I’ve made a lot of mistakes when it comes to writing, and I’ve noticed mistakes by other authors in poorly written books. In fact, there are some mistakes that are so common, we don’t even know we’re making them! Here are 10 of the biggest ones I’ve found that you, too, may be making.
Incorrect comma placement, incorrect dialogue formatting, and improper use of semicolons and dashes are all mistakes I’ve found in my own writing and in the writing of others. Never fear, though! This is what an editor is for (read my blog post here about why you need a professional editor). A good professional editor will mark and correct your basic grammar mistakes, allowing you to polish your manuscript to English-teacher perfection.
Characters are meant to authentically reflect real people, you and me. Too many characters fall into categories, like popular girls, bad boys, nerds, emo, etc. Even the overdone badass chick and emotionless tough guy. (Not that I don’t love all those characters). But the fallacy in adhering to these stereotypes is that we fail to address a character as more than just a typical set of traits. They are boxed into a category and stay within those confines, whereas in the real world, people rarely ever fit into a one-size-fits-all mold. Fix it by giving your characters passions, talents, interests, loves, and dreams that don’t necessarily match their style/personality/friend group/lifestyle. Make them unique. Think High School Musical’s song “Status Quo“.
3. Unrealistic Dialogue
A major problem that a lot of writers (myself included) struggle with is maintaining a voice for each character that fits them and is consistent. Too many times a character’s vocabulary/accent/voice will change, and this is almost always by accident. The key to believable characters is maintaining a unique and consistent voice, so that even if the character isn’t named right away, the reader still knows who is talking. Their voice should also match the character’s age, location, time period, and social class, just to name a few factors.
4. Too Many Coincidences
Things should not “just happen” to your characters or for your characters. That’s too easy, and considered sloppy writing. Almost everything should be explainable. And your characters shouldn’t have it easy. Don’t make them just lucky. They need to work for things, struggle for things. And if anything happens, there has to be a reason. If something happens to your characters or for your characters, there must be a reason, and that reason should come to light by the end of the story or series.
5. Characters Have an Amazing Ability for No Reason
Unless you’re writing a fantasy novel where the character was chosen before birth to have special powers, your characters need an explanation behind why they’re good at __________ or a gifted ___________. They cannot just turn up out of the blue, instantly amazing at something. That doesn’t happen in the real world. Like Katniss’s gift of archery because she grew up hunting for survival, your character needs some kind of backstory or training to explain why they are gifted at something. They have to get to the level they are currently at through years of practice and perfecting their craft…a lot like writing, ironically.
6. Everyone is in Love with the Main Character
For whatever reason, a major trend in fiction (especially young adult and romance) is that the protagonist is movie star attractive, and every character of the opposite gender is in love with them. I don’t know about you, but I don’t find regular people who look like celebrities or seduce every person they meet. This is a cliche that you should avoid because it’s not relatable and not realistic. It may even alienate and turn off readers who don’t struggle with the same problem: Do I pick Johnny or Travis or Santiago or Maverick or Aaron or Antonio or Lee? Woe is me.
7. Characters Acting Out of Character
If your character claims that they are one way, but does the opposite, you have either purposely created an unreliable character, or failed to illustrate your character authentically. When editing, check to make sure that your characters act consistently with who you’ve painted them to be. Your goody-two-shoes character wouldn’t spout swear words out in every sentences, just as your strong character wouldn’t crumble at the first sign of adversity.
8. Characters Don’t Know Why They Do Something
Only once in my entire life have I ever known someone who meant to say no, but the word ‘yes’ came out of their mouth. It just doesn’t happen. People don’t “just do something”. If they said “yes” it’s either because they secretly wanted to, or because they felt obligated to. So make clear the motivation behind why a character does something. It’s never just “for no reason”. Everything happens for a reason. (My pet peeve: “I don’t know why I just did that.” You did it because you wanted to or felt you should or had no choice.)
9. Skipping Over Major Plot Points
In some books, the story seems to be progressing towards a major event – and yet, suddenly, the reader finds themself after the event, with only the character referencing back to the moment in past tense. It seems like there’s a chunk of the book missing. But really, the author just decided to skip the part and cut to the aftermath. This can be advantageous in some cases, but in most cases it’s just lazy writing. Don’t build up to something, only to skip over it. Your reader will be disappointed, and this just might break their trust. You built up their expectations, but failed to deliver. Even if you as the writer feel not good enough/not ready/not willing to write that scene, YOU MUST. Your readers deserve to experience what happened first-hand; they shouldn’t have to rely on the characters to tell them about it later.
10. Problems are Magically Solved
Lazy Writing 101: things just happen to work out in the end. A solution appears out of nowhere. A problem takes care of itself. The characters don’t really have to do anything to fix it. Wrong, wrong, wrong. If you haven’t read my post about how to build tension and create drama, it covers how to prevent your characters from getting what they want too easily. Don’t take things easy on your characters! Force them to struggle to overcome obstacles. Make them work to solve problems. Let them suffer. Put ’em through hell and let them fight their way out.
What mistakes have you notice yourself making in your writing? Do you have any solutions or advice of your own? Let me know in the comments! And don’t forget to share this article with your pen-friends.
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