Being a Better Writer: Avoiding One-Note Character Pitfalls

Welcome back readers! It’s Monday, and you all know what that means!

Also, brief news, just a refresher, but LTUE, the writing con to beat all writing cons, is coming! Be there if you can!

But, before we get started, I need to issue a warning. No, not a news warning, but a warning about today’s post. Why? Because some people are going to find it controversial. Or, if they stop in the first few moments and don’t go past the opening, perhaps even “offensive.” Largely because they didn’t bother to read further and will be upset with the opening example, real as it may be. But I promise there’s a purpose and a point to it, though it will touch on an area of writing these days that will immediately make hackles rise. So just push through it, all right? It’ll make sense.

Okay, so to start with on today’s topic, I’m going to give you a character bio. Now, this character bio is real, a composite of several dozen real character bios across the web from various sources. But with one detail flipped. Which, as soon as you read it, you’ll likely pick up on. In fact, these bios (and the stories that resulted) were what prompted this post. Ready? Here we go. Again, this is a composite bio, built out of real bios, with one thing flipped, and once you see it, you’ll get it.

NAME: Bjorn the Mighty
Age: 37
About: Bjorn the Mighty prefers sex with women.

Okay, do I even need to ask? It’s pretty obvious what’s wrong with that bio. It consists of nothing more than who this character wants to have sex with, a name, and an age. There is literally nothing else save the inference from the “the mighty” part of their name.

If you’d like to know what I flipped from the real bios this is based on, it’s … Well, it’s which sex Bjorn likes to have sex with. And I can hear torches and pitchforks coming out from here, folks, hold up, hold up. Put the axes down. Stop revving the engines.

The point isn’t that someone “isn’t allowed” to flip that so that it says “Bjorn the mighty prefers with men.” The point is that too many authors as of late have fallen into a trap of letting that be the only point to the character’s character.

But I flipped it because when it comes across in a way we’re familiar with criticizing, the problem is obvious. Few are going to enjoy a character who’s defining attribute is given only as “prefers sex with the opposite sex” because there isn’t any actual character there. What they are is instead what’s known as a “one-note character,” or character that only brings one thing to the table, and one thing only.

Now, this isn’t generally a problem with someone that’s a dedicated background character. There are plenty of one-note character in books, movies, and other media (even my own) that show up only once or twice and have an easily identifiable trait that boils to the surface. Are they one note? Yes. But the audience doesn’t spend much time with them, so we’re okay with what we get.

However, the more time we spend with a one-note character, the less versatile that note becomes. That’s the source of the term, actually. In a symphony, orchestrated in a large group where they’re supposed to fall into the background and not have the spotlight on them, a “one-note player” can perform just fine. You can give them a bass-line that never changes if it’s just the same one-note over and over again, but then what happens if the rest of the symphony is taken away? Or the spotlight shines on that player for a solo?

They can’t perform. All they have is that one note to hit over and over and over again.

That’s what happens when writers and creators fall into the trap of creating a one-note character. The moment they need a reaction to the story, or a plot point, or even another character … there’s nothing to fall back on save that one-note the audience already knows. What results is a character who makes the same tired quip every time, or always has the same reaction to every circumstance.

Or, actually, worse, inconsistently bounces all over like an out of control pinball because the creator has no real understanding of the character’s motivations, goals, or objectives. What do they want? Why are they here? What are they working toward? Do they have any background? Who knows!? Not the creator! And so the character flounders from point to point, sometimes developing into a halfway cohesive character by the end, but more often than not never going anywhere.

As you can imagine, this is unsatisfying to read. Unenjoyable even. Are you familiar with the character of Jar Jar Binks? Well, consider for a moment that Binks wasn’t one note, but rather had one aspect of his personality emphasized to the degree that people quickly got sick of him despite there being some other elements to his character … and now imagine what that means for one note characters.

So then, with that in mind, why did I start today’s post with the example I did? Well, as I said, it’s because that’s a character bio modeled directly on some very real ones people have created, but with only one aspect flipped: which sex they’re interested in.

In other words, because one of the common “one-note character pitfalls” that’s been cropping up lately is to declare a character’s sexuality as their only character trait and then just … go with it. What results is … well to put it nicely a mess, as characters become utterly indistinguishable from one another, inconsistent in their own behavior, and generally bounce around haphazardly with only one constant between them: Who they’re interested in getting down with. And that … can’t really carry a good story save in the hands of a very talented author (it’s the old adage of “it takes a good actor to play a bad one”).

Now, before we dive into some of these more common pitfalls, including the ones that spawning this post, I want to discuss why I call them “pitfalls.” A pitfall is a trap, a dangerous, deadly one, that is disguised to look like a safe path. Or in other words, does if you haven’t brought your rogue along to look for obvious traps.

So it’s something that looks safe and looks fine to someone who’s inexperienced, only to catch them by surprise when it’s (usually) far too late to do something about it. Which, in the case of character writing, means that the story/project grinds to a halt, or loses all its readers.

