I’ve read some books and seen movies lately that illustrate storytelling flaws. These aren’t the most egregious problems out there, and I can overlook them to some degree if there are compensating factors, but they should still be avoided.
Funnily enough, padding has nothing to do with the overall length of a book. I’m partial to big, fat books – I’m one of those people who thought The Crimson Petal and the White wasn’t too long (in fact, it could have gone on for another few hundred pages and I’d have been happy).
Where padding is a problem is when it detracts from the story. You can put in as much detail as you want – as long as it serves the story. That is, as long as it contributes toward the plot, the setting, the characters, or the themes. But if it’s just the writer showing off how much research went into the book, or taking side trips that may be well-written (and even enjoyable on their own) but derail the momentum of the story, you’ve got padding.
The Mr. Wonderful Syndrome
So how do you create a character your readers will care about?
What you don’t do is make a character perfect.
We’re all flawed, and even your awesome characters – the ones you wish existed in real life so you could hang around with them – must have flaws.
When characters are too good to be true, you the Mr. Wonderful Syndrome. The problem with Mr. Wonderful is that while he is supposed to gain the reader’s favor because he’s so awesome, he never does because his perfection makes him unbelievable. Nobody likes a goody-two-shoes, and readers won’t care much about your perfect character. For a stellar example of the Mr. Wonderful Syndrome, see Tommy Wiseau’s movie The Room: the protagonist is so wonderful that he showers his shrewish fiancée with gifts (he even declares that he treats her like a princess), puts a creepy man-child through college, and even the lady at the flower shop says for all to hear that he’s her favorite customer. And the audience doesn’t buy it for a minute.
A true Mr. Wonderful needs flaws. Not huge ones – he shouldn’t beat his wife, she shouldn’t embezzle from her parents – but flaws that are just enough to make them human, and therefore deserving of interest and sympathy. If the characterization is done right, readers will understand and forgive those flaws.
The most crucial point is that a true Mr. Wonderful would never believe that he is Mr. Wonderful. If you told him that he’s Mr. Wonderful, he’d laugh and thank you for the compliment, but would never really believe it. When a Mr. Wonderful believes his own hype, he ceases to be Mr. Wonderful.