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Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Avoids: Part III--Useless Characters


Just as Elmore Leonard tells us to avoid useless words, useless adverbs, and useless descriptions, he probably would tell us to avoid Useless Characters in our stories, too. You know--those walk-ons, walk-offs we never see or hear from again. In other words, if the character has no vital part, no duty to perform, or no interest to the reader, then take some time to triage your manuscripts. Who are these useless people?

CHARACTERS THAT DON’T BELONG IN YOUR STORY.
1. They don’t make anything happen.
2. They get along with everyone, neither creating nor enhancing conflict.
3. We aren’t interested in knowing any more about them.
4. They are not connected with either the main character or the main character’s story.
5. They don’t generate plot.
6. They walk on, then walk off, and we never hear from them again.

There are many reasons an editor rejects a manuscript. I can’t begin to list the vast number. Many times it may be you’ve chosen the wrong publisher for your novel, or the editor is having a bad day, or your writing is excessively sloppy, or that your plot is indecipherable.

But have you ever had a manuscript rejected because your characters were in serious need of help?
EXAMPLE: I wrote a story about a brilliant professor of Renaissance literature, stuck in her own little world and in a rut. She meets the new football coach in town. He courts her, encouraging her to try new things. My rejection letter said my heroine was “too staid, boring, and proper—too nice.” (See Number Two above.) The editor nailed the description of my heroine. Maybe I should make her a little quirky and funky, instead of proper and well mannered.

The protagonist must have a worthy problem. If he or she doesn’t, we won’t be interested in them. (See Number Three above.) Every good novel or short story I’ve read had a main character with a real problem. Now, he doesn’t know his REAL problem at the beginning, even though he thinks he does. That’s how a plot should move forward, with the protagonist learning more about his problem and what to do about it.
EXAMPLE: In the beginning of GONE WITH THE WIND, Scarlet had a problem. She thought it was to find a husband who could properly care for her, but in the end, her real problem became learning how to save herself.

Don’t introduce a character unless he/she has a specific role somewhere in the plot.
EXAMPLE: In TEXAS BLUE, I introduced an old man living alone in a shack far away from a town. My hero and heroine happened upon him, ate breakfast with him, and learned how many more miles they had to go to the next town. I had no further plans for this old man, except later he became a source of vital information for the heroine, and he became her partner in a rescue attempt. This is a case of the author—me—not realizing I had written a useless character, and inadvertently made him vital to the story.

TRIAGE: the sorting of and allocating of treatment of patients, esp. battle or disaster victims according to a system or priorities designed to maximize the number of survivors.
Note: substitute “characters” for patients and victims.

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Celia Yeary-Romance...and a little bit 'o Texas
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22 comments:

Donna L Bolk said...

Hey there,
Great article, good things to remember when sitting at the keyboard, and moving into the editing mode.
I missed commenting on your previous post and wanted to say, I love your favorite authors, Maggie Osborne heads my list of favorite western authors, oh, but you left one off the list, Celia Yeary.
Take care, and happy tales to you, Donna

Keena Kincaid said...

Hi, Celia. Great advice. I'm in the process now of judging contest entries, and this is one of the things I'm noticing, but I hadn't managed to distill what the problem was before this blog. Thank you.

Celia Yeary said...

DONNA--I'm glad to find another Maggie Osborne fan, but I haven't seen anything new from her in a long time. I love her early books--simple love stories with a lot of grit!And my goodness, thank you for that wonderful compliment--that will carry me along for a while!Celia

Celia Yeary said...

KEENA--I'm glad it was of some help. I judged six contest entries back in the summer, and four of the six were god-awful. I was hard-pressed to keep my comments positive. Two were very good, and one was ready for the publisher, IMO. Sometimes a useless character stares me in the face, and it takes a while to realize--she's not worth the paper she's written on! Celia

Maggie Toussaint said...

This is a very good list, Celia. I think many unpublished writers would benefit from a tip like this.

Isn't it strange how learning things the hard way really stays with you? The school of hard knocks graduates people with thick skins who are determined to succeed.

Well done!

Celia Yeary said...

THANKS, MAGGIE--I like compliments coming from you! I think my learning curve has been much steeper than most, though. The list above of six kinds of characters should be in my notebook so I can study my own advice. Celia

Linda Swift said...

Very good article, Celia. You always cut to the chase when offering help to others. I wish every new author could read this. Ever thought of putting all these gems into a how-to book? And maybe offering it on Smashwords? Linda

Celia Yeary said...

LINDA--you know, if I had time to do anything, it might be to take a nap! I do appreciate your ideas, though, and someday who knows? I might do one like Morgan is doing. Hers it "My Fears and what to do about them." I could title mine "The Avoids: How to Rid Your Manuscripts of Useless Blatherings."

Linda Banche said...

Hey Celia, you're not the only one. I just got a reject, in part, because of a useless character. Didn't seem useless to me when I wrote her. Oh, well, back to the drawing board.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Great article, Celia. Hmmm, now I'm re-examining my novels. Coincidentally, one of my friends whose book is too long was advised to combine a couple of minor characters into one. Proves your point, eh?

Celia Yeary said...

LINDA B.--I know the feeling! I can identify! Yes, my girl, back to the drawing board, and you fix that manuscript! At least the editor told you the problem. I hate it when they say "sorry, not right for us at this time."
Thanks for reading--Celia

Celia Yeary said...

CAROLINE--Amazing, isn't it? I'm beginning to believe our characters have to really be caricature of real people--far out and outrageous in some way. Just proves why I would never, ever, be anyone's heroine. Celia

Leigh D'Ansey said...

Hi Celia. I love your 'triage' approach to character cutting - it might be ruthless but so necessary. Thanks for the great advice!

liana laverentz said...

Excellent, blog, Celia. You hit the nail on the head!

Celia Yeary said...

LEIGH--We do have to be ruthless, at times! Only the strong will survive! Thank you for coming by--Celia

Celia Yeary said...

LIANA--thanks, Liana! Celia

Savanna Kougar said...

Celia, excellent presentation of what secondary characters aren't worth the paper or monitor they're written on.

Celia Yeary said...

SAVANNA--oh, yes the monitor! We don't do stuff on paper anymore, do we? Except for print books. I still love a paperback or hardback. Getting one hardback on the shelf in on my Bucket List. Celia

Historical Writer/Editor said...

Excellent post. Thanks! -laura

StephB said...

Celia, thumbs up for a great article about writing characters. I love how you turned the old man into a vital character for the heroine. Those kind of surprises are nice.

Smiles
Steph

Celia Yeary said...

Thank you, Laura--I'm pleased you think so. Celia

Celia Yeary said...

Steph--thanks for that--it just happened, though--one of those things that I wrote and then wondered, where did that come from? Celia