Pop culture reference. Long overdue.
This is overdue, too. Many thanks for your patience while I was away last week. ConDor was lots of fun, got to speak with some great people, and even ended up with a few ideas for future ranty blog posts.
Speaking of which...
I blabbered on a while back about the bad habit of sticking absolutely everything into a story—the kitchen sink approach to storytelling, if you will. If I’m writing a historical story, it’s crammed full of historical events and people. If it’s a sci-fi story, I make sure every single person, place, and thing has a sci-fi, high-tech twist. When I do this, it can get distracting really fast as my reader is buried in facts and details that really have nothing to do with my actual story.
Sometimes, writers do this with their characters. They give them lots of elements and defining points. Lots of them. Again, the kitchen sink approach.
For example, I could make Yakko a guy from the backwoods of Maine and constantly reference his sheltered New England upbringing. And he’s also a Piggers fan (go Piggers!) who’ll cheer/ defend/ quote/ relate things to the Piggers at every chance he gets. Oh, and he’s also a ninja who studied for twenty years in Japan before returning to America.
Now, in and of themselves, none of these are bad character elements. Being the fish out of water isn’t far from being the ignorant stranger. Ninjas are cool. Lots of folks love the Piggers.
But if Yakko’s ninja skills are never going to be necessary to further the plot—or even just to deal with an action set piece—maybe they’re not such a great character element after all. If his devout love of the Piggers is irrelevant to the story, maybe I shouldn’t spend forty or fifty pages on it. And if I could switch his background from rural Maine to suburban Texas with no repercussions, maybe it’s not that much of a character trait. Again, none of these are inherently bad elements, but I really should spend time on an aspect of Yakko’s personality or backstory that has an affect on the story.
And if he doesn’t have an aspect that affects the story... well, why is he there? Sure, he cracks some funny jokes and other characters bounce some dialogue off him. Maybe he even throws a key punch during a fight.
But in the long run, does Yakko do anything that another character couldn’t do? What makes him unique? Why is he here and not Wakko or Dot?
I see a lot of this, I hate to say, in genre material. Fantasy. Urban fantasy. Sci-fi. Writers add in lots and lots of stuff to show how their world is different from other fictional ones. And they do the same thing with their characters. No one is just human. They’re all sorcerers, telepaths, half-zombies, androids, paladins, and time traveling prophets. But four out of five times this is just a label that’s been slapped on them as an attempt at characterization. None of these traits are relevant in any way.
I read a story recently where one of the characters, a very small woman, turned out to be a female leprechaun. Kind of makes sense—little leprechauns have to come from somewhere, right? Whenever she got worked up (in any sense) her eyes and hair would turn green and she’d get a sparkly rainbow aura. Halfway through the story she’s bitten by a vampire and becomes one herself. So now she’s a vampire leprechaun. No, I’m not joking. She’d even change into a green bat. And eventually she dies when she can’t find cover at sunrise.
This all sounds kind of cool, yeah, but the thing is... none of this had any affect on the story. Not a single bit. Her leprechaun abilities didn’t do anything. Her vampire abilities didn’t do anything. The combination of them didn’t do anything.
In fact, the biggest effect on the story was a four page discussion over drinks about being a leprechaun, followed by an interesting scene (see above) back at the protagonist’s apartment, and then many references to the fact that she was now one of the undead, and an undead leprechaun at that. Heck, sunrise happened during a big fight scene, so she just could’ve been killed by one of the evil plant people. If she’d just been a small woman the story would’ve progressed almost exactly the same, just with more time and space to give her some... well, useful traits. And she would’ve been a lot more relatable.
If I had to give this a name, I’d call it the Stefon Factor. If you’re not familiar with Stefon, the overly-enthusiastic club promoter from Saturday Night Live, he tends to talk about clubs that are filled with... well, oddities. Lots of oddities. In his own words, “This club has everything!” But the truth is he rarely talks about the clubs themselves. They just get defined by the patrons (which, granted, was part of the joke).
Y'see, Timmy, in the same way a pile of random story points don't automatically add up to an interesting story, a handful of assorted character elements doesn't always result in a worthwhile character. When I’m creating a character, his or her traits should have an effect on the story. As I’ve mentioned before, every superhero group has a strong guy because at some point they need a strong guy. And if my story has a vampire leprechaun, then at some point things should come to a dead halt if I don’t have the powers of a vampire leprechaun to call on.
Now, let me give you a more positive example...
There’s an old Martin Caidin book called Cyborg which inspired a much more well-known television show called The Six Million Dollar Man. Now, this may sound kind of obvious, but the entire book is about the fact that Colonel Steve Austin has been loaded full of bionic parts after a plane crash. He goes on a couple of missions which would be nigh-impossible without his cybernetics. The story also focuses on Austin coming to grips with the fact that his government has turned him into a Frankenstein’s Monster, that almost half of his body isn’t him anymore. If he wasn’t a bionic man, none of this would work. The plot would struggle and his character arc would be nonexistent. It’s not just a random label—the whole book hinges on the fact that he’s a cyborg.
So give your characters relevant traits. Make them necessary to your story. Because if they aren’t... why are they there?
Next time, a few quick thoughts on dating.
Until then, go write.