Guest post by Ian McHugh
There’s a short story that I love called “A Dry , Quiet War” by Tony Daniel, which is basically a space-western that recounts a conflict between superhuman veterans of a war at the end of time. At the climax, the hero goes on an epic rage-bender like Superman after Zod slapped his mum in Man of Steel and decides that he’s going to kill the villain so hard that he will never have existed. Apparently this involves the unravelling of entrails, but the point is that when I say kill your characters I mean kill them hard like the avenging space cowboy-god in Daniel’s story. The novelist as Vladimir Putin! Or Kim Jong-Un. Boo-yah! Excise them from the story like they never existed.
But what if your story needs them?
Well, does it? Really? Apply the tests to your characters that I talked about in my previous post: Do they fill the same niche in relation to the protagonist as another character? Can their plot points be carried by another character? That should go some way to killing off the boring ones.
But what if it doesn’t go far enough, and you’re still left with characters that are essential to your story but that you just can’t get excited about? Well, go back to the very basics – the buttons that are available for you to push. Do you know what the boring characters want and need from their situations? Do you know what they have at risk and what will hurt them? How do these things impede or assist the resolution of your protagonist’s story? If there’s nothing there that connects that character’s buttons to the plot, make something up. Your novel is a paranoid totalitarian state with a tenuous connection to reality, of which you are the Divinely Inspired Grand Poobah Ayatollah El-Presidente King-of-Kings and your characters are your long-suffering (and they should suffer) subjects.
Still not enough? Seriously? Well, okay, maybe this particular character is a plot ninja who exists to deliver exposition and that means that when they trundle on stage and open their mouth the story stops dead. Maybe you really can’t get around that. Okay, so remember this: stories are meant to be fun. (I use the term ‘fun’ loosely because The Road is a story so ‘fun’ necessarily encompasses “disturbing”, “traumatic” and “depressing”. Masochism is fun for some people.) Character is story so your characters should be fun, too. This is particularly important with characters who carry a lot of exposition. Exposition is boring, so you need to dress it up with some entertaining handwaving to hold your reader’s interest. You can do that by making your plot ninjas eccentric. Think of The Book in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Q in the James Bond movies. I have a plot ninja in my Eureka Stockade novel who exists only to tell – at some length – one of my principle characters about the dangerous magic he will encounter in my alternate Australia. So, I made him a scenery-chewing mad scientist with absolutely no moral compass and threw in an extreme case of vertigo when he’s going down stairs and a healthy dose of paranoia. Presto! Suddenly his scenes are fun, even though they still consist almost entirely of exposition.
What if you’re bored by your protagonist? Now that’s a bit more serious. It could be that you’re not hurting them enough, or otherwise pushing their buttons hard enough. It could be that they’re not growing and changing enough. It could be that you haven’t given them enough redeeming qualities at the start of their journey to make up for the flaws that they will eventually overcome. It could be that they’re too passive – your protagonist might not be protagonising. Or, it could just be a case of the Vanilla Hero Rule.
If you think about many of the best archetypal heroic stories, the hero of the piece, the character whose noble quest is the centrepiece of the story, is often the most bland and straight-laced of any of the major characters. Think of Harry Potter, Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, Orlando Bloom’s character in… well, anything really, but in Pirates of the Caribbean particularly. These heroes carry the moral virtue of the story, which can make them kinda dull. But what it also does is provides scope for the characters around them to be a little more eccentric, a little less virtuous. Characters like Snape and Gollum and Jack Sparrow, even Han Solo, need Harry and Frodo and Will Turner and Luke to bounce off of, to contrast with and to bring out the best in them.
So, if your protagonist is kind of vanilla, that might be okay, because it allows the other flavours around them to express themselves. The hero still needs some flavour of their own, so vanilla, yes, but not mashed potato.