On Flat Characters & Empty Clamshells

I'm going to speak the truth today, Dear Reader--a horrid thing generally regarded with great disfavor, not welcome in polite society:  I don't read much lesbian fiction because a lot of it is terrible.  The plots are hackneyed, the dialogue awkward and the characters flat.

I've been revisiting O. Henry lately and came across a pertinent quote regarding flat characters.  In his story, one writer is asked by another to look over his rejected manuscripts to help determine why they were not accepted.  The protagonist says:

It's that lack of living substance, I think, that makes characters flat.  They don't talk the way real people do, they don't act the way real people do.  They don't have the eccentricities and flaws that real people do.  They're boring, they're garbage and life is way too short to spend time with them.

Many writers are entirely successful at avoiding flat characters.  That, in and of itself, does not guarantee the person is a good writer, but it's a necessary trait.  I don't know for sure how other authors avoid flat characters, but I have an Inner Navigator.  I'd call it a Little Voice, but it's more of a gut feeling.  If it could speak, its vocabulary would be limited to two words:  yes and no.  Actually, it's more YES and NO--it's a bit of a shouter.  Anyhow, when I start to get that queasy feeling, that's a NO--I'm headed (again) down the wrong path with my writing.  Something Is Off.

So to avoid flat characters, listen to that little voice if you've got one.  If you don't have one, I'm not sure this is something that can be taught.  I think this is where practical skills intersect with art.  You either have that level of talent or you don't.

Teachers of writing would, of course, disagree.  I do believe a fledgling or even experienced writer's skill regarding characters can be improved--I'm just not sure it's possible to elevate a skill level from competent to art.

Of course, you don't have to be an artist to get published.  (see first paragraph above)

As many have said before me, there are steps one can take to become a better writer, steps many successful writers (and I) have taken:
read A LOT

- write A LOT
- take a writing class
- join a writing group
- read books on writing (I highly, HIGHLY recommend John Gardner's ON BECOMING A NOVELIST and THE ART OF FICTION)
- write a bunch more
- then read Mr. Gardner's books again

Here's hoping your clamshells and mine are replete with succulent and vital inhabitants.