Analysis

Five Redundant Characters in Spec Fic

No you're the redundant one!

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

General Iroh from Legend of Korra Just gonna climb into someone else’s story right here.

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.*

The Solution

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

Nyx from Dark Matter Sorry, but we already have plenty of guns.

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.

The Solution

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.

Edit: Actress Melissa O’Neil is of mixed race heritage, so Nyx is not the only woman of color on the main cast. Removing her would still be a blow to diversity though.

3. The Dog, The Old Kingdom Series

There are no good pictures of the Dog, so you get Anubis, a god with a dog head. This gives you an idea of how OP the Dog is.

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.

The Solution

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

Gloucester from King Lear, about to lose his eyes. This is what happens when you trust the wrong son.

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.

The Solution

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

We could have been such friends!

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.

The Solution

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.

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

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Comments

  1. GeniusLemur

    I’d add Doc Savage’s fabulous five to the list. Doc has five different sidekicks, and none of them can do anything that Doc can’t do way better. The only time they’re useful at all (and it probably doesn’t cancel out the trouble Doc goes to to rescue them in basically ever book) is when it becomes a problem that Doc can’t be in two places at once.

    • That Dave Guy

      The only reason they are in the stories is so Doc can show he’s better than them at whatever their primary shtick is. He’s stronger than the Strong Guy, smarter than the Smart Guy, etc. It’s completely ridiculous.

  2. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    I’m surprising pleased you included Shakespeare. I think Earl of Gloucester was just meant to serve as a parallel to Lear, someone for Edmund to betray, and to show Edgar isn’t completely mad when he finds his father blinded. But you make a good point.

  3. C. R. Rowenson

    First: I’m so glad you mentioned the Abhorsen Trilogy. It’s such a great series and so few people know about it. So, thanks, even if you’re right about The Dog..

    This seems to be one of the many problems faced by Suicide Squad. They tried to throw in so many characters and had them tripping all over each other’s roles in the story.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I really liked Sabriel, which might have contributed to my disappointment when books 2 and 3 weren’t as good.

  4. James

    I’m afraid your “Lear” comment shows a thorough misunderstanding of narrative, storytelling, drama and character development. Now, Orson Welles cut out the Edmund sub-plot, to keep things moving, in a version shown on “Omnibus” on CBS in 1953- it might be available online and as an extra on some “Stranger” DVDs. But he kept Gloucester, because Gloucester’s parallel journey is part of the story…and the meeting of the two old men on the heath is one of the climaxes of Lear’s emotional journey.

  5. Alverant

    I think if you kept Worf and Yar there would have been too many main characters. There were too many main characters even after Crosby left too. The question would be who would get cut. If you kept both chances are they would have become minor characters. There just wasn’t enough material in an episode for both. If Worf just did internal security then he could interact with VIPs and break up fights in 10-forward. That would leave Yar with very little to do apart from say, “Phasers armed, photon torpedoes ready, captian.” whenever the Enterprise encountered a hostile ship every third episode.

    The reason why DS9 could do it was because 1) both Odo and Worf were fleshed out enough to give them both screen time unrelated to their jobs 2) DS9 was big enough and diverse to need separate people in those positions 3) Worf was more than tactical, he was also liaison to the Klingon Empire on DS9 and being official Starfleet could be sent on official missions.

  6. Michael

    “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.”

    You’re forgetting Two/Portia Lin, who is at least part East Asian. Actually they have one black man, one black woman, one Asian man, one Asian woman, two white men, two white women (if the Android counts). So, even and fairly diverse I’d say.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      You’re correct that Melissa O’Neil is mixed race, I overlooked that when I wrote the article.

      • Michael

        It happens, not to worry. Good article, I’m loving the site overall.

  7. Tumblingxelian/Vazak

    Good insights.

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