Looking at Character is going to be the first of several semi-regular categories of my starved authorial ramblings and is going to concentrate on various character tropes and archetypes, both ‘good’ and ‘bad’, looking at the pitfalls and uses of each. As with all my musings, the thoughts and ideas shown here are purely based on my own experiences and ideas. Take them as the opinions they are and feel free to dispute them. Disagreement is the basis of discussion, after all.
The first subject of this feature is the ‘Load’. Named quite literally, the Load is a helpless character (at least in comparison to the conflicts of the majority of the story or to the main characters) who, despite this, not only is deeply involved with the story but is essential to either the main characters or to the solution of the conflict of the piece. The Load is a vital person, but is a burden on the main characters. The Load generates plot points not through their action, but their helplessness, sometimes tied into a nature as a MacGuffin. Often, the Load develops as a character over the course of the piece, proving their worth and rising to the situation, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes they just remain a burden on everyone around them. Common examples include some portrayals of children, the ‘bumbling sidekick’ from superhero lore, or the ‘person of prophecy’ who has some vital purpose but has no actual power as is seen in some fantasy works.
I think it’s important to note that what makes the Load a load is often how the author writes a character. For instance, take two fantasy stories with a ‘person of prophecy’, like I mentioned above. In both pieces, the character has no unusual abilities outside of their importance to the prophecy compared to the other protagonists. However, this person is only the Load in the first story, where all he/she is capable of in danger is hiding, freezing, and crying. Outside of danger, he/she is equally a burden, showing no appreciable skills at all. In the second story, simple characterization turns the Load into something else: he/she had been a farmer before picked by prophecy, let’s say, and, while not helpful in a fight, their knowledge of the land and homegrown common sense prove an important balance for the group. One is a Load, the other is something else.
Does this mean that the Load is always a bad thing? Well, no. Not always. There are some characters that would, realistically, be a Load in most situations. Take a protagonist who has an infant child and is forced to bring he/she with them on their adventure. The infant can’t fend for themselves and must be constantly protected from danger. He/she may be the Load, but can still provide valuable characterization. A Load can provide an interesting foil in a story, provided they are well characterized and dealt with realistically, which often means, at times, they may not be a total burden on the protagonists.
The Load can become an annoyance to readers, however, when dealt with unrealistically. If the author continually creates contrived situations to keep the Load around or to keep the Load useless, the reader’s patience will wear thin quickly. Even worse, an author may make a mistake of combining a Load, poor characterization, and common racial, ethnic, social, or gender stereotypes to form a truly insulting character, one that makes the reader just put it down in disgust. Remember, as an author, everything you write makes a statement about yourself and creating a ‘lazy, useless ethnic sidekick’ to add to your story makes very unfortunate implications about your character. Don’t do it!
I think the best way to handle a Load is to take a nuanced approach, something I will often say about any character trope or archetype. These archetypes come to the fore because they hold certain truths about human nature and resonate with readers. If you use any of them too strongly without a gentle touch and fleshed-out personalities, however, you will bludgeon your readers so excessively you overwhelm that subtle resonance and break their suspension of disbelief.
What do you think about including a Load in a piece of fiction? What other good or bad points might there be to their use as a story element? Is it possible that the Load is an artifact of a more blunt and stereotypical writing style and doesn’t have a place in more nuanced modern literature? Let me know in the comments!