EVERGREEN: On Being a Professional Amateur #7: Where’s Waldo?

The situation: Waldo appears in chapter three as a close personal friend of the protagonist. He has an epic encounter with the villain, saves the day and endears himself to a female protagonist. He then promptly disappears for the rest of the book, while the reader is left to wonder where he went.

This is such a familiar scenario in the manuscripts I see, that I begin to suspect the “Where’s Waldo?” fad was started by a college level creative writing instructor or a convention workshop coordinator.

What happens when we treat our characters as if they were widgets?

When I talk about characters as widgets, I mean that they

  • are treated as if interchangeable and
  • are tossed aside when the writer has no further use for them.

Characters aren’t widgets, though I see many manuscripts in which they are treated that way. They appear onstage for a moment, step forward, say their lines, then depart or waft into the background.

Characters of this sort often have no clear role in the narrative or seem to fill the wrong role, given what the reader is told about them when they first appear. I recently encountered a story in which the writer had given the protagonist a magical coin that his guardian fairy had bespelled to help him through some trials he was undergoing. But the protagonist had no idea that the coin had magical powers, let alone suspect the nature of those powers. The writer picked a character out of his cast and had him tell the protagonist all about the magical coin.

The problem? Not only was there no way this particular character could have known what the coin was and did, but he was an orthodox priest and would have been the last person in the world to want the protagonist to know how to use it. The ironic thing was that the fairy actually had a friend in the village—an old wizard she had charged to keep an eye on the protagonist—who really did know something about the coin and the fairy’s agenda.

Why didn’t the writer just use the wizard? Because the wizard was a uni-tasker —a character created for a specific purpose which he had already fulfilled. In fact, the poor wizard disappeared until quite late in the story. This particular manuscript had a series of characters that were treated in this way.

What effect does it have on a story when we treat characters as convenient objects that we can invent, use and then discard by simply forgetting about them?

Once you’ve written a character, he or she has a certain reality in the reader’s mind and in the world you created for the characters to function in. Your reader will think of Waldo as a person, even if to you he is just a convenient way to “off” the villain or drop hints about the magical coin.

The character’s disappearance may cause the reader to anticipate his return and to interpret successive scenes in that context. It may, in fact, cause the reader to attach unintended meaning to character interactions if he expects Waldo to reappear at any moment. If Waldo is magical, the reader might be forgiven for thinking every new character is Waldo in disguise.

What’s a writer to do?

There are a number of solutions to this, all of which grow from having a clear idea of your cast and what roles they each fill in your plot. For example, rather than create a uni-tasker to perform a role, check to make sure you don’t already have an existing character who might more logically fill that role. 

I’m not saying you should never create a character on the fly just because it feels right. Some of the best moments of a writer’s life are serendipitous. But if you do create a Waldo, consider turning him to a multi-tasker. Give him a life. You might find he helps you write a better book.

Suggestion: Go over some of your own fiction. Do you have a Waldo or two among your characters? If so, back up and take a look at the structure of your story. If you’ve had to invent a character for a specific purpose, ask yourself why that is and what it says about your story that once that purpose is fulfilled, the character has ceased to matter to you. Then address that issue. You may find that the action involving the character:

  • Is taking place at the wrong time in the story.
  • Needs to be set up more thoroughly as part of the fabric of the story.
  • Is not as central to the plot of the story as you thought and can be cut.

This is a topic for thought—no exercise.

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EVERGREEN: On Being a Professional Amateur #7: Where’s Waldo? — 3 Comments

  1. Read a student ms once in which a reasonably attractive hero began a quest. Then he vanished for over a thousand pages, while many other protagonists took over. We complained bitterly.

  2. Interesting idea here, Maya. Makes sense. What would you say about many of Shakespeare’s characters, like Laertes in Hamlet for instance?

  3. Re: Laertes and company — I think for one thing that a play and a novel are two different art forms with different conventions. Plays (and movies) are forms that require a certain amount of short-hand — one character who stands as a proxy for many, plot developments that are boiled down to a single visual moment, or emotional journeys that are condensed into a single line of dialogue or a single scene. In these forms, characters are used differently and developed differently than they are in a novel. Everything the viewer is to know must be spoken or seen, ergo, there must be a character to say it or show it to us.

    Then too, the relationship to the characters of a viewer (external) and reader (internal) is different. The writer controls the reader’s response to a character by what she says or doesn’t say about him. Sometimes the Waldo effect in a novel occurs simply because the writer has sent the reader false signals about a character’s importance. These signals come in the form of names, depth of description and the amount of time the writer invests in the back story and inner workings of the character.

    If a writer gives a character a first name, it grants them more importance in the story than if they were just a “red-haired man”. If they describe the character, make us privy to his inner thoughts and give him back story, I think we’re justifiably rattled with the character disappears from view. Everything the writer tells the reader about a character is like a thread in a tapestry or a piece in a puzzle. The reader will try to make each detail mean something.

    By way of example” We were watching an episode of Brisco County Junior the other night and in the midst of a scene in which John Astin’s character is explaining to Brisco the workings of a motorcycle, he pauses, points to a lever on the bike and says, “What’s that? I don’t know what that does. Don’t touch it.” Need I tell you that we watched the entire rest of the episode in expectation that someone was going to yank that lever? They never did and my husband was still mulling that over when we went to bed.

    Given the type of show BCJ was, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the writers did that on purpose knowing the effect it would have. But I wouldn’t recommend it under normal circumstances because it has the net effect of distracting the reader/viewer from the story.