Every now and then, a writer has to deal with the issue of a troublesome character, and I don’t mean a character with an antagonistic personality. A character that seems like a great idea at the start of a project might turn out to be a dud once you get into the writing. I had such a scenario this week while working on my alien invasion novel. The story features an ensemble cast, characters from around the world showing us the invasion from different angles and viewpoints. Many of them are in the military and show us what the fighting is like. Others are in government and political positions with decision-making power. And a few are meant to show us the invasion from the point of view of ordinary people.
One of these was a waitress in southern California, someone with an ordinary job just trying to get by and make ends meet. I recently reviewed the progress of the novel, figuring how much page time I devoted to each character and looking for those I had been neglecting, and I realized that this waitress had her last scene some hundred and twenty pages before where I currently am. She appeared in the story twice and had a total of maybe fifteen pages in all. I try to give my main characters an equal amount of exposure to the reader. This character was clearly not in the limelight. I knew that she had a new scene approaching and I began to ask myself what she would do, and I had nothing. Waiting tables, sure. Maybe a phone call to her parents or something. Definitely nothing important to our understanding of the situation.
A character shouldn’t bore the reader. That character doesn’t have to be the most exciting person in history, but at the very least much grab our attention and draw us in on some level. This waitress, I found, was so disconnected from the rest of the story – not so much the plot, but rather fabric connecting beneath that connected everyone else – that I began to hate her. I’ve hated characters before, but never a primary one. I also began to think that, if this woman was meant to show the invasion from the average Joe (or Josephine, in her case), then she seems somewhat redundant; I already have a similarly mundane character, a priest in Germany who not only shows the war from the main street perspective but also helps touch on the issue of aliens and religion.
Solution: the waitress must go. This brings the second problem of finding a replacement. See, I decided that I want each chapter of the book to feature seven viewpoint characters. I don’t want the same seven in every chapter so you need at least fourteen in order to switch from chapter to chapter. An uneven number like thirteen upsets this balance. So what kind of character can replace the waitress? I’ve got military people aplenty. I have government officials and priests. I have a biologist that helps explain the aliens to the reader. Ah! I don’t have an engineer explaining cool technology to the reader. This might seem like a shallow character, but with a little bit of thought we can find the potential for something dynamic.
I’ve seen plenty of movies and read plenty of books that deal with the atomic bomb and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I’ve seen only one movie about Robert Oppenheimer while he was working on the atomic bomb. It was called Fat Man and Little Boy, a great film showing Oppenheimer dealing not only with a great technical challenge but also the moral implications of his work. This new character is something of a 21st century Werner Von Braun. Von Braun was an interesting historical figure (to me, at least), a scientist who dreamed of building rockets to send man to the Moon. And indeed he did with his work on the Apollo Program. However, he also had to live with the fact that, during World War II, he built missiles for Nazi Germany. Now, humanity will commit genocide in this novel – I won’t sugarcoat that – but it’s probably the closest thing to a justifiable scenario as you can consider. The aliens won’t give up in their attack on us, and humans will go extinct if they win. This new character does take some pride in knowing he’s giving humans a fighting chance to survive, but I like is the image in my mind of him waking up some twenty or thirty years down the road, looking in a mirror and saying to himself, “You know, when I was a kid, I wanted to build rocket ships like I saw on TV and read in comic books, but all I’ve really done is make stuff that blows up.” On top of that, there’s the dread of mankind winning because as soon as the aliens are defeated – if they’re defeated – humanity will just go back to beating itself up.
So what do you get from this exercise? Well, hopefully, you’ll see two things. First, this should show you that you need to constantly inspect your characters to make sure that they’re living up to your standards. If they aren’t, have the courage to tell them that you’ve had fun but that they need to go home. Secondly, if you need a new character, you should be able to find one by focusing on something that you’re story is lacking. If I have a story set in a hospital and not one of the characters works in medicine, then maybe I ought to consider writing a doctor or a nurse.