First, apologies for taking so long to get another post out; things are a bit rough at the moment and the article I finished last week and was intending to post just wasn’t up to snuff (and I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time with a post that didn’t offer readers anything). I was going to settle for more generic life update this week, but this idea came first, so let’s get to it instead.
So, The Day of the Doctor happened. And I absolutely missed it; I enjoy Doctor Who a bunch, but I haven’t watched in a long time. I’ll be completely honest about my bias: the 10th was my Doctor, and before you say anything, yes, I have watched a bunch of Matt Smith and I like him, but he’s not David Tennant. Bias aside, I think I actually fell behind because of some of the story elements of Smith’s run.
I won’t get into them because that would be a whole other article, but I will say that one of those elements that nagged me… led to this article, my 3 Great Fiction Sins. What are they? The elements that I believe any fiction writing can easily fall victim to. There are, of course, way more than these three, but I feel that these are the three I’ve seen prevail in professionally produced works of fiction (so more obvious things like creating plot elements that don’t make sense didn’t make it onto this list). These prevailing sins are, however, still extremely obvious and jarring… and sometimes incredibly awkward… So let’s jump right in!
1) Clear and Obnoxious Character Bias
This is not the worst of these sins (worst for last, baby), but it is absolutely the most common. As writers and creators (or finders—whatever) of characters, you’re bound to like some of your characters more than others. The plot may result in some characters being stronger and (very naturally) more awesome than others—perhaps more cunning than others. One character may be particularly funny and, if that’s the kind of character we like, we’ll be drawn to them immediately, wanting to put them at the front of every scene and have them present for every situation. And, for the most part, that’s fine.
What isn’t fine, however, is stopping the flow of a story to include a completely unnecessary scene that is completely focused on:
Omfg! Isn’t he/she/it BADASS!?
If, say, the main characters are trying to achieve something in a limited amount of time, but, unrealistically, everything stops so that we can watch, say, a cyber ninja (the first archetype that came to mind—honestly not drawing comparisons here) cut through a full brigade of soldiers… it’s almost like the writer has slapped the book out of our hand / TV to the floor / controller into the garbage only to jump in front of us, hands held forward, eyes manic as they say, “Okay… PICTURE THIS…” For me, these moments are always that degree of awkwardly invasive—particularly because the intent is always (pretty honestly) to fap over a single character.
Which, of course, cheapens everything else about a story; suddenly, the characters are actors again, the scenes are a plot. To put it simply, your adventure stops being an adventure and turns into a piece of writing a writer wrote. Maybe this is just how I think as a writer, but chances are, scenes like this will still annoy anyone if they very naturally don’t like the writer’s favorite character as much as that writer does; if the audience doesn’t really care about the cyber ninja, they’re immediately going to roll their eyes when he jumps out with his sword in his mouth and starts chopping up dudes effortlessly… without arms (I seriously just remembered that part of Metal Gear Solid 4, so hey, I guess I was drawing comparisons—subliminally. Somebody writing this article suuure hated that scene).
Most times, a writer can handle this kind of character well, showing them off in ways that are natural and—most importantly—non-invasive.
Every other time, though… Well, let’s just say that if there’s any chance you’ve done this, seriously reconsider slapping your audience right out of the moment to hold a loose leaf sketch of the one character in front of them. “He can grab his sword… with his foot clamp!”
2) The Tea Party
For me, this second sin is really bringing it back.
I did not make this one up—a friend back in high school brought this to my attention when we were talking about Xenogears (aaand I just dated myself). Very likely, we were playing it together and got to a scene where a town was burning down during an attack from a mech (if I remember correctly). The main characters were in the process of escaping… when one of them stopped in the center of the town to talk about things I can’t remember—I’ll be honest. The thing was, it didn’t matter what they were talking about while the town burned around them and people ran, screaming, children and possessions theoretically clutched to their chests.
No, what mattered was that they were talking.
And fucking talking.
