Sometimes—especially on network television—characters are so black and white that it’s unbelievable. The good guys are always good and the bad guys are always bad. Why are some people good? They had good families, a good childhood. Those who are bad? Usually because of abusive parents. And never do they act outside their category.
True, there are people like that, but it makes for some boring storytelling. It is, in fact, something I’m guilty of myself, which is why I’m here with this message: don’t let your characters become stereotypes. Don’t make your villain grow up in an abusive home or with too permissive parents. Don’t let your heroes become superheroes that can do everything and save everyone. They should fail. They should screw up. They should get yelled at by their parents/boss/friends. They should struggle.
Seeing—or reading about—a girl struggle with saving a friend when it will only cause herself grief helps us identify her. We’ve all been in situations when we know what the right thing to do is but damn, it’ll be a lot of work and probably screw us over in the process. Seeing someone do it effortlessly, without regard for what others think, is just annoying. I can’t identify with someone who does everything right, because I myself screw up a lot.
As for villains, maybe it’s easier to accept one whose evil behavior is explained in a neat little package, but it’s still kind of boring. Don’t get me wrong; it shouldn’t come out of the blue. We should see how her drive to succeed morphed into a drive to succeed at all costs. It just shouldn’t be because she was locked in a closet, starved for affection, emotionally and verbally abused. Maybe her parents were caring, but demanding. They instilled within her that the only acceptable outcome is first place, and losing was worse than cheating to win. From there, it was a lot easier to rationalize stealing and murder.
The point is that if you want people interested in what you’ve written, you have to write interesting characters. That means backstories that explain their behavior without making it seem like there was no other choice for them to become good/evil. And don’t pigeonhole them in their roles. The bad guy can have sympathy and still be evil (in fact, that might make him more evil if he knows what he’s doing is wrong and does it anyway). The good guy can be a jerk (don’t go overboard; antiheroes are getting old) or screw up and still be good, albeit imperfect, human.
Take it from someone who makes that mistake. A lot.
PS: The contest is still going on! The entry form is at the bottom of the blog.