10 Signs of Underdeveloped Characters in Your Novel

Have you ever gotten the feeling that you’re missing something big in your writing? Like maybe you know how to tell a good story, and your plot and world are superb, but no matter how hard you try, it feels shallow? It’s probably a good indicator that at least something is lacking development – namely the driving force of the story: your characters. Today, I’m going to discuss ten signs that could point to underdeveloped characters in your novel.

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  1. Flat dialogue

Do you ever feel a struggle with writing fresh, witty, genuine dialogue? Maybe you read through an exchange between two characters and think, “That doesn’t sound anything like a real conversation.” Flat dialogue often points to flat characters. The conversations in your novel won’t feel real unless your characters are relatable.

  1. Melodrama

Another good indicator of undeveloped characters is when melodrama creeps into your writing. This is particularly noticeable in intense situations where the characters react as one might expect in a theatrical performance – with exaggerated gestures, speech, and emotions. This exaggeration is a pretty good sign that the author doesn’t know how the character would really react in that situation (unless being melodramatic is part of said character’s personality, in which case, development is still important).

  1. Lack of emotion

Lack of emotion is one of the biggest indicators that the character(s) in your novel are less than three-dimensional. Human beings are emotional creatures. Everyone feels emotion in some sense or another, regardless of how much shows externally. When reading about a character who feels nothing, or even very little on the inside, I often get the feeling that he/she should have been more developed. As authors, it’s important to have an understanding of your character’s emotional makeup. It’s how they’ll react to things in your story. It’s what will color that dazzling plot-twist you’re planning to write in the next chapter.

  1. Passive voice (especially in First Person prose)

Using an abundance of passive verbs in your prose – especially in First Person point of view, is another big red flag pointing to underdeveloped characters. In first person, the narrative is essentially the character’s voice. If the prose is flat, it’s quite possible that the character is also flat. In First Person, the narrative reflects the character’s personality to a very large degree. It’s the glimpse that the reader gets into who they are. Good, full, rich First Person prose points to strong, three-dimensional characters.   

  1. Long monologues of thought

This one is pretty obvious. When reading through a passage of writing where the character’s italicized thoughts go on for, oh, say an entire paragraph, I generally get the feeling that the author was trying to get into the character’s head, only to find out that they didn’t really know what was going on in there, so they end up rambling, which also tends to turn out flat. If you’re having to write out long monologues in your prose to figure out what’s going on inside your character, there’s a chance that you may want to look into further developing him/her.

  1. A feeling of omniscience

Have you ever read a story where you feel…detached? Almost as if you’re floating above the scene on a cloud, or something, just watching the characters run around below you? In any case, you know you’re not on a personal level at all. Unless you’re deliberately using an omniscient style of writing, it is a huge indicator of undeveloped characters.

  1. Repetitive or redundant description (especially in First Person)

This aspect often goes hand-in-hand with passive voice. If you find yourself using the same or similar phrasing to describe something – particularly in first person, it’s possible that this, too, is pointing to less than three-dimensional characters. People are well-rounded, and so should your characters be, as much as possible. The way they describe things (if it’s first person) is a part of their voice, and redundancies can point to a flat, limited perspective. This doesn’t, however, include a character’s mannerisms or particular phrasing they might like in dialogue.

  1. Lack of relatable, human characteristics

This one is simple. If we don’t see your characters acting like humans, they won’t feel human. Comprende?

  1. Staccato scene changes

Another thing that generally gives me undeveloped character vibes is when a scene—changes—really—abruptly, especially if it involves the character blacking out every time. If a story doesn’t have a natural flow (even if it’s a fast-paced flow), it’s a good sign that your characters are more like pawns on a chessboard than real people. You’re just moving them where they need to go to further your plot, and the story isn’t actually about them. So odd and uneven pacing can also be a sign that your characters lack depth.

  1. Lack of desire and/or fear

Let’s think about this one for a few minutes. Have you ever read a story where the characters seemed to sort of drift through the circumstances, with very little motivation, drive, and also very little fear? Think about it. Real people have desires. They have motivation for everything that they do, even if it’s something as simple as steering a general conversation in a certain direction. Real people also have fears. Yes, even the “fearless” people have fears. Characters without fear almost always seem two-dimensional, because it’s hard to relate to someone who doesn’t fear anything, and never shows it, or even feels it. This could be summed up as “something to want” and “something to NOT want”. Everyone has these factors conflicting inside them. They are what drive the character to do what they do.

These ten things may seem like a lot, but in reality, they show that the problems and struggles you may be having with writing stories that don’t feel shallow might not be as difficult to solve as you thought. It’s likely that the majority your troubles can be fixed with a bit of time spent learning about your characters and how they work. Real characters make for real stories, and when an author understands their characters, it shows in their prose, and the rest of the story begins to fall into place.  

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20 thoughts on “10 Signs of Underdeveloped Characters in Your Novel

  1. Those are handy signs and some of them are a little recognizable. But there’s one thing about this post that’s too bad. Only the wrong things are mentioned: could you make a post with some tips for turning these mistakes into góód things?

    • What’s helped me personally is when I have a character who feels to flat, I’ll make a character profile. I found a good list of questions online that I copied into a word document, and I’ll spend some time trying to answer them all…. it takes time, and most of what you write might not actually be important to the story, but the more you as the writer understands the character, the fuller the character comes across.

      Just my own personal approach when facing the problem. 🙂

  2. Haha I think for my most recent story number 9 would be my problem, for the most part. I blame that on the fact that it was written in 30 days, though. XP I don’t even want to start editing it until January.

  3. This article while important was not helpful without real examples. I think for each subject, the author should have given some examples of what the author was trying to convey and how to improve it. I had a hard time envisioning what the author was saying.

  4. Hi Emily,

    I understand you’re probably very busy

    but I came by this site and enjoyed the help and it’s very good.
    I’m writing a story/novel now and wonder if I sent some to you or all if I could get some feedback or anything else?

    Thanks a lot

    Richie

  5. Lots to consider here, especially the points about first person and omniscient. I’d love to be able to pull these off in my writing (and hope to, someday) but I’ve found that third limited, somewhat deep POV feels most natural to me for illustrating character. What works for one author may not work for another, but I bet we’ve all struggled with one or two of the points listed above. Thanks for the post.

  6. #6 caused me to completely rethink my 2nd novel. I wrote the first draft in 3rd person omniscient and jumped between too many characters. I felt readers would not connect to the characters because of this. Thanks for the post. It’s super helpful as I work my way through my 2nd draft.