Recently I read a post on Fiction University, “Learning from the Mistakes of even the (gasp!) Greats.” In her post, Bonnie Randall discusses wading through a book by an author that she normally loves. Unfortunately this time around the main character is endlessly, and needlessly, sarcastic. He has a bad relationship with his son, but doesn’t care. His back story includes the one that got away.
Sarcasm (humor), character flaws, and lost love aren’t always a problem. But they are in this case because none of them propels the story forward. Because of this, they get in the way and slow things down.
What then is the ultimate test? When you are reviewing your work take a good hard look at subplots, scenes, characters, and character traits. Do they somehow move the story forward? If so, they can stay. If not? I’m sorry but they need to go.
Yes, even if you love that particular sarcastic jab or that atmospheric scene. The only way that they can stay if is you can give them a deeper, more essential part to play.
Think about it. You have to give your main character a flaw. Perhaps she is annoyingly sarcastic. Was she one of a dozen kids and she used this sarcasm to get attention? Make sure the readers know this but then take it another step. Make either her sarcasm or her insecurity something that gets in the way of solving the plot.
What about lost love or a lost friendship? Again, go beyond using this in an attempt to make your character more interesting. Instead go into how it impacts the current story.
Just dropping a character trait, backstory, a setting, a character, or a prop into the story without weaving it in makes for a story that feels cluttered. If you weave it in, it becomes something that impacts the rest of the story when tugged.
Give it a try and see how it impacts your work.