Just a note: rants will be more erratic than usual for the next couple of weeks, as I have final papers to help my freshman students edit (and then I get to grade them—joy), and two twenty-page papers of my own to write, one on Yeats, one on Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The end of the semester, what fun.
I probably should qualify that these are in no order at all.
In the Designated Love Interest rant, I talked about characters who are perfectly calm and steady for the first part of their stories going off into uncharacteristic purple-prose raptures the moment they meet the person the author intends them to fall in love with. It can happen at other introductions, too. The hero meets the villain who will betray him later, but who is supposed to be on his side for the moment, and “instinctively dislikes” him. Someone who will turn out to be possessed of a Mystical Object or two has “an aura of mystery” or a “mysterious smile,” even though none of their actions are strange. (“Mysterious smile” is another phrase that I want to take out behind the barn and shoot). The heroine feels “a surge of protective affection” for a person who is doing his best to piss her off, or who doesn’t meet the most basic of her standards for goodness, just because the author knows that down the line she’ll come to regard him as a little brother.
And that’s the problem, really: the author’s foresight makes her forget that, at the moment of introduction, the character does not know what she knows. If there are traits about the newly-introduced person that would attract the viewpoint character’s attention, good or bad, then it’s perfectly fine to concentrate on those. If this is someone who has a grand reputation, awe would be a reasonable reaction. If the heroine’s heard this is an arrogant, stuck-up pig, it would be natural for her to resent him even before she’s met him, and so on. But all those depend on the knowledge that you actually work into the story.
Cut out the “somehow,” the “instinctive,” the “mysterious tide of emotion welling up from the depths of her heart.” Nine times out of ten, when the language turns fuzzy, the author is writing from her point-of-view, not the character’s, because she can’t think of any other way to foreshadow the relationship that’s coming. Slow down, relax, and remember you’ve got a whole damn book to do this in. In a short story, you might want to turn to the protagonist having an advance impression, or dealing with someone she’s met before; I think it is cheating to adopt the omniscient voice or the out-of-character froo-froo “mystery” just because it’s a short story.
People should get angry like themselves, too. There might be variations of that anger—perhaps Selten storms when she’s mildly irritated but goes quiet and cold and stares when she’s deeply, truly angry—but the reader should be able to trace the expression of rage or fury back to the original personality somehow. I consider it out of character if someone who has a dislike of expressing emotion publicly suddenly explodes into yells in front of an auditorium full of people. Just because it might be dramatic isn’t a reason to not consider what this person, as opposed to someone else random, might do. Consider it, and have them act accordingly.
Consequences of the anger should follow the same way. Does your character have a vengeful personality? Perhaps she’ll make an oath to hunt down a murderer. Have her value loyalty, and she could want to kill a traitor even though she normally abhors killing. A guard or police officer made jaded and weary by death shouldn’t lose their cool over some random murderer and try to execute him instead of hauling him off to trial. I mean, why? What’s the point? Show us what traits of J. Random Murderer set the guard off.
One reason to watch out for this is because revenge for an insult, a killing, or a betrayal is such a common motif in fantasy books, as is the character finding out at the end that revenge is empty. Authors rely on it to provide plot and transform character. But first you have to have:
- someone who would pursue revenge and/or a situation severe enough to make them into someone who would.
- an enemy who can have revenge practiced on them. If a character is just “mad at the world” and hitting out at everything and anything, the coherency of the plot dissolves pretty quickly.
- good reasons for why they need to pursue revenge instead of immediately killing the enemy, imprisoning him, or doing something else less drastic than revenge-taking. It’s obvious when the author is contriving it.
3) Moral quandaries.
Several times I’ve read protagonists that the author placed in ethically sticky situations, only I didn’t recognize that it was supposed to be an ethically sticky situation until the protagonist started questioning and agonizing over it. Then I wondered, “Huh? Who the fuck cares about that?” Or “Why does this character give a shit?”
This has a special relevance to fantasy, because, if the author is writing in a world and society sufficiently unlike and unconnected from our own, moral concerns are not going to translate perfectly. I have seen several good stories ruined because authors created an internally consistent moral system and then had their characters act against it—usually in line with twenty-first-century mores—for no good reason.
