40 Days of Worksheets – Day 23

ramonagravitarWorksheet #23 – Too Stupid To Live

Characters are imperfect creatures who, like real people, make mistakes and sometimes do really stupid things. TSTL is a ruler that measures if a character’s mistakes are valid and human and understandable, of if their actions are so foolish that it reveals the author’s inability to bring about a conclusion without resorting to desperate measures.

What does it mean when a character is Too Stupid To Live? It means the character acts without plausible motivation in order to serve the plot. A TSTL character will go into the dark basement even though the light switch doesn’t work and a violent escaped convict has been spotted in the area. What rational person would do this? No one, but the author needs the character in the basement for the climax.

In short, a TSTL character ignores the “fool me once, fool me twice” rule, only they’re fooling themselves.

A story needs danger, and characters do need to make bad choices. The measure of these bad choices is whether or not they are so stupid that it damages the character in service of the plot. If the cop who rushes ahead without backup does so because he’s a honcho hothead hotshot, well, he should get what’s coming to him and not be rewarded for his foolishness. But if he’s doing this because there is a person dangling from the edge of a cliff and there’s no time to wait, then he’s a hero.

Think about the risky choices your characters make and answer the following:

  1. Why is this decision risky or foolish?
  2. Why is it necessary to the plot?
  3. Why must this character, and no one else, perform this act or make this choice?
  4. Does the character know it’s a risk?
  5. What bad thing will happen if the character does not act?
  6. Is there any other way to get this character where you need him/her to be without getting him/her into a TSTL situation?

Please note: All worksheets posted are my original work and intellectual property. I ask that you share the links on social media, and you are welcome to share the worksheets with your critique groups and writing friends with credit given. That being said, these worksheets—despite being posted on the Internet—may not be copied, distributed, or published as anyone’s work but mine. In short: sharing is good, plagiarism is bad.

Disclaimer #2: You may post your completed worksheet if you’d like, but please remember that, by doing so, you are sharing your ideas with all of the Internet. You’ve been warned.

The Deletion Graveyard

RamonaGravitarI had to get rid of a character this week. His name was Mark Rowonowski, and he was a detective with the Delaware State Police.

Rowonowski was bald–shaved head kind of bald–and he had a scar on the bridge of his nose that ran down toward his left eye. The scar had not come from police work, and he never discussed how he got it. People asked, but he made it clear he wasn’t going to talk about it. Continue reading “The Deletion Graveyard”

How To Avoid Overpopulation, Part 1

What is Overpopulation?

In a story, Overpopulation means there are too many characters; or it can mean too many characters are introduced at one time; or it can mean the prose is cluttered with unnecessary details about throwaway or stock characters.

Entering the world of a new story is like walking into a party. Maybe you are acquainted with the host (protagonist) and his/her spouse (sidekick/love interest) because you been to their home (read about them) before. Maybe they are new to you. For the sake of this post, let’s pretend you’re walking into a book party and you don’t know a soul.

Who greets you at the door and invites you inside? There are four possibilities:

  1. The host ~  At the book party, this would be the protagonist or main character (MC). The MC is your guide through the story. As a guest, you want to get to know your host, so you would notice this person’s speech, clothes and manners; you’d listen attentively to their anecdotes; you’d observe their interaction with other guests.
  2. A greeter ~ At a party-party, this would be a butler, doorman, or a relative assigned to the task; at our book party, this person would be a minor or secondary character who serves a function in the story. The function may be large or small. How much you learn about this person depends on how important their story task.
  3. A stranger ~ A random person who happens to be near the door when you ring the doorbell. In fiction, this would be a throwaway character: a character who performs a single function and leaves the story when that act is done. Do you need to know this person’s personal history if all they’re good for in the story is opening the door? Maybe. Maybe not.
  4. No one ~ There is no host, greeter or random stranger at the door. You walk right in, like an open house, and work the party using your own social skills.

Who does not answer the door at a party? A group of people, each of whom introduces him/herself to you and thus expects you to decipher a jumble of names and descriptions two steps inside the story door.

Have you ever read a story where the first chapter is so overloaded with names and character details, you feel like you’ve walked into a room full of strangers who are all babbling at you at once? This is a form of Overpopulation. Throwing too many characters at the reader just inside the door forces the reader to work extra hard. Why are you making your reader work so hard?

How do you keep from Overpopulating a story? Begin by considering the function of each character and how much the reader needs to learn about him/her/it.

With primary characters, it’s simple. The reader needs to know what this person looks like, what he does with his time each day, and a personal history. The reader needs enough background so there’s logic to why this person acts as he does. In short, we need a full dossier on the important people in the story.

Second, with minor or secondary characters, the reader needs to know enough to maintain story logic or make the plot work. Let’s say the MC’s neighbor is ex-military, which the author points out because the MC is often gone and the neighbor keeps an eye out on her place. Since the neighbor has an ongoing function in the story, let’s award him a name: Daniel. It’s helpful to see that Daniel keeps his high and tight haircut; to learn he goes running every morning; to know he keeps a loaded gun on his premises. It might be necessary to know Daniel suffered from PTSD; that he has screaming nightmares about his war experiences; that’s he’s wary of strangers and can be aggressive. Or, maybe Daniel’s background has given him a don’t-sweat-the-small stuff attitude. However much the author knows about Daniel, if none of this impacts the events of the story or drives the action, do we need to know so much about Daniel? This is the author’s choice, to decide if the guy next door is a nameless neighbor or our pal Daniel.

Third, let’s consider throwaway characters. Throwaway or stock characters are those folks who perform a single function in the story. Let’s take the young officer who delivers the bad news to the MC that the military guy next door has been found dead. If the officer is going to participate beyond this moment, he gets a name and physical description. We don’t need his life history, but it’s easier to remember Corporal Clark than “the officer who informed me of Daniel’s death.” On the flip side, if the pharmacist calls from the drug store to remind the MC her prescription’s been sitting in the basket for three days, and the purpose of that call is to get her out of the house so Daniel can sneak over and booby-trap her basement, do we need to know the name of the pharmacist?  This sounds like a word problem from math class, but the answer is no.

Fourth, the stranger at the door.

We’ll talk about him, her, or it, tomorrow. Stay tuned.


Tomorrow’s Topic: How To Avoid Overpopulation, Part 2