Place Keeping as Characterization: A Steampunk Perspective

Otto as a mad scientist

Art by Brian Kesinger

So, you’ve put together this kick-ass character. She has the ability to absorb a pile of seemingly unrelated information and find all the connections. She can find answers hidden in confusing masses of data. She has the quirky need to eat high-octane snacks to fuel her thinking. And you then use NONE of these interesting characteristics, and turn her into a standard ‘agent’ character with none of these characteristics ever referred to again. I’m looking at the writers of the character of Ellie Bishop from NCIS.

Monsters and Men

Eleanor Bishop – a wasted character

Once Bishop joined the team, she stopped being a data specialist. Everything that made her unique was no longer part of her characterization. Did they think that Abby was enough of an eccentric for one television show? (And, on a side note, whatever happened to Tim McGee’s writing career?)

I have found this very frustrating. Why go to all the trouble of creating and introducing an interesting character to then underutilize all that work that went into making the character? It makes no sense. I suspect lazy writing – they just needed a woman to fill that ‘space’ at the departure of Ziva David, to play a sisterly figure for McGee, a girlfriend for Abby Sciuto, a daughter substitute for Doctor Mallard and Leroy Gibbs. As she was the first ‘married’ character in the team, she did not replace Ziva David in Anthony Dinozzo’s affections. However, they must have wanted to make it appear the new female character was a person in her own right … and then forgot about it.

This brings me to the point of this post. Do you have place keepers in your writing?

Have you written a character that simply exists to be a romantic interest, without giving them their own importance withing the unrolling of the plot? You can reveal this by using the Sexy Lamp Test. If the romantic interest can be replaced by a lamp and not affect the plot … you have written a place keeping character.

The Sexy Lamp Test was originally invented to detect gender bias within a movie or a text, but it is too useful not to use it as a lazy writing detector. It was invented by Kelly Sue DeConnick, a comic book writer.

Pretty_Deadly-01.jpg

The Cover of Pretty Deadly by Image Comics, written by DeConnick

 

I think the Sexy Lamp Test is a good metaphor and a great name for a place keeper. There are other ways of detecting place keepers:

  • they are often stereotypes;
  • they do not have any character growth over the course of the narrative;
  • they are two dimensional characters, unmemorable and uninteresting;
  • they have no meaningful interactions within the text;
  • their existence does not add anything to the plot.

A place keeper can be rescued and given a much more interesting role within a narrative, or can be incised without impacting on the narrative. It depends on what you wanted to achieve with that character in the first place. Of course, a minor character is easily cut from the story, but if one of your major characters is a place keeper, that can be more of a problem. You – as the author – will need to step up and make the effort to bring life and humanity to your place keeper.

You can start the process by considering these factors:

  • what is this character’s back story?
  • what is this character’s motivations?
  • How does this character interact with the protagonist/antagonist?
  • how does this character’s actions impact on the plot?
  • what makes this character an individual?
  • How does this character react to a stressful situation?

Even answering one of two of these questions should help bring a place keeper out of obscurity. For example, you have a mad scientist character who is essentially a place keeper. Maybe you’ve added the character for ‘colour’ in your Steampunk novel. Do any of this scientist’s inventions play a major part in the plot? If not, time to rethink that decision, as why have the character if you weren’t going to utilise her skills? In one stroke, you’ve saved her from being a place keeper.

Laugh like a Mad Scientist!

Now it is time to build on that. What drew her into her field of science? Was it something the antagonist did back in the past? Is her motivation revenge? Did she hunt down the protagonist because the enemy of my enemy is my friend? Is that something she is trying to keep a secret, or she does she relish sharing the details of what she will do to vanquish the antagonist?

See? Already your ‘place keeper’ is more interesting than a generic stereotype of a mad scientist. Write a memorable character, and she will stick with your audience for years.

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Filed under Characterization, Steampunk, Steampunk Writer, Stereotypes, The Writing Life, Uncategorized, writing, Writing Style

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