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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