Monthly Archives: October 2015

Pulling Punches

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I love ambiguous characters. I love ulterior motives, and subtle between-the-lines manipulations, and information withheld for strategic purposes. I love characters who know more than they’re saying and who use that higher knowledge for personal advantage. And I especially love the confidence required to allow other characters to think the worst of them in their pursuit of their greater goals.

I do not, however, love when an author nullifies bad behavior with an end-of-the-story LOL, jk.

“LOL. Just kidding about all that bad stuff I said I did. I’m really good and kind and so pure I should be bottled as a drinking water.”

Blarg.

One of the best things about reading a novel is watching the characters learn and change and grow. This is particularly true when a flawed character achieves enlightenment and mends their ways for the better. Redemption is a powerful theme, possibly one of the most powerful themes that exists.

And the plot twist of, “Oh, I was never really that bad—I just let people think I was” can rob that redemptive angle of its power.

If poorly done, instead of a resolution it becomes an excuse. The author pulls a punch instead of hitting the reader full force, figuratively speaking. And most readers, whether they admit it or not, want the punch in the face.

If a character has a shady past, it’s okay for them to own their behavior, to acknowledge it. ” ‘Twas I, but ’tis not I,” says Oliver in Shakespeare’s As You Like It.  “I do not shame to tell you what I was, since my conversion so sweetly tastes, being the thing I am” (Act IV, Scene iii). Reformation of character is a thing of beauty, and admitting wrongdoing with a determination to be better requires internal strength and maturity. The rogue or reprobate who reforms is a delight.

The “rogue” with a manufactured shady past can be equally delightful, as long as the fabrication has occurred for a solid reason. A revelation of sainthood can backfire, however, particularly if the only reason for the roguish behavior was to create romantic conflict/tension throughout the story.

“Ooh! You’re so bad! I don’t want anything to do with you!”

“Baby, you want me! You know you do!”

“But you’re so bad! Why am I so attracted to you?”

“Because I’m hot and seductive. We should make out.”

“I cannot fight my attraction any longer! I must accept your criminal ways!”

“LOL, jk. I’m a teddy bear who donates all his extra money to orphans and runs a safe house for abused puppies. And I love commitment. Let’s get married right now.”

“Yay!”

Boo, I say. Boo.

If the only reason a character is a rogue is for the romance of it, and especially if his roguishness gets whitewashed in the story’s resolution, shame on that author. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Choice and consequence must be as apparent in fiction as they are in real life.

Otherwise, really, what’s the point?

“Mindless escapism, Kate,” says the peanut gallery. “Duh.”

I disagree. So-called escapism that flouts natural patterns of behavior is no escapism at all. It’s an exercise in frustration at best, and an excellent reason for throwing a book across the room and never picking it back up again.

Bloodstained Hands and a Heart of Gold

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Confession: I instinctively want literary bad boys to be bad. If you go to the trouble of giving a character a horrible reputation, he should merit that reputation in some way. None of this watered-down sop of a conflict resolution: “See, he’s a rogue, but he’s not really bad. He’s just… misunderstood.”

That rationale is how we end up with highwaymen who don’t rob, pirates who don’t plunder, philanderers who don’t womanize, cat burglars who never steal anything, et cetera.

It’s one thing for a character to have a moral compass and quite another for him to use that moral compass to bewildering and incongruent effects. Every class or caste has its rules. Highwaymen rob travelers and shoot the ones who fight back. Pirates plunder and sink ships—it’s their occupation, so if they don’t do it, they’re no longer pirates, see? Philanderers keep mistresses and bounce from one woman to another. Cat burglars scope out art or jewelry collections and lift valuable pieces to hawk on the black market. And anyone joining any these ranks has to accept that, “Yes, I’m going to do these unavoidable things, because this is the path I’ve chosen for my life.”

And, usually, their moral compass matches that choice.

I will point your attention now to Exhibit A: The Princess Bride by William Goldman.

Everyone loves Wesley. He’s handsome and hard-working and loyal, and he absolutely adores Buttercup to a comical fault. He also masquerades as the Dread Pirate Roberts for two years—the Dread Pirate Roberts, “who never leaves survivors” (Goldman, p. 58)—with no detriment whatsoever to Roberts’s ferocious reputation during that time period.