That’s why I use the term for these one-note characters. Because while they’re one-note and will run into all the problems that come with that, the pitfall part comes in where they’re appealing enough for one reason or another that the novice writer, not knowing of the trap, will gladly head down the path until its too late.

Then their story and their characters crash and burn, the audience leaves (or, seeing the pitfall, never shows up) and the writer quits, sometimes for good, and almost never with an understanding of what went wrong.

Okay, so in other words, a one-note pitfall is when an author is enticed to make a character one-note by some appealing factor that causes them to overlook the problems that a more seasoned eye would notice. So then, what are some of these pitfalls? Why do they draw people in? Can they be salvaged once they’ve been committed to? Well, you can probably guess what one of the first ones we’re going to discuss is—

  • The character is ______ sexuality

Fill in the blank with whatever you want, this one is a pitfall. But a lot of writers, young and new, don’t see it as one because of the social movements around it.

See, there’s a real push for sexual representation in media these days. This is the first part of the pitfall, because the new creator sees this push and identifies it as “the most important thing” for their character. And it’s not hard to see why. Just yesterday I was on a forum talking about the “sexuality push” and how important it was that characters be gay or bi. But because that’s the only aspect so many of these forums and focus on, new writers (and even some experienced ones) fall into the mistaken assumption that it’s all they need, and that things will just “write themselves” once they make a character LGBT.

Then they get into their story, and discover how wrong they are. Unfortunately, it takes a bit, making the fall all the worse, because those same people who are only focusing on LGBT themes in fiction will instantly praise any media that then portrays it. This aren’t incorrect in their doing so, after all, if I want a story with proper hacking, I’m going to be interested in a story that does hacking properly. They want a story with LGBT themes and they get one? Well, they’re going to be happy.

The pitfall is that there often are no other themes or ideas for these characters. Or even general design, so despite the early praise, as soon as plot becomes a requirement, the story falls apart because there aren’t any character aspects to support it. There are no additional notes for a character to play when their only note is “I’m [insert whichever sexuality they are here]” is their only trait.

Again, no pitchforks please. I started this blog with the example of Bjorn the Mighty because it’s very obvious how one-note that character is and how little character there is to make use of without further development. But the pitfall of the examples it was based on is to encourage creators to dive ahead anyway and persist until it was too late.

Real example: I read something recently, back in December, that had a bio page. There were six characters, two primary, and four secondary. Would you like to guess what each only listed trait was for these characters?

I’d imagine you’ve got it. The only trait listed for any of them was their sexuality. Gay or bi.

What happened in the story? These characters were all over the place. There was very little consistency to be had among them, to the degree that many were interchangeable, and the only way to keep them straight (unintentional pun, I assure you) was to constantly check back with the cast page.

Why? Because it was an entire band of one-note characters. So any time any of them were asked to play an instrument that wasn’t part of that one note … they floundered. They were inconsistent. Their personalities changed on a whim. The story in one moment bucked like a wild horse and in the next floundered like a fish out of water. Because there was nothing else to go off of but the initial prompt of the story (person needs apartment, finds new roommate) and their sexual interests.

But because LGBT issues are so talked about these days, and so pushed in media of all kinds, it becomes an incredibly easy one-note pitfall for creators to fall into. The reaction is of immediate approval, concealing the issues ahead … but if they were to stop and “look for traps” they’d realize that no one creates a character who’s only defining feature is “this character is straight” because that’s not nearly enough to go off of.

Okay, so that was hopefully enough of an explanation to put the torches out. So, how do you get around this pitfall? You expand. There’s more to anyone than just who they’d like to hop into bed with or romance. There are hobbies, there are other interests. There are all sorts of character destinations, starting points, personalities to go for! So go for them! Maybe they like puzzles. Or dream of owning a small farm. Or a business of some kind! Give them personality! Give them drive! Ambition! Goals!

All right, but what about other common pitfalls. Sexuality may have been the one that kicked this off, but there are plenty of other one-note pitfalls authors and creators fall into. So how about—

  • The character is very powerful/hypercompetent

Oh, is this a common one. And a terrible pitfall.

Okay, so why is it a pitfall? What’s so appealing about it? Well, it appeals to the power fantasy inside of each one of us. The idea that we’re always in control, that we’re tough enough or capable enough to do anything … Well, we’re wired to like the sound of that. I mean, who wouldn’t, right?

It also plays into the idea that “might makes right” which for a lot of young, would-be writers looking to write action stories feels like a good direction to take. Especially as the more competent or powerful the character, the more ludicrous and over the top the action can be. And that’s good, right?

Well, no. While the powerful/hypercompetent character looks appealing because it allows of all sorts of impressive “set pieces” for fights, and allows the character to be constantly escalating the action and fights, it has two very large shortcomings. The first is that it doesn’t actually account for personality and character at all. “They’re tough” is an interesting character attribute, but without further exploration, doesn’t give us much to work with down the road. It sounds appealing, but without going further, doesn’t actually deliver much.

