One Of Your Crucial Characters Isn't Working. What Do You Do?

Illustration for article titled One Of Your Crucial Characters Isn't Working. What Do You Do?

Your awesome novel is firing on all thrusters... except one. A major character, who's important to the story, isn't clicking. She's dull, or he doesn't play well with others. We asked some great authors what to do about this quandary.

Illustration for article titled One Of Your Crucial Characters Isn't Working. What Do You Do?

Eileen Gunn, author of Stable Strategies and Others:

This is more a problem at the novel level than at the short-story level. In a short work, you can just eliminate the boring characters: nobody will miss 'em, and the story will be stronger. But at novel length, sometimes you need a character to be more than a walk-on, for functional reasons.

I use the same strategy I use at a boring party: get the other person to r
ant. Ask them how they really feel about something, and don't be afraid to ask rude questions. In real life, you've got maybe a 50% chance of finding an interesting person under there and a 75% chance of getting slapped, but when you're writing, you're really channeling your own back-brain. Turn it loose. If you can get it to rant, it might say something surprisingly relevant to the rest of the book.

(I suppose this will put people on alert when they're talking to me at parties....)

Illustration for article titled One Of Your Crucial Characters Isn't Working. What Do You Do?

Rachel Pollack, author of Unquenchable Fire and Temporary Agency, and writer of The Doom Patrol:

In regard to the question, getting rid of the character is definitely a possibility. With any aspect, if it's just not working, you might consider it's because it doesn't belong. But let's say you do want, or need, to include this character. One thing to do is raise the stakes for the character, have the person become more serious, with more depth. You can try some extra-novel approaches. That is, write a scene about this character completely outside the book, exploring something about his or her history. You can try writing a scene from this person's point of view, in case the problem is seeing hir from the outside. Or, you might read Tarot cards for the character, figuring out what hir questions might be, and then seeing how the cards suggest insights and directions.

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Sean Williams, author of the Astropolis books, The Broken Land novels, The Books Of The Cataclysm and Star Wars: The New Jedi Order novels:

With characters, I apply the same test I would to any aspect of the story that isn't coming up to expectations: would the story suffer without them? If not, then they should go. This might sound harsh, but I reckon applying Occam's Razor liberally when anything goes wrong is a good technique. Even the most savage cuts can leave the heart of the story intact. In that sense, a novel is like a living body: everything has to connect to everything else. Anything that doesn't is a cancer, draining the vitality of everything around it. A story is only as successful as the weakest of its parts, so why be dragged down by anything?

Of course, applying this advice in the middle of a draft can be a purple pain in the arse—much better to have noticed the problem before you even started—but better to make the cut before the end, when an otherwise dull character might come to life, entirely, utterly too late.

Illustration for article titled One Of Your Crucial Characters Isn't Working. What Do You Do?

Kelley Eskridge, author of Solitaire and Dangerous Space:

When a character's not clicking, it's because she's not real enough — either in the author's imagination, or on the page.

If she only ever turns up at just the right moment to provide crucial information or serve as a foil for the protagonist's important emotional realization, then she's just a red shirt, a story puppet. She needs to have personal, compelling (to her) reasons for everything she does, and they can't just be reasons that blatantly suit the convenience of the story. Real people are damned inconvenient: they avoid issues, have oblique conversations, feel things others don't understand, and are very rarely think out loud in a coherent and rational way so that the protagonist can get important information.

If the character is motivated by personal needs as opposed to story mechanics, then are her needs urgent enough? The higher the stakes at every moment, the more compelling she is, and the more strongly other characters (and readers) can respond to her. High stakes don't necessarily mean superflu or nuclear devastation — even getting to the library by closing time can be a high stakes issue in the right circumstances. People can make some pretty interesting choices when they're running late....

And finally, if she's real in my imagination — if she has her own drives and her own goals — then is she real on the page? That comes from specific choices in description, body language, dialogue and behavior that reflect her particular worldview and give clues to what's driving her. We decipher these clues all the time in our own lives — we know what it means when the teenage bagboy hesitates over the box of tampons, or when two people at a restaurant table eat an entire course without looking at each other. As in life, so in books: find the specific behavior, and the meaning — and the reality — will be plain.




@charliejane: Just out of curiosity, how many authors were asked to give an answer to this question (no names required), how many responded at all, how many responded "Not interested", "I don't have the time", "I'm really interested, but I don't have the time", "I don't care about my characters", "My dog ate your question"?

I haven't read any of these authors (for shame!) and I'm interested to see how their comments (and my subjective 'liking' of the authors, based on their comments) actually translates in to liking their work (and their characters), when I do.

BTW Was the question phrased with a gender orientation? The first thing I thought when I saw the strapline "She's dull, or He doesn't play well with others.", was James Cameron's (from Walter Hill) "You write dialogue for a guy and then change the name" about writing strong, interesting (on the screen?) female characters versus 'Hollywood handbags' [at [] (half way down starting "Hollywood..."), from [] ].

Pretty much all of his successful, resonant ("dollars is votes") characters (Terminator, Sarah Connor) are quintessentially 'dull' and definitely 'don't play well with others'.

Is this just a movie thing or do authors like to 'switcheroo' too, when the going gets tough?