The 3 Great Fiction Sins

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 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.”

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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!

Your Fantasy Characters and How to Understand Them

It’s time for some honesty. When I think of the original version of my book (which I really try to never do), among all of the things that were horribly wrong, there’s one factor that’s oddly hit or miss. Characters. When I set out to rework the novel, a major part of the endeavor was dedicated to finally, truly sorting out all of the characters.

To specify, no, there weren’t many–that isn’t where the confusion was. And no, they weren’t all bad; to the contrary, in many of the cases where I initially thought I had to change a character, I ultimately reversed the changes I made when I looked over my edits.

So, what was the problem with them? What needed to change? Well, to say it in a seriously undefined way, a lot of them were just off. Lethe, my protagonist, and several side characters were solid from the start, but a lot of the others were just…

… weird.

I should specify–they were unnatural. Some of them believed and said strange, nonsensical things. Some of them had confused emotions; one moment they’re on the verge of tears, the next they’re angry or maybe playing a magical flute (that I clearly hated because this is like, the bajillionth time I’ve brought it up in the past weeks). To put it simply, they were all a mess.

I bring this up because, in my mind, unrealistic, unbelievable characters have always been the fantasy genre’s bane. Now, I don’t mean that I think it’s silly for a fantasy character to have giant fangs or blue skin–obviously–but because of the blue skin and the fangs, the realism of a character’s personality is incredibly important. Because if a character with fangs and blue skin walks up and says something silly or confusing, you’re suddenly reading an episode of Power Rangers (not to knock Power Rangers or anything, but that segue to Goldar was completely accidental). Although it may sound weird, personality is often the only thing standing between a reader watching a giant, blue cat man in golden armor and knowing that they’re watching a giant, blue cat man in golden armor.

This applies to normal fiction as well, of course, because believable characters are just part of what interests us as humans–we want to read other people’s stories and be entertained by their lives; when a character suddenly comes off as fake, we lose interest because the odd, backwards illusion of fiction is broken; in it’s simplest terms, we realize we’re reading something another person wrote.

So, the point of all of this: I thought I’d share my thoughts about sorting those characters out with the idea that maybe it’ll help you sort your own characters.

Allow me to start with another clarification…

Understanding, Not Fixing

I’ve said “sort” up until this point, but it’s really not the best term in relation to character design. According to my experience, at least, nothing good comes from trying to fix characters; the unnatural dialogue that didn’t fit with a character’s usual thoughts, the strange dialect they use or unusual choices that they make–all of those came from trying to make my characters into people who were cool enough. Not that your characters shouldn’t be cool–of course they should, particularly by your standards. But not at their expense; a lot of messy, nonsense traits can arise when you try to force a personality on someone who already has one.

Yep. You heard me.

Before you navigate away, consider this: writers often unintentionally create characters who mirror themselves. I can tell you personally that all of my characters have an aspect of my personality. There are many more who I understand because I’ve known them in real life. Likely, the first kind, who you understand from your own experiences, are your protagonists and the second kind, who you only understand from second-hand experience, would be your side characters. While I absolutely believe and support the idea that skilled writers create characters completely unlike themselves as protagonists, that doesn’t change the point here: despite how cheesy it is to say, “Your characters are actually people”–despite how much that makes it sound like I believe they’re living, breathing entities that exist in some other dimension–the point is that they’re real people because they’re you. Or me. Or someone you know. The point is that even writers who try really hard are likely going to put some facet of themselves into their characters because they’re writing the book. Their characters come from them–from their experiences, to say it in a non-cheesy way–and the more accurately they’re portrayed, the more real and intriguing they are.

So, to put it simply, treating your characters as actual people is the first step. Looking at them as someone from your subconscious that you have to understand and not someone who exists in a vacuum who you have to make is the key.

Actually understanding who they are and what they feel, however, is another, complicated matter. In my case, I adopted ill-fitting personalities for some of my characters because I just didn’t know better and didn’t know how. Now, however, as a man who’s far more confident in my character creation, I’ll leave you with my short list of the ways I came to understand my characters:

