Some characters are good, some are bad, and some are completely redundant. You may have guessed that we’re focusing on the third category today. These characters fill some role that’s already been taken. Dividing the role between two characters reduces the time available to develop each character and burdens the story with more introductions. In most cases, the weaker character can be cut without losing anything from the story. Let’s look at five prominent examples so you’ll know what to avoid in your own work.
1. General Iroh, Legend of Korra
I’ve talked about Legend of Korra before and about how it had too much story crammed into too few episodes. This got worse near the end of season one, when the show introduced General Iroh. Unlike his namesake from the Last Airbender, this Iroh is a stoic young Firebender who thinks he can tell the Avatar what to do. There’s just one problem: Legend of Korra already has a stoic young Firebender who thinks he can tell the Avatar what to do, and his name is Mako.
I’m the last person to extol the merits of Mako’s character, but he has a niche on the show, and it’s the same niche Iroh tries to fill. On top of both being Firebenders, they can both use lightning as well. Heck, they even look kind of similar. With more time, Iroh’s status as a leader might have distinguished him, but that doesn’t happen. Instead, Iroh is quickly separated from his soldiers and ends up in hiding with the rest of Team Avatar.
From that point on, Mako and Iroh have to divide the scenes of cool Firebending. Mako was already hurting for character development, and Iroh’s introduction means he has even less. It’s not even clear why the writers felt Iroh had to be in close proximity to the Avatar. Any of his actions could have easily been done by another character. I sometimes wonder if he’s included just so it could be pointed out that he’s Zuko’s grandson since most of the other characters from Last Airbender had descendants featured in Legend of Korra.*
In the case of General Iroh, the best solution would simply have been not to include him as part of Team Avatar. Iroh only serves one major role in the story: leading a failed attempt to liberate Republic City from the violent Equalist uprising. This was important to establish how powerful the Equalists were. That doomed attack could have gone forward without introducing its commander as a new character, leaving more time for Mako.
2. Nyx, Dark Matter
At the start of Dark Matter’s second season, the show decided it was time to add some new cast members. The first is a criminal doctor who fits right in.* The second is Nyx. Having a woman of color on the crew was a great boost for diversity, and actress Melanie Liburd is certainly capable, so this could have worked out great.
Unfortunately, the writers had no idea what to do with Nyx.* Her most prominent trait is being good at hand-to-hand combat, but the show already has three characters who are highly proficient in that area, and two of them are clearly better than Nyx. Nyx also shows a flare for social skills, but this is quickly glossed over and rarely mentioned after her first few episodes.
Because Nyx has no skills the other characters need, it’s not clear why she stays on their ship. This is a group of criminals with bounties on their heads; they wouldn’t want to be carting around someone they can’t fully trust. Nyx does have a tragic backstory about her brother being held captive and used as a biological supercomputer, but it’s not enough to make her feel distinct when literally every character has a tragic backstory of some sort.*
The strangest thing about Nyx is that she’s written like she really wants to be part of the team even though she has no motivation to act this way. She gives the other characters awkward pep talks, and she goes on at length about how important it is that they stick together. She comes across like the show is clumsily trying to remind us that these characters care about each other.
Eventually, the writers settled on making Nyx the romantic interest for another character. That’s better than nothing, but it’s certainly not enough. Nyx is so obviously extraneous that the other characters often leave her behind when they go out on missions. If she were removed, little would change.
Removing Nyx is not actually the answer here. For one thing, she’s the only woman of color on the cast, and diversity is important. Second, the characters do desperately need someone who is good in social situations, and Nyx is shown to have those skills. If the writers focused more on that aspect of her character rather than on making her yet another fist fighter, she’d be far more interesting. Perhaps we can look forward to that in season three.
3. The Dog, The Old Kingdom Series
I’ve harped on the Dog before because she’s a bad character. She’s overpowered to the point where she robs most scenes of any tension. She’s also annoying, because she knows exactly what’s happening in the plot but refuses to say anything for increasingly flimsy reasons. But guess what, she’s also completely redundant!
Introduced in the second book, the Dog is a snarky animal companion who also serves as a mentor for the protagonist. However, the series already has a snarky animal companion who doubles as a mentor, and his name is Mogget. Mogget spends most of his time in the shape of a cat, and he is neither overpowered nor brimming with important knowledge that he refuses to disclose.
You might think that the Dog’s introduction would signal Mogget’s retirement, but no, they both feature prominently in books two and three. Having two of this very specific archetype at the same time feels a little silly. Is the setting awash with talking animals? More off-putting, the author really seems to have it out for Mogget. Mogget and the Dog get into numerous disagreements, and the Dog is shown to be right every time. It feels like the author is leaning out from behind the book and shouting, “Look how much cooler this animal companion is than the last one!”
