My second segment of Lessons From My WIP is on weeding out your novel’s trophies. Trophies in this case are in the same vein as ‘Author’s Darlings’, but covering a much wider range. And while source after source after source say to kill your darlings, to murder them viciously where they stand, it’s still something that the average novelist struggles with well into publication.
So how do you identify your trophies? And what can you do to prevent the collection of more?
Trophies can be anything, really–almost anything added to your story to make it seem cooler, more bad-ass, or generally more impressive ends up with a place in the trophy case. Some examples I’ve dealt with in my own work or seen in the works of others include:
- Extremely attractive characters. Actually, let’s just say Mary-Sues in general: Attractive, smart, loved by all, you know the drill.
- Unnecessary pets. How often does a pet truly contribute to the story? Especially in the realms of a fantasy novel, where it’s all too easy to have animals flocking to your character left and right. (I was guilty of this in the early, early stages.)
- Unexplained wealth. If a part of your conflict or a crucial part of your character’s background hinges on that wealth, that’s not so bad. But if you have one of your cast of characters shockingly well-off just for the sake of being able to afford other trophies, that’s a red flag. (Was guilty of this one as well, until recently in fact.)
- Fancy cars. Never really acceptable for your character to have. The only two exceptions I can think of are if your character’s a thief (thus making the sports car part of some sort of conflict or solidifying that aspect of their character in the reader’s mind) or if your character is, as I said, wealthy. With the latter, though, there’s still no real excuse to flaunt the fancy car. If it reads like the author’s saying, “Check out this awesome car, it makes my character so awesome,” the reader will be left with a bad taste in their mouth.
- Unnecessary skills. Many successful protagonists have had distinct hobbies (Sam from Shiver was a musician, Dr. Brennan from the television show Bones is a successful author on the side), but give them more than one and it starts to look like bragging. There’s a difference between, “I can play guitar,” and, “I can play guitar, piano, and flute, plus I can draw and paint and sing and throw pots and make sculptures out of the bubbles in my bath!” Unless one of the primary aspects of your character’s personality is that he’s incredibly gifted or artistic, that just plain won’t fly.
- Unnecessary powers/abilities. Over the years I’ve critiqued and helped brainstorm dozens of paranormal, fantasy, or science fiction novels, and one thing that first-time novelists just can’t seem to understand is that no, having the powers of a lesser god does not make your character awesome. It makes them boring, and difficult to challenge. Why?
Because the fewer trophies you give your protagonist, the more he struggles. And the more he struggles, the higher the overall suspense. And the higher the overall suspense, the closer the reader is to the edge of his seat. Sitting there at 3 in the morning, struggling to keep his eyes open and crossing his legs because he hasn’t peed in nearly a day because he just can’t seem to put the book down.
How do you weed out these trophies? Whenever you find yourself looking at a character and wishing you were as talented or pretty as them, that’s a trophy. Whenever you find yourself using a brand name (Prada purse, driving a Lamborghini, sitting back on the couch and watching Pirates of the Caribbean), that’s a trophy. Whenever you find a character or animal with no real purpose but to tag along and gain the reader’s affection, that’s a trophy.
In short, anything you’re giving your character to make their life more awesome or ideal instead of more conflicted and intense is probably a trophy.
So murder your trophies before they slaughter your novel.
As always, I’d love to hear what you have to say. So feel free to leave a comment or start up a discussion!