At the time, I was too naïve about writing to realize something was wrong, but my friend said something along the lines of, “I hate these fucking tea parties.”
When I asked what she meant, she explained: tea parties were incredibly suspenseful moments in which characters who are actively running from a very real danger suddenly stop and kick up a conversation, against all logic. Depending on the eminent danger, tea parties can either be as short as a single line or as inordinately long as the full 3 minute long conversation I witnessed in Xenogears (as I remember it anyway). However, no matter the length, characters always stop running / escaping for the duration of the tea party, brazenly defying all common sense.
I immediately took her explanation to heart. And ever since, it has destroyed a surprising amount of reading, watching and playing experiences immediately for me.
In the case of a fantasy read, this sin was at its most annoying when the main characters were in a house that was actively being crushed by giants. An escape vehicle of some kind (I forgot—read this ages ago) arrived a distance from the house and the characters decided to run for it. Most of them ran.
Two immediately stopped running so that one of them could shout about how excited he was to be escaping—particularly to their next destination.
There’s absolutely a chance that I’m being too critical on this one—the intent was to be cute and funny; the excited character was a zany old man if I remember correctly and the character with him was trying to get him out of the house.
But at that point, the giants had already pummeled the house for so long that there was no sense of danger; and perhaps that’s the best definition of a Tea Party: a moment in which all sense of danger is defeated by a clear contrivance of the writer. The player stopped caring about the town burning down around them because none of the other characters seemed to. And the reader just rolled their eyes at the author’s attempt at a laugh because the house—very clearly now—was never going to actually collapse under the tree-hammering the giants were giving it.
3) Incredibly Awkward and Creepily Open Displays of Sexual Fantasies
Best for last, baby.
I watch South Park, so I’ve seen the recent jabs at George R. R. Martin and Game of Thrones focusing so much on sex. Before I go on, I haven’t watched the Game of Thrones show because I didn’t like it for reasons I also won’t get into here (my favorite character is completely different—for starters) but one of my big problems with it was the sudden persistence of sex and sexuality in the show. In the books, sex happened when it felt like it should’ve; in exactly the same way that characters used the bathroom on occasion and it wasn’t glossed over, Martin also didn’t gloss over occasional sex because it’s a thing humans do, like urinating. I have heard that he has a lot to do with the show, so I throw my hands up with all of this and say, ‘I dunno—whatever.’
But what I absolutely know is that Martin never wrote 100+ pages of Jon Snow being tortured by a dominatrix with a magic dildo.
Yes, I read that book. And yes, it was an Epic Fantasy novel; not (openly) a hybrid of Fantasy and Erotica. Should it be deemed Erotica? No idea. But 100+ pages of anyone being tortured by a dominatrix with a magic dildo, is a very clear, very awkward, and very open display of sexual fantasy being mass produced and sold to the public.
And it just skeeves me out.
Nothing is wrong with a sex scene. Although I wouldn’t write one, nothing is even wrong with a detailed sex scene.
But something is extremely wrong with dragging out sexual scenes for inordinately long. And yes, any sexual scenes, not just scenes that are fetishistic.
I don’t want to go on because I’m sure I’d just repeat myself, each time getting more and more insulting, but I’ll end on the most tactful comparison I can think of:
Focusing on a character’s sexual adventures in a story that’s going to be mass produced for the general public in a genre that’s not known for sexual exploits is like introducing yourself to someone, shaking their hand with a smile, and then leaning in and whispering, “I like anal.”
Everyone’s reaction: “… : ( I need an adult.”
Well, I know it’s short and not especially helpful, but I hope you enjoyed. As always, thanks for the read and from this weird void where I never get around to thematically celebrating holidays, I hope yours are awesome. Happy that day you celebrate!
10 thoughts on “The 3 Great Fiction Sins”
As usual, all good points, but the one that hits home the most for me (and made me quietly lawl) is the third one.
I don’t know if you remembered, but I was in love with this trilogy called the Orphans of Chaos, by John C. Wright.
