Keurig Cups and Characters on Aisle 12: Avoiding the Interchangeable Character Trap

You could call it the Modern Family curse (feel free to insert the title of your once-loved but run-too-long sitcom of preference). The watching world (WW) once adored it, with its sharp timing and its character-driven comedy and its Ed O’Neill. Now? The WW sorta kinda puts up with it, because nostalgia, the way you do with that one friend from school who always drinks too much pinot and argues politics. To have enjoyed such a hot streak in its early days, Modern Family certainly has succumbed to the pratfalls of far too many American-sweetheart sitcoms—not just staying on the air too long, but, in its scramble for fresh material, shuffling through entertaining-ish circumstances, whether those circumstances fit and arise from their characters or not.

The trap of writing interchangeable characters lies spookily in wait of novel, short story, TV, screen, play, and essentially all other writers. Falling into it leads to alienating fans of your earlier work who can no longer really care about the watery remains of characters they once connected to. Not to mention, the tendency to fuzzily sketch character outlines from the word go can prevent you from ever delivering the awesome story in your head to the right audience.

Fortunately, shucking that bad habit is largely a matter of focusing on that place where people definitely aren’t interchangeable: real life.

Oh My God, That Is So Her

You’ve said it before—you know you have.

For me, one of the most memorable times was when a good friend told me about a “gift” her sister had “given” her. I’d known ’em both since we were all kids. One sister was the type you call when you want someone to tell you that liquidating all your electronic assets at the pawnshop so you can fly to Vegas midweek is a good idea; the other was the girl who knows how to cook a perfect steak and lets you cry on her shoulder when you’ve blown your last dime gambling on a Wednesday. I was talking to the latter.

Who was saying: “So, she asks me to borrow some money and tells me she’s going to get a surprise that’s for her and me—it’s a sister gift . . . and she comes back with her boyfriend’s name tattooed on her ass.”

After I’d laughed the appropriate length of time for someone bamboozling her sister for tattoo bank, I said it. That is so her (and it so was).

In real life, you can’t substitute people, even people who are outwardly distinguished by much finer lines than those two. From your best friend to the smiley sushi guy at the deli, everyone has a core personality that impacts not just the sad, hilarious, or otherwise huge moments of their lives but every last habit, every last thought. They have speech patterns they themselves don’t recognize, typical poses they strike when bored or shy, go-to nervous hand motions, political preferences along with theories on when and how loudly those preferences are to be aired, etc., etc.


A good place to pick up notebooks. A bad place to pick up characters.


Think of someone you’d say you know pretty well. What’s that person’s system for handling the mail?

Is it opened promptly, each de-enveloped piece shelved in a tabletop sorter? Is it thrown on the backseat of the car? Does the continued influx irritate the hell out of this person, who has signed up for paperless everything and sees this as slapping Mother Earth in the face? Or is mail pickup the most stressful part of the day since anyone who’s sending letters is trying to collect what this person just doesn’t have to dispense?

The possibilities go on and on, but the point is that you probably know how this person, who’s so close to you, deals with mail, either because you’ve witnessed it firsthand or because you can confidently predict it based on all the other details in your mental file of this person.

That’s the thing about us nifty, top-o’-the-food-chain, survival-oriented human beings (very much including us human writers): we are hell on wheels when it comes to pattern recognition. We don’t have to have all the details. Give us some meaningful, salient points, and watch us logic out the data we weren’t provided. Couple this basic but powerful skill of ours with the massive yield of information we’re unwittingly taking in on a daily basis, and we are a species primed to figure out a lot from very little. While this is great news for writers, who can harness that ability to our own story-spinning advantage, it also means that, as writers, we have to stay on our toes if we are to build something that feels real; after all, avid readers are some of the world’s most notorious pattern-recognizers and are none too likely to dismiss or forgive false moments.

Stayed tuned for upcoming posts, which will offer some specific suggestions and exercises for building effective characters.


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Image courtesy of: B137 at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons