Most mornings, when pretty much everyone ever is still asleep, I’m shelving in the Sci-Fi / Fantasy section at my job and listening to an audio book on my iPod. It’s a new thing for me, listening to the audio book, but it’s something I enjoy… Well, something I enjoyed until I decided it would be a good idea to finish a series I’d run out of patience with. Out of respect, I won’t name names. But I will say that listening to book six of it resulted in the following list. Directly. Enjoy. Or if you are an amateur Sci-Fi / Fantasy writer, pay attention.
1) Sass and Snarky Characters
Fantasy novels are a lot like real life in the sense that sassy, snarky characters are only fun for so long. You meet one in a tavern, let’s say, and someone says, “Gendalin [just roll with it] is the best sorcerer EVAR!”
Then Gendalin says, “Yes, I am Gendalin. I was trained in the Bog of Eternal Win by the Super Mages of Uberstan. Who are you?” they spit, because, hey, you’re shit.
And you / your character says, “I’M the strongest sorcerer to train at the Bog of Eternal Win since Uberstan himself!”
The next few pages are a battle of “wits” that’s full of snark and supposed to be cool. There’s taunting involved, posing, and always some show of skill, and in the end, both characters look like stupid children and you’re supposed to be impressed. Oh, and one of them agrees to teach the other. Or (very, very often) in the case of mercenaries, the client pays up to the sellsword who’s just threatened or outwitted them. In the end, the scene is something that’s entertaining for minors in the same way as manga. To say it in other words, you just wrote manga. Congratulations.
“I’m the best ninja EVAR!”
“No, I am!”
“Oh yeah? Here comes my new attack!”
“Oh yeah? I’ll counter it and destroy you!”
It’s like third grade all over again.
I hope you’re proud.
2) Exaggerated / Unrealistic Reactions
When someone walks into the dining hall and says that they have news, everyone in the room freezes. Literally. Everyone is that tense. They all completely freeze, the warrior with a chicken leg dangling in front of his open mouth.
Does that sound right to you? No? That’s because it’s not. Because you’re not writing a cartoon. The warrior keeps eating, perhaps becoming more withdrawn. The wizard or sorcerer runs his eyes over everyone and nods for the message to be brought to him. The young protagonist awkwardly lowers his fork and it clatters against a glass. Perhaps someone takes a sip of water. But they all just don’t freeze.
In the same way, characters don’t have what a fellow amateur writer, Robin Solis, dubbed “tea parties”:
Character A: “The giants are destroying our house!! What do we do!?”
Louis: “Well, there’s that ship right there. Ya know, maybe that’d be useful?”
Character B: “The ship! Ah ha! Let us away!”
Narrator: “And so they ran for the ship, leaving the safety of the house to hurry as fast as they could when Character A stopped them for a chat.”
Character A: “So we’re really setting out to sea?”
Character B: “Why, yes, my boy! To sail and salt! To freedom!”
Character A: “But will the ship truly sail?”
Character B: “It may not! We may be trapped on there! But we have to try!”
Character A: “Ah… Freedom!”
Giant: “Could you pass the sugar, please?”
Character A: “Oh, yes, certainly.”
Meanwhile, in reality:
Character A: “The giants are destroying our house!! What do we do!?”
Character B: Is already halfway to the ship. Possibly already there because he’s saved absolutely every breath for panting so that lactic acid doesn’t smother his muscles.
Character A: “Oh, right.”
Narrator: And so it was that Character B saved himself while Character A took a tree trunk to the face.
3) Forced / Stupid Character Quirks
A rogue character always rolls a pair of dice in his hands. Always. The singer always hums an appropriate tune that everyone knows is appropriate, every time, in every situation. Character quirks are fun, sure, but not if they happen constantly. I do voices – it’s one of my quirks. Sometimes I slip into them without realizing it, but most often I do them to be funny. If I did them all the time, everyone would hate me. Everyone, including myself. But I don’t do that and I can’t; I wouldn’t want to and it’d be too much work to keep up. It’s the same way I can’t constantly muss my hair, and the same way the rogue can’t always roll those damn dice.
Some fantasy authors, man, they love their songs. So much so that I totally skip over them every time now, unless it’s an author I haven’t read. But even authors I love tend to annoy me with their songs. That’s because sometimes authors go AWOL, putting in as many five-page long songs as they can. More often, though, I skip songs because they just aren’t worth the read; they usually don’t contribute enough to the story to warrant inclusion. Sure, songs are an easy way to add mysticism and romance to your world, but that would be the easy way. The easy, tired, obvious way. And besides, hey, we’re not song writers. Let’s be honest. We’re fantasy writers, so let’s just do that instead and stop pointing to ourselves and saying, “See? I can write one too, Tolkien. Hooray for me.”
Naturally, there are exceptions. Patrick Rothfuss’ Kvothe from a family of traveling entertainers and musicians, so you’d expect music to accompany his story, and it does. And Rothfuss makes his songs genuinely heartfelt by tying them to the drama of Kvothe’s life.
But when we get to page 80 of a generic fantasy novel and our young hero sees his first monster and remembers that it’s from a song and then all of the elves in a 100 mile radius pluck up out of bushes with lutes and, in unison, say, “This song?” and start into a two page ditty, you’re officially wasting everyone’s time.
5) Living Out Your Weird, Sexual Fantasies in Your Writing
Okay… Still not naming names. Just saying… I’ve read a protagonist getting tortured by a dominatrix with a magical, pain-inducing dildo for over a hundred pages… Just don’t do it.
Okay. This one just… isn’t specific to sci-fi or fantasy, but it’s so, so important. You could make the other offenses all you want as long as we don’t have to listen to them twice. Easy trade.
Now, I’m not accusing anyone of being an idiot; authors don’t commit this travesty on purpose. They often repeat themselves to keep their readers informed, but it’s a thin line between recapping and belittling or annoying your audience. The author of my current audio book is a big time offender. In one chapter he expressed a character’s thought on some of his followers, saying something roughly like, “He didn’t tell them to stop. He owed them. So many had died for him already, and so many more would before he was through.” Not a half hour later, the narrator spat just about the same phrase, perhaps a few words off but exactly the same thought. My reply was, “Yes. Dude, seriously, I got it. It’s cool.” In short, it drove me crazy, because I was, in fact, talking to an audio book.
Imagine events like that happening more though; imagine being reminded continually that this character is sassy by having her sway her hips (and always sway her hips). Or imagine the pure frustration when someone reminds you for the eighth time in 2 chapters that the dark powers from the north were growing, and hey, you can totally tell from the way this magical stone glimmers. As if you forgot. Already. After a while it’s like walking into a wall, full speed, over and over. The same wall. Also, it’s grey-completely uninteresting. Imagine how all of that makes you feel, and then make sure you don’t do it to anyone else with your writing.