This is a really mixed bag, mostly a grab list of things that annoy me at the moment. “Oh, yes, that! And that too, really.”
1) No single tears.
My god, I am so tired of this. When was the last time that you saw someone who was deeply and sincerely sad cry a single tear? Others soon follow, and they usually don’t care how tight the person is closing her eyes. In fact, they’re more likely to flow the faster when the eyes are squeezing them out.
And how many single tears just happen to fall on flowers, or the heart of the hero holding the heroine at the moment, or some other deep and meaningful place instead of the heroine’s neck?
Tears in general are treated as a herald of deep emotional investment that I don’t quite get. Characters are always making vows never to cry again, and then doing it anyway (stop swearing vows with the word never in them!). Villains weeping for their evil deeds are supposed to be some signs of deep redemption, instead of the crocodile tears they most likely are. The person who cries is feeling more, somehow, than the one who deals with grief by shutting down, or by screaming, or by doing anything but collapsing in a corner and producing enough moisture to add significantly to the Great Salt Lake.
The point, as always, is not to mistake the gesture for the meaning. If the audience is feeling what the character is, then tears will be a sign of sorrow, not a stand-in for it. If the author hasn’t done a good enough job of describing the character’s emotions, tears are a gaudy string of pearls around an empty moment. Make it mean something. Don’t include things like single tears falling on flower petals and expect that to mean something instead.
2) Your character should always be your character, even in the midst of extreme situations.
That means Denroan gets angry the way Denroan gets angry, Syelli weeps the way Syelli weeps, and Talmin kills the way he always kills. They should not suddenly change their whole personality for the sake of making whatever “normal” or “dramatic” statement you want to make.
If your character gets sick at the thought of a rape but would cheerfully murder a person without remorse, your task is not to make long sermons rationalizing the response, or go into an extended flashback of vomiting and crying after the killing. Show us why the character is that way. And once you’ve written someone one way, don’t change them without an explanation, such as that extreme trauma. That’s the place where the rationalization needs to go: when you change a character from an established pattern, not when you make him more like everybody else awkwardly and limpingly and horrifically.
3) Study common physical and emotional responses when confronted with a strong sensation.
For all that I think characters can have any variety of responses and still be believable as long as they’re themselves, there are some reactions that are more typical than others. We expect someone to get rather anxious-looking and perhaps cover his mouth when he’s about to vomit, not to open his mouth as wide as he can and vomit on the person next to him (unless he doesn’t like the person next to him). We don’t expect someone to bolt out of sleep screaming and with heart racing unless they’ve had a nightmare or been woken up suddenly. If your character manifests such an atypical response, the other characters are within their rights to demand an explanation.
Conflicted responses are certainly possible, but they, too, need to make sense. Fear and determination could be mixed when the character is trying to be brave, and so putting up a front. But determination and sadness, where the character is weeping not with terror but with sorrow? That’s a harder one to explain, if the character really is supposed to be afraid of this thing or person. I’m sure an explanation is possible, probably depending on pity for the villain, but at that point it’s ceased to be the classic courage conflict. Don’t keep calling things by their wrong names.
4) Don’t rely on the “muddle of emotions” to get you out of describing every situation.
I think it happens at least once in every fantasy book. The character feels “a muddle of emotions,” or “emotions so mixed that she couldn’t tell what they were.” If she was really feeling that, at least one emotion should stand out: confusion.
Sometimes, sometimes, this is permissible. The character may have been rescued from certain death by the villain, for example. I would expect things like gratitude, fear, wonder, confusion, hatred, and uncertainty about the future. That kind of thing is very hard to describe. But the character shouldn’t go on in this muddle of emotions multiple times. Sooner or later, she should have to confront what she’s experiencing, and you, the author, are going to have to stop using this excuse to avoid character introspection.
Don’t rely too heavily on the physical equivalent, either: “Emotions crossed his face too quickly for Sally to tell what they were.” Again, this is something the characters should have to tackle sooner or later. If Sally is curious about what this other character is feeling, she’ll probably ask. If she has some reason for not asking, it should still fall apart at some point in the story.
Unless, of course, your characters are the Inexplicable Teenagers.
5) Many adult fantasy characters are inexplicably teenage about emotions, and especially emotional confrontations.
I don’t like Big Misunderstandings and mulish refusal to talk even in teenagers, but at least there’s a (threadbare, worn) excuse there. They are teenagers, they have the confusion of hormones, they may have the additional confusion of a high school environment or being expected to save the world, and they haven’t gained the experience yet that allows them to see their problems in a scaled comparison to other problems.
Most fantasy adults aren’t portrayed as the victims of rampaging hormones, and they know more about the fantasy world than Sheltered Princess Krystalynne. Yet they continue to obsess about possible romances, have Big Misunderstandings, shout and sulk at each other when silence or cooperation are of the utmost importance, and refuse to understand that things like saving the world are more important than who likes or likes-likes someone else. And the author usually calls such characters intelligent, mature, composed, aware.
There’s a certain point at which the excuses run out. In the worst-case scenarios, your reader grows bored and quits reading. (I’ve done that). In other scenarios, you’ve bogged yourself down with scenes that repeat each other, scenes that make no sense, and scenes that contradict the essential souls of your protagonists. The story has either stopped moving or moves along only for the author and the few readers who are absolutely obsessed with seeing some characters fall in love and other characters get punished.
There are genres for that: romances and mysteries, for example. Fantasy can include those things, but it shouldn’t become obsessed with them. And even if those elements are supposed to be prominent in the storyline, I think a romance that repeats the pattern of every other romance out there is dead boring.
Most fantasy writers take the time and effort to get teenage characters right, at least by the standards of modern adolescence. (Pick up just about any fantasy book with a teenage protagonist). Take the time and effort to get the adults right, too. If they have stupid or dangerous personality traits, let other characters see them as stupid or dangerous, instead of humoring them all the time.
And if you’re interested in writing only eternal teenagers, adults who never do manage to grow up despite all the time they have, let me know so I can stay far away from your stories, please.
So tired of eternal teenagers crying significant tears and feeling a muddle of emotions. So tired.