Currently the series has a 3.6 out of 5 on Goodreads and a 4/5 on Barnes and Noble. Main issue: the author’s very disruptive and semi-frequent use of bondage.
The series premise goes something like this: five kids have been raised in a school where they’re the only students inside, they don’t know their age, and all the professors are a little weird. They find out they all are the children of various titans or similar monsters of Greco-Roman myth, and that they’re teachers are keeping them hostage. They then work on escaping not just their captors, but the actual main Olympian gods themselves.
The coolest part of this series is how different his approach is. Each of the five children see the world through a different paradigm which also affects how they use their powers and who trumps who. The main character, for example, sees the world mathematically through metaphysical fourth dimensional theory, and so can phase through walls, affect gravity, and rotate her fourth dimensional body into our world for wings and other useful powers. She can affect another who is effectively a biomechanical being, and whose knowledge of pretty much all science can be tweaked with her nanobots and rays. He can shut down the mage, whose powers over curses and spells has no affect on someone who doesn’t believe in hocus pocus, but affects the next kid, who is a being of pure dream stuff and relies purely on instinct, impulse and his imagination. That kid can affect the main character, by willing her powers off if he’s really driven (the fifth kid is a little special, so I won’t mention her).
You can see where this could go.
Thankfully the story isn’t just a full blown orgy of supernatural beings of myth…in fact, the bondage part is not integral to the plot at all, and the ability to shut off powers creates cool moments where the five kids have to work together to keep their team from dying/failing and have to work together–unlike their enemies–to shut off their enemies’ powers. There are in fact whole sequences that take place in moments and involve insane teamwork only seen in action flicks like Advent Children or Monty Oum’s Dead Fantasy webseries. But then occasionally, and randomly, the main character is put in a situation where someone with the willpower powers shuts off her abilities and wants to spank her, or tie her up, or whatever. And usually it’s someone much, much older than her, and the only way she gets out is thankfully not by pleading like a little girl, but she does have to talk her way out and admit submission or have someone save her.
This girl for the majority of the story is all about being like Amelia Earhart, her namesake, and when thrust into the leadership she doesn’t want, is incredibly capable of outtalking or outsmarting gods much more powerful than her, But then, all of a sudden, she’s tied up and turned into a damsel in distress, and it’s really weird, like the Golden Age Wonder Woman. And then the aforementioned spanking just…really drives it in. It took me out the moment and made me want to write Wright and say, “Dude, you’re really, really fricking creepy, and I don’t want any of my future children to be every going around you lest you suddenly desire to bend them over and spank them, you old perv.”
Oh… Man. Yep. Yep–that’s it right there. That’s crazy awkward and… Okay. In real life, just now, as I wrote “awkward,” I actually shuddered. That pretty much says it all.
And that’s not even getting to the really weird shift in the protagonist’s competence. Definitely makes it extra chauvinistic and gross. Which is a shame because, otherwise, it does sound like a really cool idea. I would say I’d check it out… but I probably won’t because I’m skeeved out.
Thanks again for the comment, btw!
Great points here. I’ve definitely noticed character bias and tea parties in a lot of fiction. As for the sexual aspects, I agree with you. Skeeves me out too.
Thanks for the read, the like, and the comment!
And yeah, the last Sin so weird that I’m really glad it isn’t nearly as common as the first two. I have to imagine that’s because editors are regularly cutting out “Chapter 18 – Surprise Butt Sex” from more manuscripts than we can possibly imagine.
Love the term “tea parties”, I’ll have to remember that one!
Thanks for the comment and, seriously, get ready to see tea parties everywhere–in everything! I’ll make sure to inform the friend who came up with the term; I’m pretty sure tea parties have annoyed both of us so much over the years that just knowing we’ve pointed them out for other people will be an ultimate victory for her.
It’s one of those things that has always irritated me (especially in horror novels and action films) but never before have I been able to articulate it as anything better than “WHY-ARE-YOU-TALKING?-RUN!-RUN!-RUNRUNRUNRUN!!”.