Writing Fictional Characters: Interesting vs Developed

So before I started Knotty Magpie, I had tested the waters with a creative writing blog. I’m probably lacking some authority here since I’ve never been published, but here’s what I do have to show for my love of fiction. I grew up an avid reader, and I still listen to books as often as I can in the car. I try to think about television and movies the way I’d think about books as well, when they call for that type of thought. I’ve been an online role player since middle school (oh lord the horror stories I could tell you about that…) but the brunt of it is, fiction has always played a very strong role in my life, and I’m confident enough to say I’ve learned quite a lot from writing, online writing, cooperative writing, and just reading in general.

I also used to be assigned the task of reviewing character applications for a popular role play community, so I was the one who went through and nitpicked and helped people develop characters that other people would actually want to interact with. More on this later, but I figured I should finally implement creative writing into this blog. General tips and advice, for novice writers and people who just want to take a moment and possibly think about something they may not have thought about before, for their own writing or just reading pleasure. This is one of those posts I’ll try to keep neutral for people who want to write stories as well as for role players.

So, this is something that I never thought needed to be said, but it’s one of the most common mistakes new writers and role players seem to make. A lot. Like, A LOT. It’s an immediate red flag for most people who have been in RP communities before. Basically it involves a writer mistaking an “interesting detail” for “character development”.  Here’s a quick guide on the difference between a character being interesting, and being well-developed. Let’s start with the most obvious trope of all time:


Don’t get me wrong, of course some people have scars, but if the extent of your character is that there’s a bit of pink tissue on their face, you ought to consider jazzing him up a bit. I love the scar example because it touches on so many bad habits of writers who start out new characters. Keep in mind that RP and traditional writing are not always the same, but here’s the bottom line:

To be interesting is easy. A character who has a large facial scar is “interesting” looking. But this word is so utterly flat and boring! Interesting, but with what emotion? Characters should make us think about real people, even if those people are larger than life or borderline unbelievable. So yes, you have a scar and it makes your face look different from other faces. But…

To be well-developed is to have substance: to put emotion and purpose into a character. A round character is one which will respond to different stimuli in different ways. No badass is badass all the time, and no silly girl would meet everything with a smile and a joke. A facial scar has no substance unless it contributes to the development of the character. The cop-out being, “he’s so dark and intriguing and different” but hey, it’s better than nothing. To expand on this, we need to separate into categories.

For Role Play

Character creation is the most important part of role playing, but things like instigation, conversation flow, and maintaining interest are key. If your character is interesting but undeveloped, they might have the most wonderful back story, but not practical use value in RP. Your RP will be limited to “Ask me about my scaaars!” and at this point your partner asks you and you copy and paste your back story, they offer a post of reaction, and the RP is dead. Good job, you and your crappy character killed it. It is unfair to your partner to insist on this sort of RP, because it is demanding attention for your character and their backstory, while offering nothing to the partner. Who would want to engage with that?

But, really, if you can use a scar or injury to the benefit of your character, that’s a different story. I’ve instigated with one of my characters who is missing a limb, by putting him in a tavern and making him ask people to uncork his bottles for him. So, in this case, the injury contributes to instigation. Then, with the door open, we can share personalities and RP the actually interesting parts of the character, which are his outlooks, quirks, morals, and behaviors. I was pleasantly surprised to see myself play this character for months before anyone actually asked how he’d lost his arm; in no way was the loss of his arm his defining feature, but it added interest to an already developed character.

For Creative Writing

In this case, we have a little more liberty, because back story might actually be the motive of the character. When you are writing as one person, you can take as much time as you want on the interesting quirks and physical things about your character, but still ask yourself, “why should they care?” Why do I care about the five pages on how he got his scar, when it adds nothing to the story or the character’s identity? Beware of falling into the trap of prattling on lists of events, rather than plot. The two are not synonymous for enthralling fiction.

On the other side, a mysterious scar can be a fun Easter egg. If someone is described with a scar, and we go through much of the story not understanding where it came from, the final reveal of this scar’s story-relevant origin might actually be very exciting for the reader!

As a great example of scar use, consider Prince Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Always a fan favorite, Zuko’s character is incredibly well developed, and we watch his transformation throughout the seasons as one of the most dynamic characters in young adult fiction. His scar is the key attribute of his face, taking up most of his eye and cheek. This scar was given to him as a mark of shame from his father, and Zuko has made it his mission to capture Aang so that he can return home and be worthy again. So his scar is like a segway into his past, and his past is extremely relevant to his motivations in the present. 

In summation

I know there’s been a lot said about scars, but here are other tropes I’ve seen a heinous amount of:

– Odd colored eyes (yellow, red, purple, silver)

– Being astoundingly thin and/or pale

– Having lots of piercings

– A significant ring or necklace

– Arbitrary loss of limb or eye

– Obsession with object (book, doll, sketch pad)

– Terminal illness (that ultimately never gets around to killing them, but gives a cute little cough now and then)

– Horrendously abusive parent

– Dead family

– Overly-specific or god-like weapon

Bear in mind, any one of these can be a very good tool for development, if done correctly. But the sheer overuse of them has turned me off of most cases. And of course, they all tend to rely heavily on either physical appearance, or esoteric back story. They’re also reminiscent of “Mary Suism” that is, a tragic/beautiful character who lacks any real depth in favor of being hot, endangered, tragic, special snowflake, or any combination thereof. Remember that no one physical description can or should be the basis of your character, or they will ultimately be nothing more than a glorified wall hanger for this attribute. And they’ll be about as entertaining as a clothespin.

I’d love your feedback! Feel free to comment below or share your personal stories of early character development mistakes.



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