When your story is about a group of characters working toward a shared goal, it’s important for everyone to contribute. If one character is off doing their own thing, they’ll feel superfluous. Likewise, if two characters offer the same thing, one of them will almost always overshadow the other. Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to make sure each character actually brings something useful and distinct to the table, especially in large casts. So today we’re covering five notable examples of useless characters and looking for the smallest edit possible that would fix it. That’s how I approach content editing, and it’s a good skill for any writer working on revisions.
1. Neelix: Voyager
Neelix is one of the most annoying characters to ever grace speculative fiction TV, and there are several reasons for that. He’s entitled, he flies into a rage at the slightest provocation, and the other characters have to explain jealousy to him like he’s 10 years old. But the quality we’re most interested in today is that Neelix contributes almost nothing to Voyager’s journey through the Delta Quadrant.
You might not expect that because, to hear Neelix tell it, he does four separate jobs on the ship. He’s Voyager’s cook, guide, survival expert, and self-appointed morale officer. How can he not be contributing? The secret is that he can’t actually do any of those jobs. Not even a little.
Voyager’s most prominent running joke is that no one likes Neelix’s cooking. There are occasional episodes that buck the trend,* but they’re overwhelmed by scenes of everyone being grossed out by whatever bizarre concoction Neelix serves up that day. We also have multiple jokes about how gross his ingredients are, and at least one episode where his cheese makes the ship break down. Admittedly, I don’t blame Neelix for that one; it’s not his fault Starfleet built a lactose intolerant computer system.
Neelix can’t guide Voyager through a field of dandelions, let alone the Delta Quadrant. One time, he leads the ship to a dilithium mining site, only for them to discover that there’s no dilithium at all and it’s a trap by organ-harvesting aliens. In another episode, his supposedly trustworthy contact immediately calls the cops on him. When he does have information, it’s usually too vague to be helpful, and it’s not long before Voyager leaves the part of space where he has experience anyway.
He’s probably the worst as a survival expert. This skill doesn’t come up often, but the one time it does, he gets a crewmate killed by not recognizing that a pile of bones outside a cave probably means there’s a predator inside. His problems as a morale officer are self-explanatory: he can’t raise anyone’s morale because he’s very annoying. Most of the time it comes across more like he’s trying to bully the crew into acting happy.
How to Fix Him
Despite everything wrong with Neelix, he’s very easy to fix: just make him good at some of his supposed jobs! Not all of them, mind you, as four separate roles* are too much for any character. But if he were a competent cook and a skilled guide, there’d be no problem.
Making Neelix a better guide would also solve another problem Voyager has: they often say they’re low on one type of supplies or another, but we rarely see them actually replenish those supplies. If Neelix knew where to find those supplies, that would give a lot more weight to the idea that Voyager is operating far from home and without support. Plus, Neelix could still be good at finding replacement parts in scrap yards due to his background as a salvager, something that would be useful even after Voyager left his region of space.
We could even keep the occasional joke about bad food, but they would have to be rare and due to clear misunderstandings, like Neelix not being used to Alpha Quadrant gastronomy. As it is, Neelix often deliberately sabotages the crew’s food orders based on what he thinks is best, and that’s just not a good idea. Alternatively, we could actually have stories where Voyager is low on supplies and Neelix is making due with what little he has, but I don’t want to be too ambitious here.
2. Leslie Vann: Lock In
John Scalzi’s novel Lock In is about two FBI agents: protagonist Chris Shane and their* partner, Leslie Vann. Together they fight crimes! Specifically, they unravel a murder mystery involving a billionaire, disability advocates, body sharing, and a virtual-reality world called the Agora. Shane has plenty to do, which is good because they’re the main character. Unfortunately, for most of the book, Vann can best be described as “around.”
Shane handles almost all of the actual investigating, as they are much more physically capable than Vann. You see, Shane can remotely pilot robot bodies anywhere in the world, and they’re rich enough to afford the best. Not only does this mean that Shane can galivant across the globe while Vann is stuck in Washington, DC, but it also means that Shane can get into fights without risking their personal safety.