  1. Thinking About Them in Relation to Your World: Despite what I said earlier about characters coming from you or someone you know, I want to stress that you shouldn’t dwell on making them exactly like their source; treat them as real people–your people–in a situation that may be similar to yours (your friends’, etc.) and who have similar personality traits to you (your friends, etc.), but who are ultimately not you (or anyone you know).
    To hopefully be less confusing, consider that your life, and your experiences, shape you. Then consider that different experiences and decisions in your life would have changed who you are now. Your protagonists (for example), no matter how similar they are to you, would have to be an alternate version of you by default. Lethe, for example, is not me if only because I love pizza and he has absolutely no idea what pizza is.
    Now, in my experience, the best way to handle this is to start with a basic concept for your character (the initial idea of them–really honest and likable man, for example) and drop them into the world you designed. You’ll need to very seriously and thoroughly consider their place in that world. What’s this honest and likable man’s profession? Are there many honest people where he lives? Does his honesty have something to do with the fantasy culture you created? Does it have something to do with his past?
    Each answer will bring you closer to understanding who your character is, but it’s important to note that all of this relies on your familiarity with your world; naturally, it’s not essential that you decide on every detail of your world first, but when you decide on a new aspect of it, you should run through your cast to be sure that aspect influences everyone it should (despite how it sounds, relating a new element of my worlds to a character has been an awesome, irrationally exciting experience 100% of the time).
  2. Create Profiles for Each Character: The worst thing you can do for yourself is find these answers and not record them. At least if you’re anything like me, that is; I know that no matter how fantastic and nuanced my characterization decisions are, I will forget them with enough time.
    But beyond that basic functionality, making profiles for your characters, in which you hammer down the full range of personality traits (from Religion to Favorite Food), will only help you understand them more clearly. It sounds tedious–largely because it is–but the end result will be an answer to every possible question about your characters and, more importantly, more writing fuel.
    What do I mean by “writing fuel”? Simple:
    “Lethe walked to the bar and ordered an ale. He wouldn’t drink it–he never did (also a big difference between Lethe and I) , but he needed to look natural as he scanned the common room for a Silvertongue.”
    … as opposed to…
    “Lethe walked to the bar and ordered a–” uhhhhhh… <phew>… … Oh man. I dunno. What does he like? Hmm… <five hours later> Errrr… Hmmm… I’ll pick this up tomorrow! :D
  3. Avoid the Easy Answers: When you find the definitive answers to all of those questions, you’ll know because they’ll just work. You’ll know that you’ve found your character because they’ll absolutely make sense to you.
    However, there’s always the temptation to quickly settle with cliches. Is your protagonist an ultra badass who never breaks a sweat? Is your evil bad guy bald? Is your protagonist’s mentor a mysterious old Ben–er, man who lives outside of town?
    Then you’ve probably drawn your answers from another character. Although one could argue that there’s nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from other, incredibly popular characters, I think it’s important to stop yourself from doing so; in most cases, these are simply easy answers to complicated questions that you’d rather not answer. And just one of these easy answers in the wrong place, executed in the wrong way (naming your father figure Ben Parker for example–even in homage) will just come off as cheap.
    In summary, it’s far better to give your characters the extra time and make sure they’re real and not caricatures of other fictional characters. If it helps, just think of Xerox’s; the more copies you make of a document that’s already been copied, the lower it’ll be in quality.
  4. Choose a Theme Song for Them: Have you ever watched Batman: The Animated Series? I know–tangent of the year–but not really. Even when I was a kid, one of the most striking things about that show was how every single villain had a theme song. If you’d like an extra assignment here, just go back and watch any episode (with a super villain [I’m not sure if Rupert Thorne and the other mobsters had themes]). Listen for their themes and how well they communicate everything about that villain (or just watch this for a few examples).
    What’s the point? A theme song can do wonders for how an audience understands a character. For the sake of understanding your characterss better, make yourself that audience; find a theme song that fits, whether it’s an actual song with lyrics or something composed (I’m partial to video game music for themes myself [here’s one of Lethe’s]). Even just the act of finding that theme will help refine how you feel about your character, and listening to it afterward will help remind you who your character is.
    It’s important to note though that this is another case where the potential to copy comes along. The simplest way to put it: Lethe’s other theme is also from Castlevania (I’d be the first to admit that I was absolutely inspired by that series), so I had to take extra care to not unwittingly give Lethe a whip and full head of long, luxurious vampire-slaying hair. No matter what theme you choose, make sure that the theme’s original source doesn’t influence your character more than your character influences it.
  5. Draw Them and/or Get Someone Else to Draw Them: Although I know it’s not always necessary in the fantasy genre, designing your characters is also a great way to get to know them. I’m absolutely not an artist, but I do love character design, so many of my sketch books are full of drawings of characters from different stories. Even just a sketch is likely to make you think of your character in a way you might not have–there may be a quirk that you realize they need or a physical attribute that you suddenly feel doesn’t work for them.
    If you really can’t draw, however (and even if you can) seeing someone else’s rendering of one of your characters will absolutely and instantly help define them in your eyes; if the depiction is perfect, you’ll know it, love the picture, and possibly print it and keep that copy in your wallet like it’s a photo of your kids.
    And if it’s terrible, you’ll immediately see everything your character isn’t, defining them in a backwards way (and perhaps you’ll also have an opportunity to change whatever bit of your writing gave your artist the wrong impression in the first place).

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Well, I do believe that’s all I have for you on understanding your characters. If this helped in any way or you feel it may help someone you know, feel free to share. And as always, thanks for reading.