Sunday, November 02, 2008

Use 'em - or kill 'em

I've just read a book - rather a good one, I thought initially - that boasts a useless character.

This elderly man appeared at one meal, at which he had to be helped with his food. Occasionally the writer mentioned the number of chairs or people at other meals, which a quick tot-up showed meant he had to be present. Although he was never fed again, not that she mentioned anyway. Once she referred to 'the old man' being helped into another room.

That was it. He had nothing to say, nothing to do, except hang out at the dinner table and not be mentioned.

So why was he there at all? I've thought my way around the symbolic stuff - nothing. Family balance, that kind of stuff - nope, nothing. His presence, as far as I could tell, was completely unnecessary. I wondered if he had had more of a role in an earlier draft, which was then cut, leaving him voiceless, faceless, needing only a chair for the head count.

He was a problem though, when I thought about the book afterwards. This man, who needed help to feed and walk, what was he doing the rest of the time while the family were out and about? Who was looking after him? Rather than just being a presence without consequence, he became a problem in my mind; a loose end that undermined the realism and credibility of the whole story. So what had been rather a good book slid down my mental ratings chart to slumber somewhere at the bottom of the 'well, I won't read that one again, or probably anything else by this author' pile.

If you don't really need a character, if a character has no character, please, please get out your sharp red pen and kill 'em off.

8 comments:

Aerin said...

I love using sharp red pens.

JaneyV said...

I see a psychopathic side to you that I'd never noticed before. And it's catchy. I think I see the demise of a family of characters coming very soon.
MUH-HAHAHAHAHAHA!

writtenwyrdd said...

You make a good point. It sounds like the character was added to give a sense of place, to add in characters that filled in the background. But the writer apparently forgot that a throwaway character who poses questions for readers or who is dwelt upon too much needs to be woven into the story and dealt with. Either that or cut, as you say. Use 'em or kill 'em indeed!

Sarah Laurenson said...

Kill 'em? WOuld it have made the book more interesting if the old guy had kicked the bucket?

Great post. And yes, I hate having loose threads like that in what I'm reading. Even JKR left things hanging that she was supposedly going to clean up in the last book. Very disappointing even though she did a great job overall in keeping things consistent across 7 books.

Whirlochre said...

I get this all of the time — not dribbly old blokes appearing at random round the dinner table, of course (they have the decency to save themselves up till bedtime), but rather those odd lines or snippets or words that relate only to cuts and edits but which have themselves avoided the chop.

pjd said...

I had a creative writing teacher once that had a name for this type of character: Prop.

As in a prop for a stage or movie production. Inanimate objects that perhaps deepen the background or exist solely for the purpose of allowing the main characters to do or say something. In this case, the old man appears to be a prop in the same way a family photo on the mantelpiece might. If you find one of your characters is only a prop, get rid of them.

Good discussion of your reaction to something tiny that bugged you so much you probably won't read the author again.

I wonder if the author and editor discussed this old man at any point.

McKoala said...

Aerin and Janey, sometimes I worry about you two...

Yes, Written, Sarah and PJD. He needed a role. Interestingly other grandparents from that era were mentioned, but he was the only one of the four still living. It might have had more meaning if he had also been dead, or, yes, had died during the course of the book. There was simply no reason for him to be there - but, yes PJD, in that one scene feeding him did allow one character to avoid the dreaded machine-gun effect of 'said, said, said.'

JKR is a good example to bring up, Sarah, because as with some of her quirks, this one made me wonder if an editor had actually read the book. (Unless, of course, the editor was the one that cut out some bigger role for this character, and then missed the other two mentions...)

Robin S. said...

Honey, I'll come back and read...but for now...

GO SEE WHIRL IN A 'KILT'. That man has some seriously mmmmmm legs going on.