So Shane does all the fight scenes and physical investigations, but maybe Vann can help with putting together the clues? No, there’s a different side character for that. During the investigation, Shane meets a hacker named Tony. From that point on, Tony is the one in charge of connecting any clues Shane doesn’t have time for. This turns out to be a lot because the bad guy’s plan is absurdly complicated, but that’s another article.
What does Vann actually contribute? Well, in a few scenes, she and Shane discuss what might be happening, which brings her up to the level of a glorified sounding board. She also participates in Shane’s plan to trick the villain, but only after Shane has already set everything up and just needs someone to have a misleading conversation with.
Given all this, you could reasonably assume that Vann is a minor character, but she’s not. She easily has more screen time than any character besides Shane, and the story makes a big deal about her tragic backstory. There’s even a secondary antagonist out to ruin her reputation, though that plot never goes anywhere. Plus, Vann is actually the senior partner, with Shane having just graduated from FBI school.* This raises the expectations for her participation even higher, as she should have more experience than Shane does.
How to Fix Her
The good news is that as an experienced FBI agent, it’s not difficult to find more ways for Vann to contribute. The simplest option would be for her to take over most of Tony’s role in the story. There’s really no reason to bring in a whole new character for hacking when you’ve got a perfectly good FBI agent right there. Just give Vann a few tech skills, say she specializes in electronic investigations, and you’re set. If it’s important for Tony to still be in the story, he can be one of Vann’s contacts.
Another option would be to make Vann’s backstory more important. Before joining the FBI, she was a professional integrator, someone who lets others experience life through her body. That’s a neat scifi concept, and since the mystery plot involves several integrators, it could certainly be important, but it never is. The closest we get is when she tries to build rapport with a suspect through their shared professional experience, an attempt that immediately fails.
But there could easily have been more for Vann to contribute with her integrator expertise. Perhaps she has to go undercover in her old profession, letting the villain integrate with her so she can gather evidence. Or we might just let her actually build rapport with a fellow integrator. Any of these options would still leave Shane with the protagonist’s share of the story’s focus while allowing Vann to be something other than technically present.
3. Xander Harris: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Xander is in a tough position in this vampire hunting TV show. He and Willow both start out as the normal kids who stumble onto Buffy’s team, but while Willow’s usefulness continues to grow until she’s actually overpowered, Xander’s stays almost the same for seven seasons. That is to say, he’s completely useless. Unless the good guys ever find a magical weapon powered by sarcasm, I guess.
The main reason is that there aren’t any obvious ways for him to contribute. The characters’ shared goal is fighting monsters, and all the obvious jobs are already taken. Buffy is the main fighter, occasionally backed up by Angel, Faith, or Spike when they aren’t being evil. Giles does the research, sometimes with Willow’s help. Anya has her old demonic contacts. Willow and Tara handle the magic, and there are a host of characters who’ve got the “monster on team good” angle locked down. Even Dawn, another perpetually useless character, has a side gig as the MacGuffin in season five. There are even entire episodes about Xander feeling useless,* but while they often give Xander more candy, they never give him more to contribute.
The writers seem aware of this problem, and I think their intent is for Xander to be the team’s moral support character, providing insights to help other characters on their journeys. That would make him similar to Guinan on TNG or Iroh for much of Avatar. As evidence, I present this exchange from the season seven episode Potential:
Xander: They’ll never know how tough it is, Dawnie, to be the one who isn’t chosen. To live so near to the spotlight and never step in it. But I know. I see more than anybody realizes because nobody’s watching me. I saw you last night. I see you working here today. You’re not special. You’re extraordinary.
Dawn: Maybe that’s your power.
Dawn: Seeing, knowing.
Xander: Maybe it is… Maybe I should get a cape.
The problem with this idea is that it’s not actually present in the show. Xander almost never helps another character with their problems. Other than the above quote, the closest moment I could think of is in season four, when Xander tells Buffy to go after her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend Riley. This is terrible advice, as Riley and Buffy clearly don’t work as a couple, and it only seems to be there so Buffy will feel worse when she doesn’t arrive at the helipad in time. There might be a few other instances scattered across the show’s 144 episodes, but when a character actually needs emotional support, they usually go to someone like Giles or Tara.
