Genesis 2:7—And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
Aha—gotcha! You’ve heard that phrase, too—most likely in a list of writing sins. And you may have wondered, as I did early in my writing career…what is a cardboard character?
We’re more likely not to create one if we know what it is we’re trying to avoid, so lets’ figure it out together. Shall we start with the basics?
Here’s what I know about cardboard. I know that it is:
- Inanimate (A totally inert substance—uninteresting, unmoving, flat)
- Man-made (Therefore, lifeless and not “natural”)
- Flimsy; thin
- Sometimes useful, but ultimately a throw-away material
a. Flimsy; insubstantial
b. Lacking depth; superficial
Enlightening? Not! We knew all of that just by looking at the stuff! It appears there’s simply not much to say about cardboard….
Neither is there much to say about a cardboard character.
They have little substance or depth. And while we might use them as “extra” characters in our books, we certainly don’t want the hero or heroine to fall into the category of a “throwaway.”
So how do we avoid it? That’s easy…the same way God avoided making His prize creation a robotic, lifeless machine: He breathed the breath of life into them.
We can do that too, every time, if we never forget that every human being in this world has certain things in common.
- They have a past, complete with memories, mistakes, joy and sorrow, failures and successes. No one just “poofed” into existence as a new, fully grown human being. (Well, Adam and Eve are exceptions to that rule, but only by divine decree.)
- They have a family—from which they might be estranged or even the sole living member, but they have now or had relatives at one time.
- They are a unique combination of the good, the bad, and the ugly. No one is always right, or always wrong. Only God is perfect. Only Satan is pure, unadulterated evil, with no redeeming qualities.
- They have personality traits that help define them. Many folks are introverted, others are extroverts. One person might be consistently pessimistic, while her neighbor always sees the glass half full. Some people seem to wake up in the morning with a smile on their faces—and fall into bed at night wearing that same pleasant expression. Others would very likely break a cheekbone if their frown turned upside down. People are quiet or loud; jolly or morose; lazy or energetic; scholarly or unlearned. And the list goes on
- They have a God-sized void within them that can only be filled by their Creator—that’s why it’s there. (Especially important for inspirational writers to never forget.)
Could we add more to the list?Sure, but I think the point is made. Characters who do not reflect one or all of the above are not “well-rounded,” meaning “complete, realistic, and believable.” They are, in fact, flat—like cardboard; insubstantial—like cardboard; and potentially discardable…ouch!
The taxi driver who gives your heroine a lift from her job to her apartment might be a cardboard character. Your reader won’t know anything about him, other than that he drives a cab. They won’t care that he has a wife at home and sixteen kids scattered across the city. His religious affiliations are unimportant. Nothing about him matters to your reader except that he knows his way from point A to point B and can deliver the heroine safely to her destination. The only exception to this would be if this same taxi driver will show up later in the story in a more substantial role.
Readers don’t care about this person because you haven’t put them into his mind and under his skin. Hopefully that was a deliberate ploy on your part.
On the other hand, if your reader doesn’t feel a connection to your hero and heroine, they will never lose themselves in your story. In a well-written storyline, the reader will become the heroine—or the hero, whatever is appropriate. But it’s difficult to take on the role of a character who has told us nothing about herself.
I can’t make myself at home in her apartment if I don’t know that her décor is 1950s garage sale grunge. I cannot feel her pain at losing a parent if I didn’t know she had one until you—the creator of the world I’m reading in—dropped that death on me from out of nowhere. I won’t connect with her on an emotional level if I don’t know that she was date raped in high school, ostracized for being overweight in college…or treated like a princess all her life and fed out of a silver spoon. Whatever her life has been prior to the opening scene, certain aspects of it should be planted in my mind through dialogue, memories, hang-ups and habits. Don’t dump information on me all at once—I don’t want to be smothered by it. Show me what I need to see about this character by planting slow, steady seeds of information. Use subtlety, but be relentless. Make me intimately acquainted with your main characters.
Characters are often based on bits and pieces of real people. (Just be careful that you don’t paint your boss into your book so vividly that he can’t be mistaken in the role of a criminally insane pedophile. You could very well find yourself on the ugly end of a lawsuit.) No writer should ever be without a notebook. Learn to be a deliberate people watcher. Jot notes at the mall, eavesdrop on the table behind you in the restaurant, study faces and actions at your child’s baseball game. While you watch television at night, describe the characters’ facial expressions, physical attributes, and body language.
Did one character habitually do something with his hands that told you who was onscreen even if only the hands were shown? Maybe he rolled a quarter through his fingers; perhaps he cracked his knuckles; he may have snapped the tip of one fingernail against his tooth.
Did the heroine have an annoying, hyena-like laugh? Did her entire persona change when a man walked in the room? Was she self-confident…or did she seem to lack self-esteem? What told you that about her? I can almost guarantee you didn’t find out because she mouthed the words, “I don’t have any self-confidence.”
Think about your favorite television series, the one you’re so familiar with that you tend to forget the people are fictional. How much do you know about your favorite character on that show?
I watch Cold Case fairly often. I know that Lilly Rush has issues from her past. Her mother was an alcoholic, and Lilly was ashamed of her. Her dad disappeared when Lilly was very young, and she blamed herself. Because of that dysfunctional family life, she has commitment issues. No romantic relationship lasts long. Her job is her life. Her home is simply a place to sleep. Her closest friends are the men she works with, and even them she keeps at arm’s length.
In appearance, Lilly is probably the palest woman I’ve ever seen, and her light blonde hair only adds to that ghost-like pallor. Her lips seem almost undefined to me—blurry, as if God forgot to finish shaping them. She’s thin to the point of anorexia, and dresses mostly in dark, tailored clothing.
I could go on, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that I know all these things about Lilly through brief tidbits of dialogue, short flashback scenes, her reactions to specific situations, and simple observation.
How well can your readers describe your main character? Have you provided the “breath of life” that will make her a “living soul” to someone who picks up your book looking for a romantic escape.
If not, then toss out the cardboard pieces and start over. If she has enough bulk to make discarding her feel like murder, then flesh her out and make her real.
If you miss him after you type “the end,” he’s substantial. When you pass someone in town and do a double-take because she reminds you of your heroine, you’ve done something right. When she walks off your page and into your heart, she’s much more than cardboard.
She’s the fictional “living soul” you intended to create.
© 2010 Delia Latham
Adam's Wings (coming 12/2010)
Adam's Wings (coming 12/2010)