How Good Story & Character Ideas Can Go Bad


Here's the thing: when it comes to story and character ideas that don't work out as well as hoped, it's not always because the ideas themselves were actually that bad. Rather, the problem lies in the execution - something about the way they were carried out just doesn't work. Here are some common ways that perfectly good ideas can go bad, so you can watch out for them and avoid them yourself.



The writer didn't do enough research. For example, someone attempts to write an autistic character, but bases the character's traits solely on lists and descriptions of symptoms, and ignores blogs and videos made by actual autistic people that truly communicate the day-to-day realities of the condition, and thus fails to write an autistic character who feels remotely like a real autistic person at all. Or the author decides to write a character who has a certain career but does no research to find out what all this career entails and requires, resulting in the character lacking critical skills and knowledge that would come with this job. Or the author tries to write a story set in another country but does no research beyond watching a few movies set in it, and so ends up writing a setting that resembles this other country but actually bears far more resemblance to the author's own country.

The execution undermines the idea. For example, a writer designs a character to be strong and empowered, but in the actual story the character ends up being a damsel in distress and a shallow love interest, or comes off more like a bully with a chip on her shoulder than a genuinely strong and confident person. Or the author might set out to write a beautiful and deep romance story, but end up relying on hackneyed cliches and overlooking the fact that the romantic leads actually have a very unhealthy dynamic that they never get sorted out. Or the author might aim to write a mystery story but doesn't really know how to execute one at all, thus ending up with a story that's extremely incoherent and reveals key details far too early.

The execution is bland. Perhaps there are no real twists or surprises anywhere, or perhaps the writer never tries to take the road less traveled or to do anything otherwise unexpected. Maybe it has all of the elements that people asked for, but that's all it has - it doesn't have enough verve or depth to catch and hold people's attention.

The execution is contrived. No matter how good the idea initially is, it can be ruined completely if everything feels fake or forced. See How To Avoid Making Your Story And Characters Feel Contrived for more on this subject.

The idea gets used superficially. For example, a story involving supernatural elements never genuinely uses them to drive the plot in any way, nor does it have any real effect on the characters' daily lives - they live and do things exactly like anyone else would. Or a new element is introduced to the plot that could be used to take the plot in interesting directions, but it becomes background noise or gets pushed to the side relatively quickly.

The idea raises interesting questions that the story never answers. For example, a main character ends up getting stuck working with a member of an enemy faction that up to this point has been considered wholly and completely evil. They talk and get to know each other, and ultimately the member of this faction wants to defect. This raises a lot of tantalizing questions: Are all of these people really that evil after all? What's going to happen when one of them tries to be good? How is this defector going to get along with everybody and adapt to life with the protagonists? But the audience never gets to find out, because the defector is ultimately killed off and everything goes on as it did before.

For another example, the main characters end up being faced a with a very difficult choice - one that pushes them far out of their comfort zone and makes them grapple with everything they believed about right and wrong. This raises questions like how they're going to deal with this issue, what they're going to ultimately choose, and how they're going to feel about this choice and cope with everything afterward. But at the last minute, something happens so they don't actually have to make that painful choice. Asking interesting questions like this only to chicken out of answering them can make the audience feel cheated. They might feel like the story was actually starting to go somewhere really good, so they'll be very disappointed when it doesn't.

The idea runs out of potential. For example, a story might start out with the premise of "naive everyperson attends a fantastic school." Although this is a solid enough way to start a story, there's only so much you can do with with it before you start having to recycle plots and gags. For another example, a writer might introduce a malicious faction that has a limited set of tricks up its sleeve and no real ability to learn from its mistakes or change its tactics, resulting in every story featuring them being more or less the same.

The idea runs out of credibility. Continuing with the "naive everyperson at a fantastic school" scenario, how plausible is it that this naive everyperson will remain naive forever? There will come a point when this character should start getting accustomed to how things work here and should stop being so surprised or clueless all the time.

The idea gets over-escalated. Writers often make the mistake of assuming that if an idea worked really well the first time around, they can always make it work even better the next by bringing it back bigger and stronger. There's a grain of truth to this: bigger scales often mean bigger stakes, and bigger stakes often mean more dramatic tension. But some stakes are simply too big to create any tension - anything so big that it can only be imagined in the abstract doesn't elicit emotion very well. (Like they say, one is a tragedy, but a million is a statistic!) Furthermore, doing the same thing on a bigger scale will eventually get boring because you're still just doing the same thing over and over instead of doing anything new and unexpected. For more on this subject, see Dramatic Hyperinflation: Why It's A Problem, And How To Avoid It.