Except that Mogget is not only the better character, he’s also firmly established by the time the Dog shows up. Most readers will really like Mogget by the end of book one, so having him suddenly put into the position of second fiddle is aggravating.
As much as I would love to advocate cutting the Dog completely, I don’t think that’s the solution here. The protagonist of book two needs her own mentor, and Mogget can’t do it because he’s sworn to someone else in the setting. The solution here is probably to retire Mogget entirely. He had a good run in book one, and now he can be off doing something else. That would give the Dog room to establish herself without running into baggage from the previous book. Of course, that won’t address the other problems with the Dog, but it would be a start.
4. The Earl of Gloucester, King Lear
That’s right, for this section we’re going old school and critiquing the Bard himself.* King Lear is an emotionally powerful play about an old man, the titular King Lear, who makes a tragic mistake. He puts faith in his two elder daughters because they kiss up to him rather than his youngest daughter who speaks the honest truth. This leads him to a bad end as his faithless children betray him.
Amidst all the tragedy and death, it’s easy to miss that another character, the Earl of Gloucester, has the same storyline. He’s also an old man who puts his faith in the wrong child and is betrayed for it. If the similarity wasn’t clear enough, both old men even have scenes where they wander out into a storm and have mad soliloquies about their sad lives. The biggest difference is that Gloucester has sons instead of daughters.
If that sounds repetitive, it is. It’s also completely unnecessary. Gloucester adds nothing to the story. King Lear’s downfall is more than enough to keep audiences riveted, they don’t need another character with the same arc. If you’re not convinced, I recommend the Kurosawa film Ran. This wonderful movie is nearly a scene-by-scene adaptation of King Lear in a Japanese setting. Can you guess the major difference? That’s right: Kurosawa’s story doesn’t include any parallel for the Earl of Gloucester.
Not only does Ran lose nothing by cutting Gloucester, but the story is improved. The pacing is much better because we don’t have to keep cutting away from Lear’s story to check in on Gloucester.
Get out your scissors, because it’s time to cut cut cut. We’ve already seen from Ran that it can easily be done, so no need to do anything fancy here. Of course, Gloucester’s sons would need to be tweaked a bit, but the other roles they play in the story don’t require their father to be present.
5. Worf and Yar, The Next Generation
For this last one, I had to go with two characters at once because there’s just no way to pick between them. In the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), Tasha Yar is the chief of security and tactical, while Worf is… something. Seriously, no one knows what his job is on the ship during that time.* Whatever his official title, Worf is mostly defined by being a Klingon, which in early TNG meant fighting, lots and lots of fighting.
However, Tasha Yar is in charge of defending the ship, both from individual intruders and attacking vessels. Most stories involving combat should focus on her. But that would leave Worf with nothing to do, since his actual job is so boring no one knows what it is. As it happened, the writers mostly gave these stories to Worf, which was one of the reasons Yar’s actress decided to leave the show. Her character was going nowhere because the writers had no material for her.
Of course, prioritizing Yar over Worf wouldn’t have been any better. Because both characters are introduced at the same time, we have the unusual situation of a double redundancy. The writers accidentally created two characters who needed the same kind of plot material and then didn’t have enough of it to go around.
In real life, Denise Crosby solved this problem for us by leaving the show. This meant Worf could take Yar’s place as chief of security and tactical, which was something he was much better suited for than whatever his old job was.
But a more ideal situation would have been to keep both of them. Yar was the only woman on TNG’s main cast who wasn’t in a caregiving role, and Worf was essential to the show’s diversity for being both a person of color and a Klingon. An easy way to retain both characters would have been to differentiate their job titles.
It turns out that security and tactical aren’t really the same thing. We see this illustrated in Deep Space Nine, where Odo is in charge of security within the station, and Worf is the tactical officer,* in charge of dealing with any space-borne threats. This makes a lot of sense, because if your ship is boarded during a battle, you don’t want to send the officer in charge of firing the guns off to deal with the incursion. If Yar had been more involved with tactical planning, and Worf with personal security measures, or vice versa, the two wouldn’t have stepped on each other’s toes so often.
We all want our characters to be memorable, and for that to happen the character must be unique in some way. This is not to say every character must be an island unto themselves. It’s perfectly acceptable for two or more characters to share abilities or passions, but they must have something that sets them apart. Otherwise, they’ll feel like they have no part to play in the story, and then it won’t matter if they’re good or bad.
P.S. I just published my first game. In it, the PCs have to figure out who they are, solve a supernatural mystery, and avoid their doooooom. Get it here.