is going to withhold the truth, make sure there’s a good reason for them to do so.

Maybe Character A knew that Character B would do something stupid if they knew the truth, or the truth would be so devastating that B wouldn’t be able to function for a while, so they had a good reason for keeping them in the dark.

Maybe A feels guilty about the truth and doesn’t want B to know about their mistake. Or A could be bad at concise explanations – but if that’s the case, I suggest making that an established part of their personality, rather than something that conveniently pops up for a scene and then disappears.

If they’re communicating over a distance, you could also have their communications system break down after A gives the request, before they can give an explanation.

Alternatively, A might not have B’s best interests at heart, or if they do, they might know that B still wouldn’t agree with what they’re doing if they knew the whole truth, so they could be withholding information to get cooperation that B wouldn’t give if B knew what was going on. Either that or you could simply have Character A give a ten-word explanation, thus preventing an argument and letting the plot move on with its life.

Mistake #4: Letting the turncoat go

The scenario:
The protagonists have a traitor in their midst. This person has already done some damage, is working for a party who plans to cause more harm, and has shown no signs of repenting.

So what do our heroes do?

Do they kill the turncoat before they can cause more damage?

Do they at LEAST lock the traitor in a cell, and give them no way of communicating with the outside world?

No – they give an excuse like “enough blood has been spilled on his account,” and then let the dangerous liability go so that MORE blood can be spilled as a result.

What it’s used for:
If the traitor has information that you want your villain to have, it may be tempting to let them deliver their message.

You might also want to show that the heroes are kind and honourable people who show mercy to their enemies, even if it puts them – and, less morally, innocent people – in danger.

A smarter thing to do instead:
If you want the traitor to get their message to the villain, you could have them subtly weave that information into their conversation with the protagonists after they’re caught, while surreptitiously transmitting the whole thing.

Or they could have a backup spy who’s been instructed to listen to their final conversation if they get caught, and pass it on to their master.

And if you want to show that the heroes are merciful, you could have them lock the traitor up, tranquilize them, or otherwise restrain them until either the current crisis has been dealt with or they’re no longer a threat.

Mistake #5: Using a long-range weapon in melee range

The scenario:
How many times have you seen a supposedly smart or skilled character have a gun taken out of their hands because, for some reason, they thought they needed to bring their long-range weapon within striking distance of their target?

Probably far too many.

While a closer target is easier to shoot, this benefit is completely negated when the gunman no longer has anything to shoot with. On top of that, now that their enemy has their gun, the gun’s original owner is the one within easy shooting range.

This is especially egregious when the character whose gun is being stolen is supposed to be a tactical genius, and they KNOW that their target is skilled in hand-to-hand combat.

So why would a character make such an obvious mistake?

What it’s used for:
Sometimes, the writer’s desire to disarm a character overrides the character’s established skills, personality, and intellect. The person doing the disarming couldn’t plausibly make it across the room without being shot, so the gunman nobly sacrifices their own intelligence for the sake of the plot.

Pro tip #2: Don’t be that writer.

A smarter thing to do instead:
If you really need the gun to change hands, here are a few smarter ways to do it:

  1. Have a turncoat – not the one they needlessly set loose, please – or one of the target’s allies disarm the gunman.
  2. Have the unarmed person kick their shoe at the gunman, either knocking the gun out of their hand or setting them off-balance long enough that the weapon can be stolen.
  3. Have the gun thief rush them abruptly, ducking and dodging as they do. This is an opportunity to showcase the opponent’s skill and agility, rather than reducing the shooter’s intelligence.
  4. An outside force, such as an earthquake or a shot to the ship they’re standing on, could throw the shooter off balance long enough for their gun to be taken.

Writing plausibly smart characters is a challenge, but it’s worth it.

Sometimes, when you really want Character X to do Action Y, it’s tempting just to have them do it, even if it doesn’t make sense.

But if you want your story to be the best it can be, it’s important to give every character good reasons for the actions they take, or to change the actions, so they match the characters’ skills and personalities.

I’ve had times when I wanted a character to do something that initially made no sense… and in the process of figuring out the reasons for their actions, I created plot threads, character traits, and new depths to the story that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.

Not only did the plot hole get patched, but the patch itself made the whole story better, in ways that went far beyond simply not making the audience roll their eyes.

What foolish things do you often see fictional characters do?

How could the writers or characters achieve the same goal in a smarter and more plausible way?

I look forward to your comments!

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Stephanie O'Brien

About the Author

Stephanie O'Brien

Stephanie O’Brien is a lifelong fiction author who loves experimenting with different genres, subverting common clichés and tropes, and picking stories apart to see what makes them work and how they could be better. To see more writing tips, as well as Stephanie’s novels, comics and music videos, visit her on her website.

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