AKA, a pitfall.

For example, let’s look at the character of the titular Terminator from Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Yes, they’re a very powerful character, hypercompetent in their particular area, and “tough.” But if you think about it, was that what made the character compelling? Well, outside of the action scenes, where the trait is put to good use. But what about outside of it? Where did their character come from?

Well, it came from subverting this very trait and pointing out its weaknesses, missteps and follies when taken to a literal extreme. You have a machine that’s built for killing, so what does John Connor do? He gives it the order not to kill anyone. Suddenly the few notes of what the character is become a barricade they have to work around. And this helps the character become memorable. Their strength in story isn’t their power and hypercompetence. It’s working around that strength and hypercompetence to all the areas where the character isn’t proficient in any way.

In other words, this is a character that succeeds because their journey is about getting out of the pitfall they’ve been created in. And because it was done skillfully, we remember it.

And in a way, it’s a guide to not falling into the same pitfall ourselves. To be clear, there isn’t anything wrong with creating a character that is powerful/talented/hypercompetent at a range of things. But we need to look past what they’re skilled or competent at. We need to remember to look where they are weak.

And that’s what this pitfall distracts from. It’s fun to think of all the battles our character will have and emerge victorious from. So fun that many simply leap ahead, without stopping to think about anything else. That’s the pitfall: The fun distracts from the weaknesses of the character to anything that isn’t going to be related to those fun fights we’re thinking about.

It can even be a pitfall of the power-fantasy angle, where new writers get so caught up in the “winning” victory that the characters never even face struggle or setback because hey, the action is cool right? And they’re tough, and the protagonist, so they should win. Personality? Winning!

I jest … but only slightly. I’ve read stories with this sort of protagonist.

So, how can we avoid this pitfall? Well, I’d suggest two things. For one, any character that’s skilled highly or very powerful, I’d ask what they’re like outside of that immediate element. Are they skilled at political social maneuvering? What if you stick them on a farm, with animals, where none of that skill helps? Are they a buttkicking martial artist in the ring? How do they handle having kids? Or what if they’re just a so-so martial artist, but need practice?

Don’t make the character’s only defining attribute their “power” and run ahead. Yes, it feels good. but you can write yourself into a corner if you’re not careful, delivering only one feature and one feature only.

It’s a good starting point, but don’t let it be the only starting point.

  • No one understands them.

Okay, this one is a lot more prevalent in a certain age-group of fiction (teenage) but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a pitfall that a lot of writers still stumble into. I still see this one hanging around in a lot of fiction, and yes, it is a pitfall. Why? Because it sounds complete, but once you start down that path, guess what? Not even the author understands them.

This is a pitfall because “no one understands them” is an easy start to a story. You have a character that’s an outcast (which, given the audience creating these, is often familiar). That’s a start into making friends, or having an adventure, etc. And so fresh writers will often charge ahead.

Then the pitfall hits. They have to decide something about their character. But all they really know is that they character isn’t understood. Because in charging ahead, they forgot to ask why the character isn’t understood. What is it about the that makes them a social pariah? Why aren’t they friends with anyone?

Answering those questions can be enough on its own to kick off an entire adventure (and sure enough plenty have been) but the pitfall here is that most people don’t because “No one understands them” has just enough story power to get things started. It’s like starting a hike that looks easy and simply and then after the first few turns becomes a grueling experience meant for the conditioned hiker.

The best way to avoid this pitfall? Don’t dive for the easy path. Step back and ask the basic, simple questions: Who doesn’t understand them? Why do they not understand them? Is it because one side doesn’t want to talk to the other? Is the character unapproachable? What do they do that makes them such?

Okay, that’s end of some of the hands-on examples because I think by now you’ve spotted a trend. Each one of them is solved by simply spending more time thinking about characters and digging deeper past a “false start.” Which really is the best way to avoid any character pitfall: Don’t start the moment you think you’ve got everything you need, especially if what you have looks suspiciously sparse. Instead, take a moment to work through it. What else do you know about a character? What do they like to do? What are they working towards? What are their relationships with family like? How does this influence their day to day life?

Avoid the pitfalls of one-note characters by making sure that your characters are never running off of a single point. Let them be a band, not a part of a symphony. Develop them.

Now, a final aside here, as I can hear some of you panicking. You’re thinking this sounds all well and good for planners, but what about pantsers? Those folks that make it up as they go along?

You can still avoid one-note characters by continuing to make it up. Don’t stop with the first thing that defines your new protagonist and never go further. Keep pushing! Look for new angles! Ask questions about the why, or the what, and then write moments that answer those questions as you get going.

Just don’t make a one-note character your protagonist. When the time comes to solo … they’ll fall. Ask questions, make answers, and give them depth. Don’t be tempted by the pitfalls of a one-note rush.

Good luck, now get writing!


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