More reasons to avoid cipher characters and storylines

Though I’ve spoken before about why it’s important to make your characters original and fully-rounded instead of ciphers, perhaps no greater evidence for why this is a bad idea comes from one’s own older writing, and seeing it done badly in the writing of others. Just hearing about it in the abstract isn’t the same as seeing actual evidence.

Up until June, I was engaged in radical rewrites and restructurings of my Atlantic City prequel series. I was so embarrassed when I saw the third grade graduation chapter was pretty much based word-for-word on my own eighth grade graduation, right down to the dialogue, the terrible speaker, how many kids kept messing up which hands to shake and take the diploma with, the rip-off congratulatory note we got in lieu of our actual diploma, everything.

This wasn’t merely a case of a scene which didn’t work or needed rewritten, but of a scene which was totally wrong for that book and those characters. These weren’t my characters involved in that scene. It felt wrong and insincere, since it didn’t work with either who these specific participating characters are, nor with the actual world they inhabit.

I based the elementary school graduation in Little Ragdoll on my junior high graduation, but I only used the elements of a terrible, insensitive, offensive, off-topic speaker and a lot of kids mixing up which hands did which. Everything else was original and worked within the established story.

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As I’ve mentioned before, so many of Cinnimin’s interests and phases weren’t hers, but rather mine. I wrote my own passions onto my character, and thus they come across as so bizarre, out of left field, and insincere. Her background certainly suggests why she’d be so drawn to Socialism, but nothing in the first draft even remotely implies a deeper reason why she gets drawn so deeply into left-wing politics in the Forties and Fifties. She comes across more as a proletarian version of a limousine liberal.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t care if a character is liberal or conservative, how far on the Right or Left, what the specific issues are, or even if I might happen to agree with a specific issue or political party. It has to feel natural for both the character and the storyline. Otherwise, it just comes across as the author forcing in his or her own political views in an extremely awkward, embarrassing way. Give us a reason WHY this particular character is a die-hard Socialist or old-school Republican, don’t just have the character spout cliché catchphrases and engage in stereotypical behavior!

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Awhile ago, I gave a 3-star rating to Purple Daze, a YA novel in verse set during 1965. The story felt confusing and disjointed, without enough character and storyline development across the board, and some historically questionable things, like a teacher going by Ms. It also felt like the author were going from a checklist of things to include in a book set during the Sixties, instead of just choosing a few really important issues which made sense for that particular story.

A friend of the author left a comment on my review, trying to tell me my personal reactions to the story and the writing were wrong, that I must not’ve lived through the Sixties, and that apparently the story was strongly based on the author and her friends in 1965. That actually made me dislike the book even more, knowing it’s a barely-fictionalized memoir. Instead of crafting an original story and characters, the author just inserted her friends and their experiences, mixed with a few 1965 news stories, and called it a novel in verse. No wonder I couldn’t connect with the story, since it wasn’t really fiction at all!

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If you’re going to base a character after a real person, or include elements of your own life and interests, give them lives of their own. When characters and storylines are nothing more than carbon copies of your life, readers will pick up on that, and it’ll be harder for them to connect.

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3 comments on “More reasons to avoid cipher characters and storylines

  1. We can draw on experience without regurgitating it all on the page, right?

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  2. Ed Hoornaert says:

    We can draw on experience, sure, but really must be transformed by the storytelling process. It’s darned near impossible to know a friend or relative well enough to make them meaningful characters with the larger-than-life flaws, wounds, and needs that a story character must have. If a story character isn’t larger-than-life, she comes across as a cipher.

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  3. ChrysFey says:

    Staying sincere to our story lines is a must. It’s good to draw from our own experiences but to an extent. We can use what we can from our experience to help make characters and the moment realistic but we also have to stay true to the setting, time period, etc.

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