Beware the Unitasker
My favorite Food Network show is Good Eats. I never grow tired of host Alton Brown’s blend of humor, history, science, and culinary skill. And if you’ve watched the show for any length of time, you know one of Brown’s biggest pet peeves is the unitasker – a kitchen utensil that performs only one function.
I recently read a novel where the protagonist has two best friends. BFF#1 is featured prominently in the book; she is, in fact, integral to the story. BFF#2 appears in chapters one through four, and then does not appear again – nor is she mentioned - for more than 100 pages.
Yes, 100 pages. It was so distracting to me that, after awhile, I went flipping though to book to see if I could find this particular character. I kept thinking, What happened to BFF #2? Was there a falling out I missed because several pages somehow stuck together? Did she go on a long vacation? Does she not own a telephone?
Eventually, when BFF#2 reappears, I realized the author had created a unitasker: a character that serves only one purpose in the novel. In this particular case, BBF#2 exists to tell the protagonist (and the reader) all that is wrong with the protagonist’s marriage; she does nothing else.
If I were writing this particular story, this character would be gone. Poof. Deleted. Why? Because there were two other characters that also served to point out flaws in the protagonist’s marriage, and these other characters played multiple, fuller roles in the story as well.
Sometimes authors (guilty!) like our characters too much. Maybe she’s modeled after a good friend or he’s based on your grandfather. But unitaskers only flatten a story; the novel loses multidimensionality if each time certain characters appear, they are saying or doing the exact same thing.
Be willing to scrutinize your characters. Ask yourself, can this story be better served if I eliminate this character, or combine his function with another character? Think of the people in your life. Sure, you might have a friend who you go to when you need decorating advice, but is that the only reason you talk with her? Allow fictional relationships should mirror those is real life, with all their fullness. If the relationship isn’t serving your novel, it’s unhealthy. Cut or combine the character with another, and your story will be better for it.
(Thumbnail image by Dave Morrison and used under the Creative Commons license.)