How to Fix Him
So what would it take for Xander to actually be the emotional support character he’s apparently supposed to be? For one thing, he’d have to be less of a creep. Granted, that’s something I’d change regardless, but it’s even more important if Xander is going to help other characters with their problems. There’s no room for him to get mad over Buffy not dating him if he’s the one she’s supposed to turn to for help.
More fundamentally, Xander would need to be more emotionally mature, and I suspect this would be the sticking point. In addition to self-deprecating jokes, not understanding how other characters feel is a big part of Xander’s comedy routine. While emotional support characters don’t always have to be wise and spiritual, they do have to be insightful, something Xander specifically isn’t.
That’s why if I were content editing Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I’d make Xander the team’s crafter. This is something the good guys don’t already have, and it would be very useful. We even see hints of it in season seven, when Xander adds some modest fortification to Buffy’s house. These are almost comically useless, but they show what could have been. Buffy and her comrades are in constant need of new weapons, which they currently pull from the ether. But if Xander took up smithing and got serious about carpentry, he could be the one arming the slayer while also making it harder for the bad guys to break in after sundown.
4. Charles Gunn: Angel
Moving on to Buffy’s dark and gritty(ish) spin off, we meet Charles Gunn, a young man who fights vampires on the streets of LA. Originally, Gunn actually leads his own team of vampire hunters, but it’s not long before that gig peters out and he becomes a full-time member of Angel Investigations. That’s too bad for Gunn, as it’s immediately apparent he has nothing to do there.
Like its parent show, Angel’s main cast is clearly delineated in its roles. Angel does the fighting, Wesley and Fred do the researching, and Cordelia has her visions. Gunn’s most obvious skill is fighting, which puts him at war with Angel for screen time. Pro tip: it’s never a good idea to be competing with the titular character for screen time. Gunn doesn’t have superstrength; Angel does. You can guess who makes the real difference in fights, leaving Gunn to throw an occasional backup punch.
However, Gunn does have another skill: knowing what’s happening in LA’s street scene. Unfortunately, he only knows what’s going on in LA’s human street scene. This is an urban fantasy show about fighting monsters; no one cares what the humans are doing! Whenever team good needs to get information, they go to Lorne, the green-skinned lounge singer with his ear to the demonic grapevine.
As with Xander, it’s clear that Angel’s writers know Gunn has a problem. In season five, feeling useless to the team, Gunn strikes a magical bargain to gain lawyer skills. Unfortunately, this turns out to be a temptation arc that resolves with Gunn giving his skills up and going back to being useless. Sigh. It’s always frustrating when writers lampshade an issue instead of fixing it.
How to Fix Him
Like with Xander, the most immediate option is to take the show’s own material and run with it. Giving Gunn lawyer skills is a great idea. It would not only allow him to contribute more, but it would also let Angel expand into more legal drama. There’s a surprising lack of legal drama in this show, considering that the main bad guy is a prestigious law firm.
The trick is that Gunn’s skills need to be genuine, and he needs to get them earlier. The simplest option is for him to simply be a lawyer. Perhaps after law school, he found out that his old neighborhood was under attack by vampires, so he came back to help. That preserves Gunn’s introduction as a street fighter, and then allows him to contribute once he’s joined Angel Investigations.
This leaves us one problem though: the Angel writers probably weren’t interested in legal dramas, or they’d have added some. To make Gunn more useful without disrupting the show’s formula, he’ll need a magic power of some sort, but not to make him better at fighting. Believe it or not, the writers actually add another superpowered fighter in season two, and he’s quickly sidelined in favor of Angel until he leaves in season three.*
Instead, I would give Gunn the power to heal others. It doesn’t matter where he gets the power from; maybe a magical artifact exploded near him and he woke up with healing hands. This would not only give Gunn a way to contribute that doesn’t compete with another character, but it would answer the question of how Angel’s good guys are always ready to fight after getting beaten up in the previous episode.
5. Finn: Star Wars Episodes VII-IX
Poor Finn is one of many casualties from Disney’s inexplicable decision not to plan its Star Wars sequel trilogy ahead of time. Finn does okay in The Force Awakens, where he teams up with Rey to get BB8 back to the Rebellion. Excuse me, I mean the Resistance. Very different. After that, his knowledge of Starkiller Base is useful, in terms of both planning the space battle and rescuing Rey. He even gets into a sword fight with Kylo Ren, which is pretty cool.
