January 17, 2010

WRITING ADVICE: JACK MCDEVITT 9: Introduce Characters Who Don’t Really Do Anything

(The Twelve Blunders are used with permission of Jack McDevitt, from his webpage:http://jackmcdevitt.com/Writers.aspx)

This is one of my problems. I frequently create characters in my stories for EFFECT. For example, the short story I’m working on now had an Egyptian-trained, Inca doctor in it initially because I needed a little comic relief.

He WAS a cool character. At present, he still IS a cool character, but his head is on the chopping block. Or it was until he became NECESSARY to the plot. Now I’m not so sure. McDevitt is saying here: “…every individual in a narrative should have an explicit function.”

How do we figure out if that character is necessary?

I typically don’t put characters in stories because I don’t like them! (OK – I do…did…put a character in a story so I could name him after an adolescent nemesis and then have something bad happen to him. I was cured of this new habit when a young lady in a class to whom I was reading the story raised her hand and said she had an uncle who had that name. Turns out, her uncle WAS my adolescent nemesis. Needless to say, I have not named characters after people I know since.) Characters pop into my first drafts all the time. Sometimes I can use them. Most of the time they have to be eliminated. Jack McDevitt suggests that, “It’s far easier to combine the functions [of four characters] in one or two characters if there’s no pressing reason not to do so.”

When reading through a first draft, I look specifically for “special effect” characters. These are characters who serve a bit part, have a name attached to them and then disappear. When I have a couple of them, I look to see if I switch a scene here and add a bit there, I can combine two (or more) effects into one character, then rewrite the scene. This slims the Cast of Characters down and has the added advantage of making the story move faster.

This past week I took advantage of a submission opportunity for my adult, hard SF novel INVADER’S GUILT. This is the novel that started life at 150,000 words and had five main characters and seven or eight minor characters. (I discussed it briefly in a previous blog entry -- http://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/2009/12/writing-advice-jack-mcdevitt-7-major.html).

After realizing my mistakes, I eliminated the plot lines of two characters and combined important scenes they had with the plot lines I was keeping. I also attributed things they’d done to the characters I kept. The end result was the novel I sent out: at 110,000 words! It now has three main characters and four minor ones as well as only four plot lines – one of which has become the overarching storyline for the (I hope) series.

McDevitt’s last word: “…if the character is just along for the ride, get rid of him.”


William said...

Yes--good advice, hard to take. One of the main characters in a former version of the novel I'm working on now isn't pulling his weight in the new version. He can't simply be demoted to minor character, either. On the next complete rewrite, he'll either have make a contribution that is both distinct and essential, or be scrapped for parts. Painful if the latter, but necessary.

ca nadeau said...

I am cutting the fat away in the novel I'm working on right now. I had a secodnary character set up to help with the big plan then realized a more important character can do it instead. So I wounded the secondary character and have no future plans for him now.

GuyStewart said...

It's ALWAYS hard to cut characters -- it always seems like murder to me! I'm not great at it yet, but practice is making me better in that I don't CREATE characters I have to cut as often any more...

Vidad said...

I killed one of my novel's characters then brought him back as an antagonistic ghost. That's probably wrong of me... but he was/is funny, so I did it anyways.