Being a Better Writer: Keeping Characters From Being One-Note

Welcome back writers! It’s Monday already, and that means that we’re once again back with another installment of Being a Better Writer. A little late, and I do apologize for that. But there is a lot going on at the moment. That’s right, before we dive into today’s writing topic, I do have some news to reveal and discuss.

First up, today I can officially reveal that A Power in Ink, one of the shorts I wrote last year, has been accepted for the upcoming LTUE Benefit Anthology Troubadours and Space Princesses! Now, this is the collection for 2024, so you won’t be able to get it for a bit of time yet, but it’s on its way!

Second bit of news, also pertaining to a release, but an even bigger and more urgent one—which I left as the second bit of news because most of you likely already know. But here it is again: Starforge is releasing November 29th. That’s right, the third and final installment in the UNSEC Space Trilogy is arriving at last, six years after Colony made its grand debut. And you won’t want to miss it. You can check out more news about that at this link and get some specific details about Starforge, read some excerpts from the first review, go right to the books tab and pre-order a copy, or find some previews (including the latest) at this tag.

Again, Starforge releases November 29th! So get those pre-orders ready!

Now, third bit of news we need to talk about. Once Starforge releases, most of my books will be going up in price. I’ve spoken about this before, but the short of it is that my prices have not changed in almost ten years and no longer reflect the current value of the dollar.

If you’re alarmed, don’t be. The prices will simply be reaching equilibrium with what price point direction I chose when I started publishing back in 2013. Tail-prices will be maintained. There will be a future post about this in the coming weeks explaining the details, but the gist of it is that everything is still going back to the price of a paperback in 1994. It’s just that that is ten years more than it was when I last set my prices.

There’s a second meaning to this, however: If you’re looking to grab something, now is the time. Prices will see a bit of a bump once Starforge is out. A dollar or so for most titles, but it’s still a bump.

All right. One last bit of news, and then we can dive into today’s—quite late—Being a Better Writing post. And this last bit of news is a bit of a downer, actually. But I’ve been having problems with my right wrist and arm. I think it has to do with all the repetitive work of editing on Starforge causing the muscles in my shoulder to tighten and cause a cascading effect down into my forearm, hand, and wrist—and this is the hand and wrist I nearly lost in that workplace accident a few years back, so it has a pre-existing set of scars to amplify that—but the truth is I don’t know and won’t know until I see a doctor. I’m letting all of you know on the chance that it impacts my writing in the weeks ahead. For now, I’m just doing Copy-Edit work on Starforge before release, which is work done with an ebook reader in my hand and moving around taking notes, so that’s all right, but it’s still something I need to keep an eye on. With luck, it’s just an out of position shoulder and getting it taken care of will result in the rest of the arm feeling fine again, but I’m giving a heads-up anyway just in case things take a turn.

Okay. That’s everything. A lot happened over the last week, didn’t it? But we’re all caught up. So, let’s hit the jump, and let’s talk about keeping characters from being one-note.

Well, actually, we’ve got something else to cover first: What is a one-note character, and what makes them that way? We’re figuring out what the problem is before we talk solutions here.

So, what’s a one-note character? You’ve probably encountered them before in fiction, and thankfully that evocative name does a pretty good job summing it up. If all the characters of a story are a band, then the one-note character is the one character in there that cannot play, and so simply blats the same note over and over again amid the symphony of the other cast. You know, sort of like that one student in the middle-school band that never practiced or paid attention and so just hits the one sound they can make whenever they’re supposed to do anything?

As said, the name is apt. One-note characters are the same. Where other characters in a story may show off personality and attributes that are varied and far-ranging, one-note characters have one aspect to their personality or character, and that is it. They are into rocks. Or they are incredibly excitable. Or they’re interested in the ancient ruins the cast is journeying through.

That’s the basis of it: A one-note character is a character who displays only one primary character attribute. Sure, they might have others in the author’s head, but they’re only showing the one.

With us so far? Good. Because we’re going to move past the basics. See, the basic one-note character is exactly what most of you are probably thinking about, IE a character that shows up who only has one primary attribute, and we’re either never shown any other aspect to their character, or the creator just never bothered to flesh them out. That’s the basics.

And, I wish to point out, used properly this can be okay in some scenarios. For example, a one-off character who only appears for a certain scene can sometimes be a bit one-note. If your protagonist is going to exchange a few sentences with a shopkeeper who isn’t in favor of the new ruling liege, for example, you probably don’t need to dive too much into that shopkeeper’s head in order for them to say something to the effect of “No, I don’t like it. All these new rules and new plans. Too much uncertainty these days. I don’t like it at all.”

That is a one-note character, and as our protagonist pays for their purchase and walks away to get on with the story, that’s totally fine. We don’t need to know more in that interaction. The shopkeeper is a vehicle for two things there: Story background, and aiding our protagonist in getting what they needed. Straightforward and simple, and expanding on that, such as by giving the shopkeeper an exposition dump about them when we’ll never see them again, isn’t needed. That said, if it served the story the scene could last more than a few sentences, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea then perhaps to develop the shopkeeper a bit more, but more to our original point, one-note characters can be a useful tool for specific scenes. Sands, as a youth I had a role as a random citizen in a play that literally amounted to a single line: pickpocket.

Point being, some characters are just one-note, and that can be okay. So don’t fret that a character with all of a single line or one appearance that lasts two paragraphs seems one-note: Everyone seems one-note in such a limited interaction. Even if they’re a bit over-the-top, you can work that into a narrative and have it make sense. For example, a character who is really passionate about something in their two-sentence interaction could be followed up by another character explaining as the protagonist leaves “Yeah, they really love their job. They have a lot of enthusiasm for it, but they’re usually a few notches above what everyone else is. Still, they do great work …” It works.

