Wednesday, September 3, 2014

1001 Ways to Wreck a Story: Part Two

Julie is here with the next part of our series. Enjoy!

The "Casting-Too-Many-or-Spotlight-Hogging-Extras" Story

The Problem
Populating your story with compelling characters that make your reader want to turn the page seems a simple enough concept. Making your reader care about the character, or at least arousing their curiosity about what they may do next is a key element.

Apart from your main character, and possibly a villain or two, most stories require additional casting, the exception being a Main-Character-against-the-elements scenario type of story. The trick is knowing when enough is enough and two possible pitfalls are:

Pitfall #1: Overcasting – just because a story takes place in a village, every villager need not come out of their cottage.

Pitfall #2: Spotlight-Seeking Extras – extras are just that: characters there to support and help the main characters move the story forward. Usually they have only a brief line or two of dialogue at the most. However, sometimes they get “Delusions of Grandeur”. Don’t let them take over!

I have personally fallen into both of these traps. I have over-cast to the point of making a scene too confusing to be read. My reader would be thinking, “Wait, who said that? The hulking wood-cutter with the limp, or the skinny blacksmith with the missing finger?" Hmmm, well, it was one of those limb-challenged characters, anyway.

I have also created small part characters so interesting that my readers have temporarily lost interest in the plight of my MC. I had a crusty old sea captain that I needed to transport my MC and her companions from point A to point B. He was so interesting that his backstory leaked through in some of his dialogue. He was such a cool old sea dog that a few of my readers were disappointed when he didn’t play a bigger role, or reappear in the story later. Disappointing readers…big no-no.

The Fixes

When you have created too many extras, or supporting roles, you have to look hard at each character, their role, what they accomplish for you in the scene and how you can simplify to do more with less.

In Pitfall #1, you may have created the woodcutter because your characters need to travel through local woods and need a guide, and you may have created the blacksmith because the MC needs her weapon repaired. Not a problem. While attending the forge to have the hulking blacksmith with the missing finger repair her sword, your MC discovers that he knows the nearby wooded area like the back of his four-fingered hand because he collects the wood for his forge from there. Voila, the two characters have merged into one, reducing your cast, but advancing your plot as required.

As for Pitfall #2, the scene-stealer, you can water them down or even cut them out, if possible. In the case of my seadog, I cut back some of his dialogue, and shortened the description of him, but I didn’t choose the option of cutting him completely. I plan on doing a sequel to that story and he will be re-cast in a more substantial role. Some scene-stealers, like actress Melissa McCarthy, can’t be denied completely. Another option would have been to pare him back even further so that he is simply “the captain” with no interaction with the other characters at all and to shelve the fuller version of him to be dusted off and used in a different story later. Waste not, want not!

Just remember, they are extras, if they start giving you lip, send them to cool their heels at the Craft Services Table – you are the casting Director, and the Producer, the Set Designer, the Costume Designer…well, you get the picture!

Image credit: Mzacha

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