A Spotter's Guide to Useless Characters

What is this 'useless character'? I hear you ask. Aren't all characters useful somehow? Well, the answer is no. While most characters serve some useful purpose, there are those which only serve to clog up your writing and make your life difficult.

To illustrate what a useless character is, I will give an example from my own writing. My useless character nightmare happened in a very, very early draft of Super Sporty 4 (which I wrote when I was around nine years old -- it was a very early draft!), and it taught me a valuable lesson.

Back then, not only were Sporty and Harley superheroes, but their best friend, Trinity, was also a superhero. I was starting to have problems with Trinity not having enough to do (making her a useless character), so I decided to do something with her once and for all. 

I was already planning to introduce a new supervillain, called the Delba, to the series. To make it a shocker, I wanted to have Trinity turn out to be the Delba, getting rid of my useless character in the process. Surprise!

Unfortunately, just after I decided this, I asked one of my friends who her favorite Super Sporty character was. She said, "Trinity". Of course, I couldn't turn my friend's favorite into a bad guy, so I went with my second choice: the 'mean girl', Trixie (well, technically she's a mean horse, but whatever). That was all very well and good, but Trinity was still there, being as useless as ever. Besides, I'd lost my mean girl. So I decided to introduce ANOTHER mean girl, Alexa. With Alexa came her cousin, Carmen, who didn't have any superpowers, but still joined the Sporty-Harley-Trinity team. Now I had TWO useless characters with nothing to do, and this is probably why I stopped writing the original series halfway through Book Six.

(NOTE: I did change the whole arrangement with Trinity and Trixie, obliterating Alexa and Carmen altogether, in the current Kindle series. I won't tell what I did, though; that would be a SPOILER. Shhhhhh!)

The original Trixie-Delba

So, how do you spot a useless character? Well, there are many ways, more than I will ever know, but here are the ones I was able to figure out based on my experiences:
  • They are always main or supporting characters. Minor characters, named or unnamed, are never/rarely useless characters, because they serve as extras. Useless characters will most often manifest themselves as being important, when, actually, they serves no purpose whatsoever.
  • You will have trouble finding stuff for them to do. A main character or a supporting character, by definition, must have a reasonable part to play in the story. If one of your characters never does anything useful, chances are that you have a useless character on your hands.
  • You added them 'just 'cause'. In other words, if you introduced another character just because you couldn't think of anything better to do, then they will be useless. This is a problem most encountered by writers with writers' block, who add a new character as a way of breaking free of the block. It's perfectly fine to use this as a method of busting the 'block, but once you're writing fine again, DELETE THAT CHARACTER (unless you've found something useful for them to do that only they can do. In that case, you're fine).
  • Their job can be done better by someone else. For example, if you have a character whose sole purpose is to rob a bank, wouldn't it be better if someone else robbed the bank? Like ... your main character's best friend? Ooooh!
Useless characters are a massive pain in the neck. They clog up the story, and stop things from running smoothly. However, if you re-purpose them, or even delete them entirely, they will no longer be a threat to your craft.

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