Cardboard Characters

Cardboard is the standard epithet for characters that are flimsy, unchanging, meaningless and flat. How do you identify whether your characters are cardboard?

Ask yourself, could you change the names or positions of two characters and not notice? Or would you protest, “Albert wouldn’t DO that!” because it wasn’t in his nature? If the latter, he’s not cardboard. Are your supporting cast mere placeholders, there to have somebody in that plot niche, without a reality of their own? Could you say, if asked, what their family background is, whether they have a career, what motivates them–if you can’t, they may well be cardboard.

Your main characters don’t usually have this problem. If they do, it’s definitely time to read and write more, for practice, before you start considering sending things out. Main characters act, they change, they go through things and come out differently on the other side. You can tell them apart.

Many authors avoid this problem by giving the little supporting characters (who, after all, don’t have to show all this background, or shine very much in the story) a trait each. A characteristic thing, like chain smoking, or a stutter, or wearing too much perfume. This works fine for background characters and walk-ons, but not for the main or supporting-semi-main characters.

I feel that, like your setting, knowing a great deal of background that never actively shows, will improve the characters too. In other words, if you have a character named George whose only role is to stand around behind the accident, look shocked, and then hand the main character a roll of bandages, then you still need to know certain things about him. If you, the author, have a strong understanding of George’s background, beliefs, and why he would be the one to hand over the bandages, then it will show. You won’t go into it in the text. But your word choices will make the character better.


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