Storytelling

Are Blank Characters Too Blanking Blank?

A typical Earth man.

Some hate them. Others revile them. But no one who hates or reviles them can deny that they are really blanking popular. If you use them to please the crowd, does it mean you are writing “junk fiction”?

Tell Me What a Blank Character Is Already

Sometimes known as the everyman, the blank slate, or the silent character, a blank character is one that’s generic. Blank characters lack the distinctive personality traits that, as are we are all told, make great characters.

There’s a good chance you have written a blank character, and just don’t know it. Look through your characters and ask yourself what actions they take in your story that you would never take. If you can’t find any for a character, that character is either the identical twin* you never had, or blank.

Examples of blank characters

Harry PotterHarry Potter is just generic enough that most readers can imagine being him. Despite early emotional abuse, he’s a confident person – except in situations where people are usually nervous. He’s good at schoolwork but not too good like Hermione. He breaks the rules – but only if it means being heroic in some fashion.

BellaBella is a romantic stand-in for female readers. She’s pretty in the movies, but in the book her appearance isn’t pinned down. She has many of the same worries as a typical teenager, but so much time is spent on them that she comes off as whiny. Her other distinctive trait is also negative – clumsiness. As a result, anyone who can’t relate to her finds her annoying instead.

mysterman

What’s-his-face is bad with women and has a dead end job. Luckily, destiny is calling for him to trade his hum-drum life for one of adventure. When the villain tempts him, he’ll resist without effort, because he’s a decent guy who always does the right thing. When the world would go kablooey, he’ll save it with his bravery and common sense.

Are Blank Characters Really That Weak?

Yes. A strong, memorable character has to stand out. That means having unique, defining traits that differentiate them from other characters. Once those are in place, the character is no longer blank.

There is some room within this. It wouldn’t break your blank character to make him dislike peanut butter. Everyone knows what it’s like to hate a particular food, the only difference is which one. But if your character obsessively buys jars of peanut butter, only to throw them away without opening them, he isn’t blank.

Similarly, it’s possible to make your character so personality-less that it becomes distinctive in itself.

But They’re Relatable, Right?

That’s why books with blank characters are popular. They have a broad appeal because people can imagine being them. Once the reader steps in their shoes, the blank emptiness is filled with whatever the reader wants to imagine. This makes them very effective as the hero in games – the player also chooses actions for the character, bringing the audience and the character even closer.

Many people consume stories just to watch the protagonist overcome the challenges she faces. If she’s relatable, it’s very likely all those people will stay interested. That’s huge.

But it comes with some risk. If your character is blank, but for whatever reason, NOT relatable, then he will burn in the fiery pit of Mount Doom.

So Can I Put a Blank Character in My Book?

Writing a blank character has significant upsides, so I call it a valid choice. After all, what’s the point of storytelling, if not to provide a compelling experience? Blank characters can do that. The important part is that it’s a choice, and not something done on accident.

Make sure your blank characters are relatable:

  • Make the character your hero or supporting protagonist (like Watson). The reader is already primed to identify with these characters, and even with a strict perspective, they should know what the character is thinking. A side character that’s blank is just boring.
  • Give your character spinach – you want her to be humble. Her desire to increase her status, get the love interest, or save the world, should be similar to what a person on earth would want. Don’t make her the savior who is crowned by the fawning populace until the end of your story. Until then, she should bear all her burdens with good grace.
  • The character’s most distinctive features should be virtues, not vices. Pick a trait that everyone likes and many could believe they have in the right situation. Bravery is ideal, unusual kindness can also work. That way if your readers see something in your character that they can’t identify with, he at least won’t be annoying. You want Harry Potter, not Bella.

Can I Roleplay a Blank Character?

No. That would be boring for your whole group. Only you are meant to strongly identify with the character you roleplay, so your character would just be you. If you want to play your real self, with your real name, in a world that’s like present day earth… then nevermind. Go to town.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

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Comments

  1. Oren

    Great article! I would argue that Watson from the new Sherlock series isn’t actually a blank character, because he has an extreme need for emotional abuse if no other reason. He keeps coming back to Sherlock when a normal person would have told the guy to fudge off by the end of episode 1.

  2. Chris Winkle

    @Oren the line between blank and not blank is pretty blurry, but one complaint I hear a lot about blank characters is that their behavior is inconsistent and plot convenient, and your comment on Watson fits that pretty well. There would be no show if he didn’t keep coming back, so he does. Since he doesn’t have much character in the first place, most people don’t feel it’s out of character.

  3. Jack Marshall

    Blank characters can often represent the writer, seems to me. Within the same author’s works, blank characters often look alike, and it seems to me that they are an idealized version of the author: more spinach in their background, but also braver, ultimately reacting the way the author could only dream of.
    Watson is a kind of exception, I think. He’s just an eyeball. If someone wanted to be him, it would be just to be friends with Holmes. Holmes is best seen from the outside. It’s a great system. But like Oren says, the new show gives Watson character, and makes it work.
    It seems to me that any protagonist must have a blank piece inside that readers can relate to, even if they have a strong character. Something unformed, uncertain, where the reader can step in, along with the writer.

  4. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    Great post – now could you make one on how to save a character from being blank? I’m writing a script and one of my characters I fear is becoming blank. His only motivation seems to be his love interest, who has more depth.

    • Cay Reet

      Give him an agenda, I’d say. Give him some quirks that might get him into trouble (and, perhaps, out of it again). Give him a story arc which doesn’t just rely on his love interest. If his love interest has more depth, so should he.

      Or, if you find there’s nothing else to do with him, consider cutting him out completely.

      • Sophie the Jedi Knight

        Reply to Cay Reet
        I was thinking of giving him a short temper, easily prone to outbursts, and anger issues that would all be fixed with time. He would also act impulsively a lot and be reckless. I’m not sure if I need to add more to him or if those traits would be enough to save him from being blank.

        • Cay Reet

          It depends on how much his character influences the story that way, I guess. Having him do more than just be in love with his love interest could help as well, but that’s hard to say without knowing the plotline of the story.

    • Chris Winkle

      The opposite of a blank character is a distinct one. I actually have a post on that already: https://mythcreants.com/blog/five-ways-to-make-your-character-stand-out/

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