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I love creating characters, and for me it’s been the joy of writing for however long I’ve been doing it. I have maybe three or four unfinished projects which house characters whom I love, and they’re like little pieces of me and those around me. (I’m working hard to finish one of these in particular) Recently I got an idea for another book—and I don’t think that’s a bad thing, I like a break from my other story sometimes—and I was super interested in this certain character idea. But... once I tried putting it on the page, all of the characters I had thought up seemed super unnatural and even unlikeable. I don’t understand why it’s not working. I used to throw out characters and they would have instant chemistry.

What can I do when this happens with my characters? Perhaps I just hit a bad idea and should throw it away? Thanks to anyone who answers or comments.

  • "Has this happened to any of you?" isn't really a question that can be constructively answered; "yes, it has" would technically be an answer, but I doubt it would help you. I changed it to "What can I do when this happens?", which appears to match the existing answers and can hopefully be answered more directly based on experience. Feel free to Edit further, but I encourage you to keep in mind our subject scope and the advice in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective. – a CVn Aug 22 at 15:01
  • How has your writing process changed? Making this question more about that might make it more answerable in an objective sense. – Neil Fein Aug 22 at 15:29
  • As frustrating as it can be to hit blocks like this, it's not wasted effort. Sometimes pieces that are leaden in one context become gold in another. Try this post for a perspective on this. – Rrr Aug 25 at 1:59
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I quote Natalie Goldberg a lot because I love how, in Writing Down The Bones, she talks about ideas like compost. You throw in all the kitchen scraps and dead leaves and give them time to break down. Given enough time, they develop into beautiful compost that’s like gold for your garden.

Maybe you just need to give your story and characters a bit more time to ‘compost’ in your mind.

Character is driven by action. Who they are as people is defined by the choices they make and the actions they take. That is, you don’t tell a reader your character has a hard time making decisions, you put them in situations where their lack of decision making leaves them paralysed.

Perhaps, if you give your story time to grow, your characters will develop out of the situations you write them into. Try flipping things on their head and have them react in unexpected ways. As your story develops, your characters will too.

Sometimes, the harder a story is to write, the more complex and rich it becomes. But those stories take more time than others. The decisions and actions taken harder to make, and the characters deeper and more three-dimensional as a result.

So, I wouldn’t rush into writing it off as a bad idea. Perhaps work on finishing the others while you give this one the time it needs to ‘compost’. It could end up being the best thing you’ve ever written.

Good luck!

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It has happened to me. But I went with it. I made the characters really unlikeable. I think I was in an angry state of mind and I needed someone to vent on. It was interesting because eventually I humanized them and found small things that I could relate to.

I still didn't like them all that much, but they were not as flat.

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In my experience, characters generally feel flat and unnatural when they're there to fill a role in the story, instead of being allowed to act like themselves. Meaning, the events are written the way the author wants rather than the way the character wants.

The result is a character who is more puppet than person. (You've probably seen them before - the unconvincing villain who's there mainly to make the hero look good, the love interest who has no chemistry with the MC because he's meant primarily as a plot device.)

Sometimes, it helps to step back and try to let your characters write the story instead. Pretend there's no plot for a moment - drop your characters into the scenario you've set up, and let things play out the way they would want. You may find you need to tweak the plot, or abandon the character and create a new one. (If you're having trouble, I've also found it helpful to take the characters out of the story completely and drop them into situations they might never experience otherwise. How do they react to being stuck in a traffic jam? A difficult co-worker? etc.)

In summary: Make sure you're writing your characters as people, not as plot devices.

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I have that happening to me, too. But you should draw a line between 'unlikable' and 'flat'.

In my stories I have characters that are total assholes I would never ever want to meet in real life. But they are never flat! They have something that made them who they are now - even if it's just their character of being a totally selfish jackass with no empathy whatsoever.

What may be the challenge you're facing on the other hand might come from the fact that you are jumping between stories. It might be an aversion driven by your subconsciousness because you acuse your new characters of luring you away from all the others of which you still have and want to tell the full story. But that's just a guess tbh...

It is also possible that not 'liking' them is your gut telling you that there is something off with their personality, something that just doesn't add up or has no logical explanation. Not of the kind like somebody disliking pineapples for whatever reason, but more like someone shy stepping up as the hero in a deus ex machina way and not as logical development of his character.

Just my two cents...

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