Let’s start with a thought experiment: Tony and Katie are having a conversation about politics and Tony says something about how to run a government. Katie responds negatively, “That’s pretty dumb” and attempts to break down what Tony said.
Tony tries to backtrack and says, “Yeah, I don’t really agree with it either. So-and-so said it.” Tony hasn’t demonstrated his own voice.
Often people will share an idea (that someone else said) and they think is good, only to quickly detach from it when others dislike it. What does that say about the individual? Sure, sometimes they might be playing devil’s advocate and trying to help the conversation along, sometimes they don’t mean to appear as taking that standpoint and were purely just saying something they heard, but too often, especially in fiction, is it simply what it appears to be: not having one’s own voice.
A character having their own voice is essential to defining them. Even the most timid, shy, or quiet individuals have original thoughts. Having a voice gets the reader to know and understand the character, for good or for evil, and a solid relationship is formed. Having a character with a blank personality, as in not caring either way or constantly changing their viewpoints, will irritate and frustrate readers. They’re just there. The actions of such a character will be ignored and their words won’t carry any weight, simply because they have no depth or no opinion.
Sometimes it’s good to have a character unsure of which “side” to take, several stories have been successful with that (Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Chronicles of Narnia), but many writers either fail to develop their character in other situations (giving them depth and illustrating opinions they’ve had in the past), or just don’t give them critical thinking skills (blank personality).
If a character isn’t going to struggle with a heavy decision, weighing pros and cons, examining possible outcomes and consequences, don’t include the big decision in the story.
Another issue I’ve seen, primarily in stories that don’t take place on Earth, is when writers create characters just so they can be quoted.
Example: Main character speaks, “The philosopher Marcus Kampoodle once said, ‘the state of a city is the same as the state of the hearts of those who dwell in it.’ Now that I live in a broken city, I see there’s some truth to it.” (Marcus Kampoodle is never mentioned again.)
This issue isn’t just in books but is present in several forms of storytelling, like movies or videogames (Diablo III being one of the offenders.)
Creating a character for a brief moment of inspiration only to be used by someone else is just bad writing.
- Why should I care about Marcus Kampoodle if he is never mentioned again and has never been mentioned prior?
- Do I care more about an individual because they quoted someone? Absolutely not. They don’t have any more depth than they already had at that point.*
- Would the character be more real, have more personality, if they themselves said what Marcus Kampoodle said? Yes.
*The individual will develop depth as they incorporate the quote further into their lives and apply it.
If you’re going to create a character to just be “quoted” by someone else – stop. Don’t do it. Don’t waste your time thinking of a name and do not waste your readers time by providing cheap and fake character development.
It’s perfectly fine for a character to quote someone if:
- The individual being quoted actually plays a major role in the story.
- The quote is reflected on and becomes part of the character’s “DNA”.
Breathe life into your characters! Give them original thoughts! Show how they own up to what they say! Don’t leave the profound statements to wispy, half-baked philosophers like Marcus Kampoodle, let your characters be profound. Let them define themselves.
Standing on the shoulders of others means to build on them and use what they’ve provided, not to live in their shadows.