Things really go wrong in The Last Jedi, when Finn is sent off on a side quest for half the movie. Most of this side quest is taken up by how unjust Canto Bight’s wealth distribution is, which could be a great story in a different movie. In this movie, it’s got nothing to do with the main plot, which is the Resistance fighting the First Order. After wasting all that time, Finn is finally able to secure a tech expert who can hopefully stop the First Order from tracking the Resistance through hyperspace. This plan completely fails and results in most of the Resistance getting killed as the bad guys pick off their escape ships. Oof.
That is a real low point for Finn. Naturally, he’ll get a big moment later to make up for it, right? It looks like he will, as he lines up for a heroic sacrifice to stop the First Order’s army, but then another character gets in the way, which has to be one of Last Jedi’s most baffling moments. I think the message is supposed to be that you shouldn’t be eager to throw your life away, but in the context of that scene, everyone will die if he doesn’t. I also don’t want Finn to die, but that’s the situation the film created. Instead, Finn is left to stew with all the Resistance fighters who died because of his side quest.
Then The Rise of Skywalker rolls around and makes us long for the days that Finn was relegated to unrelated side quests. Finn’s most significant contribution to this film is having something he wants to tell Rey, but then not telling her. Did they think I was gonna buy a tie-in comic to find out about that? Cause I’m not. Okay, to be completely fair, he does also lead an assault on the bad guy’s navigation buoy, but the movie’s almost over by then. It’s also impossible to tell how important the buoy is because Rise of Skywalker’s final battle seems purposely designed to be confusing. If Finn had done nothing, would Lando’s fleet still have arrived and wiped out all the Star Destroyers? I legitimately don’t know.
Other than that, Finn’s main contribution is firing off a few blaster bolts, something everyone else does too. I guess he also yells Rey’s name a lot? Heck, C-3PO has more to do than Finn. That’s really disappointing for a character who was originally pitched as one of the big three in this new trilogy.
How to Fix Him
Why did this happen? Racism probably, but also because neither Last Jedi nor Rise of Skywalker have any room for Finn’s most obvious plot: inspiring a stormtrooper rebellion. As a former stormtrooper himself, that’s where it looked like Finn was going. He even meets others with a similar backstory in Rise of Skywalker. It just doesn’t go anywhere. At this point, doing a stormtrooper rebellion justice would require significant rewrites, so what can we do while keeping the films’ existing shape?*
A common idea is that Finn should also go through Jedi training, as he’s clearly Force sensitive. That’s a possibility, but it would risk making him compete with Rey for screen time and relevance, as they’d be doing the same thing. To avoid that, their arcs would need to either play off or contrast with each other, which requires more significant rewriting. One option that quickly comes to mind: maybe Rey is in danger of going dark, and Finn is the one who pulls her back? Unfortunately, that would likely interfere with Kylo’s redemption* arc. These films have so much going on that it’s difficult to find ways to improve them. If I were hired to do a content edit on them, I’d probably say that the writers need to work on figuring out what their stories are actually about before any other progress could be made.
However, I do have one relatively painless option to help Finn contribute to the plot: give him the leadership arc instead of Poe. Poe is an ace pilot, which means he’ll always have plenty to do in a Star Wars movie. He doesn’t need command skills to properly contribute. Finn definitely does though, as by default he’s just a guy with a blaster. If Finn is the one giving the orders, then his stormtrooper background would also be more relevant, as it would help him predict the First Order’s tactics and counter them. This would be even better if stormtroopers were a real threat and not easily dispatched cannon fodder, but let’s not get too ambitious.
Whew, that was a lot of editorial theorizing for one post. Of course, in a real content edit, we’d also have to contend with the author’s goals and how compatible they were with a good story. Even so, this type of exercise is useful because it helps us look at stories as complex machines rather than unknowable enigmas. If one piece isn’t working, sometimes you can fix or replace it without taking the whole engine block apart. That’s a particularly useful approach for characters who aren’t contributing enough, as often all you need to do is give them a new power or skill set.
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