No, it’s not politically correct for nobles to beat up peasants. But if your noble hero, born of noble parents, reared by nobles, surrounded day in and day out by nobles, having heard of the practice before and never questioning it, suddenly decides that he is Against Nobles Beating Up Peasants, I will not accept political correctness as an excuse. I’m sure that you have an important message to impart although often not one that hasn’t been imparted more subtly dozens of times before and want your hero to be the avatar of that message, but if I’m snorting in laughter, I’m not going to pay attention anyway. (Particularly if the way that the hero recognizes the moral quandary is entirely contrived. See Point 4).
On a personal note, I get bothered by stories with loner or maverick heroes—both of which I like—when it’s obvious from the get-go that the author’s purpose is to show the loner or maverick hero the Wonders of Having a Family and Being a Good Citizen and Helping People Out of the Goodness of His Heart. Here we have more fuzzy language, asinine statements like, “He wondered suddenly, for the first time in his life, if what he was doing was wrong,” and characters who transform from wonderfully self-confident people into browbeaten ones ashamed of their past with little transition. Except that, you know, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with being selfish or mercenary, that it is not necessarily something to be “redeemed of,” and that inherent character traits that the author made the protagonist have are a long way from deliberate crimes. Reconsider this story, I beg of you, and if you can’t manage a convincing transformation, have the loner or maverick hero act consistently with his morals.
So you’ve put your character in the moral quandary, guided him through it in the way that he would have reasoned or guessed or bumbled, and you’re ready for the big moment when he decides his new course. All is sweetness and light, and the epiphany is sudden, and immediately after he has it the hero rushes out to tell the heroine that he’s in love with her.
Except that your character makes up his mind incredibly slowly, and is rather reserved, and loathes and abhors public demonstrations of affection.
I would like to see more characters like this—“this” serving as an example or a prototype—not smashed from real and living beings into cardboard when the epiphany time comes around. The author has been content to show the slow development of his mind, his personality, his reasoning. And then she suddenly decides that he’s in love with the heroine and he turns from a timid researcher into Dramatic Rescue Man, or, instead of making up a poem for her and hiding it in a book the way he probably would, he walks up to her as she’s being presented to court, smothers her with kisses, and asks her to marry him. She always says yes, and they will live happily ever after in Generica.
This is where understatement can be your best friend. Can be, because you may have a character who really is romantic and impetuous and had something else on his mind that prevented the romantic and impetuous gesture before now; when that burden is removed, he’s free to go out and perform it. But I’m leaning heavily in the other direction, because I’ve seen more authors sacrifice reserved or gentle or calm characters to drama than the other way around.
Even in the moment of Epiphany, even in the moment of highest revelation, the bolt from the blue, the singing doves…
Remember that your character is still who he is. The epiphany may be a dramatic change for him, but it is a continuation of his character, not a chasm in it. Let him still be who he is, please.
So perhaps you have a person who really is god-lover, or a stuttering schoolboy when it comes to sex.
I want to know why someone self-confident everywhere else would be different here. Is there a reason? Great! Show me what that reason is! I want to know! Really! I am waiting!
But, instead, the author just turns the self-confident, eloquent character to a babbling fool without explanation, or with the half-gutted “She was different from any other woman he had ever known.” And then the Designated Love Interest bells start ringing, because I want to know why and how she’s so different, and the author never tells me.
Likewise, I want to know why someone who is a sheltered virgin in a faux-medieval society, someone who’s been reared in a society of courtly love and barely knows there’s a connection between sex and childbirth, acts like a trained courtesan in bed. Does she have a secret porn stash? See, now that would be interesting. I want to know where she got the porn and why she has it and where she hides it when her maids come into the room, or if her maids conspired with her to obtain it. But no clueless virgin sex goddesses, please.
I think the reason that authors turn so often to these two extremes is their own embarrassment over sex. The extremes are comfortable and well-known, and though readers might giggle, it doesn’t take much effort to write them. But really, if you’re too embarrassed to write a sex scene that’s in-character, practice a fade-out. It’s better than sacrificing convincing writing to purple prose or thirteen-year-old romantic gestures.