It doesn't lead up to a satisfying payoff. For example, two characters are continuously teased as potential love interests by having them say ambiguously-romantic things and by having them show romantic chemistry for each other, but nothing ever comes of it - or even worse, story ends up mocking the very idea that the characters might end up together. Or the story teases the reveal of some major secret or other throughout the work, but it never actually reveals it at all. For more information, see On Buildup, Payoff, & Contrast.

The idea gets rubbed into people's faces too much. For example, people might be fairly willing to check out a story that stars an unconventional type of protagonist, but if the promotional material constantly draws attention to how different and unique this character is, or if it's constantly pointed out in the story itself, they'll can get annoyed with it and be put off the story.

The idea is forced in at the expense of something the audience already liked. A character one plans to introduce soon might be great in theory, but if another character that the audience already likes just fine is suddenly killed or sidelined to make room for the new one, they might end up resenting this new character. A plot arc that sounds very interesting on paper might just annoy people if it pushes aside a storyline they were already interested in. "Character development" that alters a character whose personality they liked just fine already might not be received well. Jokes and gags that start taking the place of a good plot and strong characterization are likely to be resented, and even be considered the reason the story went bad.

The idea is taken too seriously. For example, a story might play up a teenager's life drama as if it's of cosmic importance, even though it's probably not going to be a huge deal in the grand scheme of things. Or a team of superheroes who are supposed to be seen as competent and worth respect are so over-idealized that they are never allowed to be properly humanized. Or the author writes what ought to be an emotional and touching scene with far more melodrama than it actually needs, which actually makes it next to impossible to take seriously.

The idea isn't taken seriously enough. A teenager's life drama might be treated as if it's a total laughing matter, even though it's actually quite distressing to the teen right now. Or the author ostensibly wants us to believe that a team of superheroes is truly competent and worth respect. However, the team displays no professionalism at all, and gross incompetence on their parts is framed as hilarious. Or the author throws fart jokes into a scene that's otherwise written as if it's supposed to be emotional and touching.

An idea that worked in moderation is taken to an extreme where it no longer works. For example, a few dark tendencies might add complexity and ambiguity to a character, but if these tendencies are taken too far, you no longer have a complex character - you just have a character who's evil. A very rare encounter with something that should not be able to exist as far as anyone knows can grab people's attention, but when it happens every other week it ceases to be remarkable and one eventually has to start wondering when these characters are going to get used to the fact that they don't actually know that much about the universe after all. And the occasional light or humorous moment in a mostly-serious series can provide some much-needed relief, but too many jokes and gags will effectively transform the whole thing into a comedy with a few serious moments, which will annoy people who were here for the dramatic element.

The creator or creators cannot maintain objectivity and impartiality toward certain characters. Writers can start out being a bit too enamored with their own characters, or they can become this way as the series progresses. This can result in the narrative favoring these characters far too much. They might be allowed to become overpowered, or to become the most important characters in the story, or have their roles so over-emphasized that they push everyone else out of the narrative. They might end up getting their wishes granted in implausibly convenient or easy ways. They might end up being pushed to the center of the universe, where every bit of drama centers or comes back to them somehow, or where absolutely everything hinges on them in some way; or they might be put up on a pedestal where they're presented as objects of admiration. And of course, protagonist-centered morality becomes a huge risk at this point.

It doesn't live up to the hype. For example, a new villain is constantly talked up as incredibly dangerous, but ends up doing very little damage and gets taken out pretty easily. A hero is talked up as being a really likeable character, but turns out to be a self-centered ass. Or a story is advertised as being bold and daring in some way, but ultimately turns out to be pretty conventional or it takes the tamest and safest possible route it can. Or a character is advertised as extremely progressive, but ultimately turns out to be pretty common fare for these days.

The work starts getting self-congratulatory or self-reverent about it. The idea might be genuinely clever or awe-inspiring, but when the work goes out of its way to deliberately point out or frame it as such, it can get cringy pretty fast.

The creator or creators get lazy. A work that starts out tight and polished can completely fall apart as those in charge of it being putting less and less effort in, resulting in the creation of plotholes, inconsistencies, and poorer storytelling and characterization overall.


You might also be interested in:

"Is This A Good Idea For My Story/Setting/Character?" - How To Answer This For Yourself!
"How Can/Should I Do This Thing With My Story/Setting/Character?" - How Figure It Out For Yourself!
"Help! I'm Worried That My Idea Is Too Cliche!" - What To Do When This Happens
"Help! I Need Ideas For My Story/Setting/Character!" - How To Get Ideas For Yourself!



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