IWSG—Toning down potentially negative character attributes?


Every first Wednesday of the month, members of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group share worries, insecurities, triumphs, hopes, and fears.

Though my current writing priority is finishing my alternative history in time for a 12 August release, I’ve been doing some work here and there on my first three Atlantic City prequel books. (I haven’t begun the radical rewrite and restructuring of the fourth volume, and am really looking forward to that, particularly a near-complete rework of an extremely dramatic, life-or-death rescue scene.)

It’s come to my attention, and actually confirmed my own suspicions, courtesy of a small critique group within my local writers’ group, that some of my characters don’t come off so well, particularly when read out of order instead of from the jump. If this is what some people think of the third drafts, which significantly scaled down a lot of things I felt were too over the top or age-inappropriate, I know not enough dross was cut or reworked well enough.

When I created the original generation of my Atlantic City characters in sixth grade, in November ’91, my intention was to write a preteen and teen soap opera of sorts, a satire/spoof on modern-day young people who think they’re so grown-up and such little bad-asses already, and a story about realistic young people who weren’t all sugar and spice. I was sick and tired of unrealistically good characters who never cursed, disobeyed their parents, dealt with peer pressure, had premarital sex, smoked, drank, drove underage, fought with siblings, etc.

In creating my anti-goody-goodies, I kind of went way too far in the other direction. I don’t have any problems with well-behaved characters, but it’s just not interesting or realistic if someone’s 100000% squeaky-clean and sweet. I also hate people who give children’s and MG books low ratings because a character dares lie to parents, smoke one cigarette, or fight with a sibling. Normal children misbehave and test their limits! What kind of believable, compelling storylines come from characters who never do anything the least bit wrong, or who immediately apologize for tame “misbehavior” like jumping in rain puddles or picking flowers in a stranger’s yard?

I really can see a difference between the third drafts and the lingering material from the first and second drafts. Hearing my Cinnimin comes across like a bully and mean girl when that’s not what she’s about at all really surprised me. She’s got spunk, sass, and attitude her whole life, compounded by her early years as a spoilt daddy’s girl. She’s also let her title of Most Popular Girl, with all its duties and perks, go to her head. In the absence of family money, that’s the thing she can be proudest of and milk for all it’s worth. Finally, she only turns the attitude on specific people, for specific reasons. She’s not snarky and attitudinal to everyone, or out of nowhere.

Have you ever had to tone down a character’s behavior to be a little more audience-friendly and nuanced? Do you like characters with some attitude and cattiness? Would you want to critique material from a series if you haven’t read anything from the previous books?


Based on some other feedback about my European characters connected to my Atlantic City people, I decided it’s a good idea to do a third draft of my Treblinka escape scene in July 1942. Certain aspects will still remain, but I really feel other parts either need to be cut or radically changed. There were scores of successful escapes in the camp’s chaotic early months, due to the gargantuan disorganization of “Dr.” Irmfried Eberl, but I still want my young characters’ escape to be as plausible as possible.

It felt so creepy when I wrote the first draft in August ’99, at age 19, and I want readers to have that same chilling feeling. As macabre and depressing as it is, that’s actually one of the scenes I’m proudest of having written, and I want it to shine as much as possible.

I’ve also started revising The Natural Splash of a Living Being, the first of several hiatused WIPs focused on dear little Amalia (Malchen) von Hinderburg. I’m immersed in my natural element when writing about these dark periods of history.


12 thoughts on “IWSG—Toning down potentially negative character attributes?

  1. Yes I am. I too think there is a constant war for everyone to make good and bad choices. We all make both and many times they can become extreme. Teens have a lot to deal with. Many of them searching through dreams and who they are. I like to explore the turmoil too and I admit, many people thought I was always a huge rule follower in high school when in the shadows I was just as rebellious as anyone else. Keep doing what you are doing if it feels right. Your characters become more real that way. Erika


  2. I struggle with my tendency to write unlikeable (or what I would call real) characters. When I showed my critique group an early draft of my first novel, no one liked the main character. They found her too snarky and standoffish. It took me several more drafts and two more years to tone her down and give the reader little bits of insight into her background so they could empathize with her. No one would ever say Kitty is a fun gal, but they do love her despite her warts.
    I’ve learned that getting feedback from a few trusted beta readers can be invaluable when I’m not sure how a character will be received by my readers.


  3. All characters need flaws and bad traits/habits as well as good. Characters should be well rounded as we are. No one is perfect. Ice had to tone down a characters bad trait before…anger.


  4. I never got when people complained about teenage characters doing things like drinking or smoking. Did they forget the things they did when they were teens? I remember hanging out with potheads and swearing and all the things that happened that my parents would hate to hear about. And I was a relatively good teenager! (I knew behaving got me the car whenever I wanted and I thought pot stunk and was overrated.)


  5. This is a challenge for me. I love writing about difficult characters but have been accused of the same thing. I really had to work on this in my latest novel, because my main character is someone who provokes instant dislike simply because of her career (Wall Street money manager). I know what you’re saying…but sometimes if we round them out just a little, they can still be not-so-sugar-and-spice, but have a few qualities that compel the readers to stay interested.


  6. I am fond of the anti-hero protagonist, but I have to have something to like about them, or there has to be something redeemable and I have to see the growth of the character into the story promises that the character will be the hero need for the story.

    I have trouble putting in enough flaws and a bad habit of making my villain into a likable character or taking over as the protagonist. It probably has something to do with PollyAnna attitude I can’t seem to shake even in the doldrums, lol.

    Best of luck with all your revision,

    Happy Belated IWSG day
    Juneta Writer’s Gambit


  7. I think if a character goes too far one way or the other, it is unrealistic. Even good kids do some bad things. I was an A student and had my sneaky side. My sister was a “naughty” girl and had her good side. Some of my characters have been based on the both of us. I’ve never *had* to tame a character before but I have added some qualities to them to make them not seem so outlandish one way or the other. Good luck with your projects. I hope you work out what you need to with them.


Share your thoughts respectfully

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s