Okay, so a one-note character can be useful and work just fine in a story … provided you use them properly. But that’s usually not what most people are thinking of when they think of one-note characters, and usually why it’s a very negative thing to show up in a review or criticism.

See, one-note characters that are there and gone and never show up again are one thing, but most people aren’t thinking of them when they use “one-note” as a strike against a story. Instead, they’re thinking of two more common—and much more noticeable—errors: Either a character that never has depth past one specific attribute, or a character whose other attributes are swallowed up by a singular attribute being given too much focus.

A character who shows up once, has three lines, and departs the story having one note? That’s fine. But it’s when they’re part of the greater symphony, yet can’t break away, that our audience will start to notice.

So let’s break both of these down, starting with the one-note character that has no depth. When someone says they found a “one-note” character, this is usually what most people think of. It’s a character who really doesn’t have any other traits outside of their core focus. That can be as strange and esoteric as “has a deep love of cheese” or as straightforward and direct as “I’m going to kill the antagonist.”

Problem is, this is a character who’s only character trait is just that. They love cheese. Or they want to kill the antagonist. They’re obsessed with some ancient ruin. Etc etc. Often these characters are played as comic relief, their one-note nature used to make easy jokes that often aren’t that funny. Or they’re not given any additional depth because they’re part of a group of one-note background characters—a set that’s again often for comic relief with the token “smart one, angry one” and so on and so forth.

These characters, unless their appearance is actually as brief as noted above, will always fall flat. They might be funny or interesting the first time the audience interacts with them. But the more the interactions occur and the less character these characters show outside of the gimmick, the flatter and more bland they become as the audience realizes there is nothing more to this character.

How do we fix that? By giving them more. And if you can’t do that, by cutting their appearances down to one, maybe two at most, so that the “gimmick” doesn’t wear thin and the flatness show.

But let’s assume that you want to do the first one. Give these characters more. It doesn’t have to come with life-shattering tragedy, IE the cheese-loving character above doesn’t need to go off on a tragic backstory about how their grandfather used to gift them cheese with every visit and now it’s the only thing that makes them feel like he’s still around. In fact, that’s still stuck on that note. Just playing it with a bit of flair.

No, what we can do is give those characters other notes. Notes that can be with or independent of that lone note they were blatting earlier.

In other words, let other aspects of their character shine a little bit. Maybe pull a few of those one-liners about cheese back and have them talk about something else. They have other interests, hobbies, goals, or concerns, don’t they? Maybe let them get a little light.

Again, presuming that this is a side character, so don’t go overboard. But the solution to keeping them from being one-note is to let their character play some other notes!

Now, let’s talk about the other type of one-note character, because this is the more developed but also sometimes more difficult one-note character to work with. See, what we discussed above was a one-note character that just had the one-note. But this character? They’ve got other notes. Problem is … they’re not using them very much.

Ever read a story with a over-energetic character that’s always doing the wacky thing? Or maybe seen a sitcom, where this kind of character is almost a requirement for airtime?

This is kind of like flanderization, except where flanderized characters move toward having their character consumed by one primary aspect or attribute, this second type of one-note character starts having been consumed by it.

Let’s go back to that cheese character again. Now they do have other aspects of their personality. They’ve got wants and wishes. Goals. They even have … cheese in their pocket!

Haha, so wacky, right?

That’s often what this type of one-note character is like, but non-wacky versions exist as well. Point is, they have other aspects of their character, but they are frequently, really almost always, ignored to instead fixate on this single note of their character. And even if those other parts of them are brought up, very quickly the character will circle back to “Hey, remember this!” as if anyone could forget it when the narrative is shoving it down the audience’s throat.

I see this a lot with some kinds of stories, especially stories with a “that’s so random” character. Quite frequently when the story was about to be serious or having a moment, because the creator panicked and backed out.

Don’t even get me started on fanfiction doing this.

Point being, what happens here is that the creator doesn’t know how to balance their character, and then often combines that with a lack of confidence in handling the subtleties of exploring their other aspects. So they bring back the “core identity” that they understand and know the audience recognizes often. Really often. Way too often.

There’s no easy way to fix this. Confidence in a character is one solution, but without that confidence the best advice, I feel, is to encourage writers to trust their character and themselves and to just go for it. To fight the urge to fall back to the comfort of the singular note and instead press forward with letting this character explore other aspects of who they are.

And here’s the thing. Even if that creates something that’s a bit rocky, with wobbling notes and maybe a few flats, that’s what editing is for, and it’s still better than a constant barrage of one-note blats.

Let those other aspects shine a bit more. Let your characters play some more notes. They might be a little wobbly, but they—and you—will get better at it. And if you realize that you can’t let them because there’s nothing there … then you’ve found a new problem to take care of.

All right, I think we’ve covered all that we needed to cover today, so let’s recap. First, a one-note character isn’t always bad. For small, one-off interactions we’re never going to see enough of that character to see anything else … and if we did it’d be kind of distracting.

But second, when it comes to actual one-off characters that haven’t been allowed to grow or have been written so that a singular aspect of who they are has consumed everything else, the solution is to let those other aspects come to the forefront. Don’t double down on the lone, “whacky” attribute, but instead have the faith in yourself to nurture and display other aspects of your character.

Yes, the notes might be shaky at first. But soon you’ll be mixing chords and writing measures, and your audience will be smiling along with the tones, free of the same, repetitive note blatting in their ears.

Break free of the singular note, and let those characters play.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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