As writers we are often told that our readers should be able to sympathize with our main character, or in other words, be able to see themselves in the main character’s shoes.
However I feel that this piece of writing advice has given rise to what I call the ‘blank slate’ character.
So what is a ‘blank slate’ character?
It’s a character that has:
- little to no personality traits
- weak or nonexistent motivation
- little to no influence on plot
- is overall just a flat silhouette
Let’s take a deeper look on the elements that create a blank slate character:
Little to No Personality Traits
Characters don’t need to have many personality traits; I would argue that they don’t need more than 3 – 5 traits total, as long as they create conflict with other characters and affect the story.
My problem is when characters have less than 3 traits, and when their personality traits don’t influence anything.
Weak or Nonexistent Motivation
Your characters should have their own goals and ambitions, as well as proper drives behind those goals.
As long as there are realistic drives behind those goals, then the goals themselves can be relatively mundane.
Your main character could really want some pizza in a scene. Pizza isn’t a grandiose goal, but the reader can relate and understand the motivation, since feeding is a strong survival instinct, and so the motivation makes sense.
Just because the motivation has to be sound and reasonable, doesn’t mean that the character themselves needs to understand exactly why they feel this way.
In fact, it’s better if your characters don’t understand their own motivations.
Most people don’t analyze what their motivation is behind every decision they make, they just follow their instincts and try to learn from their mistakes and successes.
A character that doesn’t understand their own motivation is a lot more realistic than a character who completely understands it.
Little to No Influence on the Plot
A good story has the main character influencing the plot, with their decisions creating repercussions down the line.
A bad story has a plot that just happens while your characters are being dragged along, not making decisions. Or making decisions that make no sense in order to be hammered into a plot that doesn’t seem to care about what your characters do.
The decisions your main characters make (and they should make decisions, they should do things and make choices) have to change the way the story goes.
If character A kills character B, there must be repercussions. The story cannot continue on as if nothing happened.
Good characters are often described as being 3 dimensional, and bad characters are often described as being flat or 1 dimensional.
These descriptions paint characters as abstractions of human nature, 3 dimensional characters being a very life like and realistic representation, with flat or 1 dimensional characters as simplistic abstractions.
Simplistic abstractions have their place, and are valid, especially in comedies, where those abstractions can be exagerated and stylized more easily than a 3 dimensional character can be. These exagerated abstractions are then (usually) used to make a point.
But blank slate characters can barely even be considered as 1 dimensional characters, since there is so little character about them.
The Problem With ‘Blank Slate’ Characters
The assumption about these characters is that by having a very vague template, any reader would then be able to simply project their personality, goals, and motivations onto the main character, creating a sympathetic and/or likable protagonist.
This assumption is wrong.
Readers tend to sympathize better with distinct and realistic characters.
The problem with blank slate characters is that they’re often presented in a way that’s supposed to be perceived as realistic and 3 dimensional, when they are in fact very 1 dimensional (or less than 1 dimensional).
This makes them stand out and feel awkward in an otherwise realistic and well crafted world.
How to Fix the ‘Blank Slate’ Character
In conclusion, the way to fix a blank slate character is to draw on their slate.
Give them personalities that create conflict, both internal and external!
Give them goals, and motivations behind those goals, that are realistic and relatable!
Make their actions and decisions influence the plot!
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I blog every Wednesday about creative writing, so check back next week for some new content.