By David Flin
Sergeant Rock McHardman, a combat veteran of 26 action adventure novels without any redeeming features, looked down into the valley at the Horde of Dark Malignant Evil gathered there. The HDME had come here to bring destruction and evil and to lay waste to the peace-loving people of Pretty Village. Again. This was the 26th time they had come, and they had been driven back every time previously. You’d have thought they’d have taken up something else, like crochet, but no, they had a plot compulsion to despoil helpless villages. Sergeant Rock McHardman stared at them, his eyes like flint. He was as solid as a 10-ton rock of granite, and almost as intelligent.
He turned to his companion, Lieutenant Percival de Courtney-Smythe-Makepeace. Rock’s eyes narrowed. He hadn’t remembered that. The Lieutenant looked exactly like a small, stuffed, furry teddy bear. In fact, the Lieutenant was a small, stuffed, furry teddy bear.
We’ve all been in that situation from time to time, when we are writing a story, and we suddenly realise that one (or more) of the characters could be replaced with a stuffed furry toy, and it wouldn’t make any difference to the story. It should be a test for every character in the story. If the character can be replaced, you don’t have a character. What you have is a plot token.
It’s especially common with a romantic interest. What better to steer the central character into action than the need to rescue their true love? Is it Tuesday? Need to rescue the romantic interest.
A character needs some agency, some ability to have an impact on their own fate. If they don’t have this (even if they fail), then their very existence is dependent upon the protagonist doing something. If this is the case, something needs to change. The character needs to be fleshed out, or cut out. Give them flaws, strengths, desires, goals, and, above all, some semblance of choice.
Maybe, just maybe, they can do things. Signal the protagonist, distract a guard, carry a stuffed, furry toy to safety while the protagonist fights off the HDME. Anything.
Sergeant Hardman looked at the hordes below. He was going to have to rush down with his fighting knife, take out the two machine guns posts, fight his way through a host of battle-droids, confront the Dark Wizard and tear his beating heart from his chest, dynamite the enemy tanks, disarm the nuclear device, and get back here.
“Will you want tea or coffee when you get back?” Lieutenant Makepeace asked.
Rock Hardman was a Real Man. “Both,” he said with a snarl. “And no sugar.”
You see the problem?
Mind you, it’s a common enough problem in fiction, even very popular fiction. To prove my point, five examples.
Dawn Summers from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Season 5. Come on, the girl is a walking plot device whose only talent is annoying people. It’s her entire raison d’etre. Literally. She contributes nothing, and replacing her with a magical teddy bear would change nothing, except that a teddy bear wouldn’t rush off and get captured quite so often.
Claire Bennett, from Heroes, Season 1. Save the cheerleader, save the world. It was a pretty neat line, although when given, rather less helpful than it might have been. The trouble is, that’s her role. She gets saved. A lot. Oh, she’s got this neat regeneration superpower, but for all the agency she has, she could have been replaced by a magical teddy bear.
Susan, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Lucy does things and drives the plot along; Edmund betrays and repents; Peter is the eldest and leads the siblings; and Susan, well, um, it’s teddy bear time. Even CS Lewis gets bored with the character in the end, and writes her out of the series by saying she’s now only interested in “nylons and lipstick”.
Ron Weasley in Harry Potter. Ron Weasley exists for only one purpose: to make Harry Potter look good by comparison. Apart from playing chess in the first book, and taking on leadership while Harry Potter is struck by plot depression in the last book, Ron Weasley does nothing that Harry Potter isn’t doing better. You can remove Ron from the entire series, apart from the two scenes mentioned, and nothing changes.
Ginny Weasley in Harry Potter. If Ron exists purely to make Harry look good, Ginny exists purely as a love interest for Harry. What makes it worse is that, as far as can be told from either books or films, there is absolutely no chemistry between Harry and Ginny. We only know that Harry is attracted to Ginny because he says so. Apart from quidditch, they seem to have nothing in common, and they never seem to talk about quidditch. It’s not helped by the fact that Ginny is more 2-dimensional than a sheet of tissue paper. She’s brave. She plays quidditch. Um, that’s it. She has no reason to exist other than to be Harry’s love interest.
What is especially frustrating is that there are characters right there where there is some apparent chemistry; the most obvious examples being Hermione and Luna. But Ginny? Nothing more than a teddy bear with a broomstick.
What to do? First of all, imagine the story if one of the main characters is replaced by a teddy bear. The teddy bear can make no decision of their own, and can only respond when someone else initiates something. If the story is unchanged, there’s a problem. If there’s a problem, there are three things you can do. You can give the character some actual personality, make them into something other than a teddy bear; you can cut the character out entirely; or you can just ignore the issue.
Let’s say we decide to turn Lieutenant Makepeace into something other than a teddy bear. How might the story continue?
Sergeant Rock Hardman drew his fighting knife, and checked a safe route down the scree slope into the hordes below. He’d need to slice through them before they realised that he was on them, do as much damage as he could, and then hurry back up the scree slope, while the Lieutenant provided covering fire to give him the space he would need to get clear.
Lieutenant Makepeace suddenly has a purpose, one that doesn’t detract from Rock’s heroics. The story is still nonsense, of course, but at least the secondary character is more than a teddy bear.
David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow