The goal of this post is to help beginning writers by pointing out some of the common mistakes I see in first novels. Not the obvious stuff you know to avoid, like info dumps and cliches, but the subtle stuff that seems perfectly natural and you might not realize was a mistake or even notice you’re doing. Many of these you might pick up from movies, video games, and RPGs, which have different genre conventions. I’ll be focusing on mistakes relating to behavior: Things it’s really easy to make your characters do but which are actually weird behaviors that no one would do in real life.
Enjoying the Action Scenes
This is a really easy mistake to make: You want your readers to enjoy the action scenes, so you make your characters enjoy themselves, too. After all, action movie stars laugh and quip during fight scenes all the time.
But in real life, being in mortal peril is not fun, not even if you’re a devil-may-care rogue or a dashing pilot. A real person will respond to an action scene like they’d respond to any other kind of trauma: Fear, crying, a fight-or-flight response, and so on. When characters have the complete opposite response, the impression is that they know they’re in a story and aren’t in any real danger due to contractual immortality. This undermines reader investment and actually makes the reader enjoy the scene less.
A character may laugh in the face of danger, sure. But laughter is not the same as enjoyment. Are they laughing to cover their fear? Is it the dark, ironic laughter of someone who knows their life is being squandered for no good reason? Is the need to accomplish a goal suppressing their self-preservation instinct? Any of these is an understandable, human response. Enjoyment is not.
If you write a lot of action and peril scenes, it’s worth checking out a book of war memoirs to get a sense of what people actually think and feel when they’re in life-threatening situations.
Being a Dick to the NPCs
In role-playing games, a PC is a player character, while an NPC is a non-player character controlled by the computer or gamemaster. Since the NPCs aren’t “real people,” it’s common for players to not show the NPCs much respect. This can range from being rude to outright killing people who annoy the player or get in their way, especially in computer games, where there may not be any consequences.
Nobody in books does anything that extreme, but I do often see protagonists who seem to understand that the named main characters of the story matter, but all the random unnamed people they encounter on a daily basis don’t. (This can’t be explained away by them leading an insular life: The unimportant people may include anyone from their own family to the king, as long as those people aren’t major characters in the story.) Sometimes this is direct. A character steals something they need from a shop, but this isn’t portrayed as a morally questionable act, because the shopkeeper isn’t a character and doesn’t matter.
Sometimes it’s indirect. Say the free-spirited princess secretly sneaks out of the castle to go on an adventure. That’s fun for the princess, but for the people of the kingdom, the unexplained disappearance of a member of the royal family would be a crisis on par with Princess Diana’s death combined with a terrorist attack. Now, the princess can sneak out, but it can’t simply be written off as harmless hijinks. It needs to be portrayed as a thoughtless act and the princess needs to grow to understand how much distress she caused, as in Roman Holiday, for example.
This doesn’t mean that every character needs to be nice to everyone. But how nice they are should be governed by their relationships, personality, values, and so on, not by the understanding that some people aren’t real characters in the story and therefore don’t need to be treated like human beings.
This one is really hard to pinpoint, but often when you’re left with the vague sense that a scene doesn’t work, this is why. Imagine that a character is supposed to be jealously guarding a secret, but the protagonist figures it out in the next scene with no difficulty. Or two characters who are supposed to be sworn enemies are forced to work together, but they just snipe at each other a couple of times and then become best friends. Or the protagonist is trying to warn law enforcement about some imminent threat, but when law enforcement initially dismisses them, they immediately give up and go off to confront the threat alone.
In all these cases, the problem is that the characters aren’t really invested in their own actions. They’re not acting like they want to accomplish a goal, but like they want to seem like they’re trying to accomplish a goal so they can check that box and move on with the story. In the third example, the protagonist is acting like they know they’re supposed to confront the threat alone and are only talking to law enforcement to head off the inevitable question “Why didn’t you go to the police?”
This one shows up a lot in RPGs, where player usually have a good idea where the story is supposed to go (or where they’re trying to make it go) and actions to the contrary are done to add a veneer of realism, not because that’s what the players really want to do. For instance, when a new PC joins the group, everyone knows they’re a good guy who has to become part of the group as quickly as possible so the story can move along, so any objections are quickly put aside. (Same goes for when a player leaves a group and no one tries too hard to convince their character to stay.)
Always make your characters fully invested in their actions. They can be uncertain, but if they really think they should do something, they must really attempt to accomplish it to the best of their ability, rather than just trying to get it out of the way so they can get on with the story.
Building on the previous point, many characters show an uncanny knowledge of the plot. This can include anything from setting off in the right direction on a quest when they had no way of knowing which way to go, to figuring out correctly that a situation is or isn’t dangerous when there isn’t actually enough information to determine that.
This is closely related to the plot contrivance, a minor sin of which all authors are guilty at one time or another, but the key difference is the character’s motivation. If the character goes out for a walk and happens to stumble across the thing they were looking for, that’s a plot contrivance. If the character goes out specifically looking for that thing—without any clues about where to find it—and stumbles across it, that’s plot prescience.
Movies, especially adaptations, must often make use of this device because they don’t have time to establish the how and why. In the movie version of The Fellowship of the Ring, when Frodo and Sam randomly run into Merry and Pippin, that’s a plot contrivance. When Merry and Pippin then accompany Frodo and Sam all the way to Rivendell without even asking what they’re doing or why, that’s plot prescience. (Yes, Frodo is being chased by Nazgul, but that’s hardly a reason why a couple of random extra people with no useful skills should stay with him.)
This is a hard mistake to avoid, since it ties into plotting. Ideally, every plot beat is a logical lead-in to the next. But if that isn’t possible, remember that contrivance is allowable. Prescience isn’t. It’s better to allow your protagonist to run into the next plot beat by coincidence than to have them head directly for it without any way of knowing that’s what they’re supposed to do.
All these mistakes stem from the core problem of letting external factors your characters shouldn’t be aware of drive their behavior. The characters don’t know the fight scene is supposed to be exciting, or that some people they meet are characters in the story while others aren’t. Often this is so subtle you don’t even notice it’s happening, because from your perspective outside the story, their actions seem fairly normal. It’s only from within the story that you would notice how bizarre they are.
The solution is, unfortunately, not quite as simple as “always have your characters’ actions proceed purely from their in-world personality and motivations,” because strong plotting is also important and it doesn’t intrinsically follow from characterization (regardless of what you’ve heard). Instead, develop the plot and the characterization side by side so that they seamlessly feed into each other and the action the plot requires is also the natural thing to do from the character’s perspective.
Easier said than done, I know. But you owe it to your readers—and your characters—to craft a story where everyone’s behavior is human and understandable from within the context of the story.
Images are from The Avengers, Wasteland, The Gamers, and The Fellowship of the Ring.