I.e., the much-adored Wesley is a bloodthirsty killer when he’s on the high seas. Of his transition into piracy, he says simply, “[Roberts] agreed to let me assist him in the next few captures and see how I liked it. Which I did.” (Goldman, p. 183, emphasis added)

There’s no apology offered for his behavior. He doesn’t show any remorse. What’s more, no one expects him to. He is the quintessential Dashing Rogue, and to apologize for his path to wealth would undermine his character, who was willing to do anything and everything in his power to merit Buttercup’s love. Including turning pirate to amass a fortune for her.

Which is the exact opposite of so many diluted Rogues that plague literature. “I’m a pirate, yes, but I nobly spare my victims like no logical pirate would, because resources are scarce at sea and we can’t go wasting them on prisoners.”

I think sometimes the author tries to soften a Rogue to make him more palatable to the reader. This treatment, though, can have the unintended side effect of rendering him into flavorless pap. There’s plenty of room for the “misunderstood” hero, but when the build-up makes him out to be a monster and he’s really a kitten in the end, I don’t feel relief. I feel cheated. If you’re writing a ruthless pirate, he had dang well better be chopping at people right and left, not prancing around spouting platitudes about nobly granting his enemies their lives and only killing in self-defense.

Unless he’s an inept pirate, I mean. But in that case he probably won’t last long. His enemies certainly aren’t going to extend him any courtesy.

(Unless they’re inept too, but then the whole story becomes inept unless its a parody or satire. None of these conventions apply if you’re writing parodies or satires.)

Long story short (“Too late!”): If you’re going to write the Dashing Rogue into one of your plots, embrace him in all his Dashing Rogue-ness. His moral compass is skewed to a different angle than society might allow, but that is part of his charm.

 

Citation:

Goldman, W. (2000). The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure. New York: Random House

A Rogue by Any Other Name

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I guess I’m kind of a killjoy when it comes to romantic hero tropes.

Oh well.

This week we take a look at that lovable, handsome ne’er-do-well that every woman itches to reform. He lives life on the edge! So rough! So hip! So much cooler and bad-boy-ish than your boring, everyday heroes!

He is the Dashing Rogue, and this winter, he’s wooing a nice traditional girl in a novel near you! Because contrived plot device!

(I should totally write marketing copy, don’cha think? Yeah, me neither.)

Old-school Dashing Rogues are the highwaymen, pirates, and Robin Hoods of literature, men who flout society’s rules and do it with panache. Modern Dashing Rogues aren’t nearly as interesting. The most stereotypical versions ride motorcycles, sport facial hair, and have tattoos to show what rebels they are. Because tattoos are 100% the mark of a rebel, what with 36-40% of Americans between the ages of 18-40 sporting at least one nowadays.

Yeah. Pretty mainstream. But I digress.

The Dashing Rogue challenges his more conservative love interest’s worldview. The conflict of the story arises in their differences: two kids from opposite sides of the track, thrown together by Fate. This trope typically has two possible endgames:

  1. The Savior Complex: the nice, traditional woman must bring her reckless man back from the brink of his destructive behaviors; he is reformed by the end of the story.
  2. Corruption of Innocence: the nice, traditional woman gives up her higher ground to join her reckless man in his revelry; she is a Dashing Rogue-ette by the end of the story.

The lesser-used third option is for them to part ways, but that only happens if neither changes for the other (i.e., rarely). The rogue and the traditionalist can’t sustain a long-lasting relationship without one or the other giving in because they don’t have enough common ground to stand on.

And that’s what makes them so much fun.

That fine line where diametrically opposed worldviews collide is a magnificent point for storytelling. It provides natural tension not only between the two characters but within each character individually. “Do I want to be with this person who stands for everything I don’t? Why do I want to, and what am I willing to concede?” It’s a double layer of conflict, external and internal, all built into one delicious trope.

When it’s done well, that is. The poorly wrought Dashing Rogue omits any true internal conflict to focus more on physical attraction between characters with opposing morals. The long-term consequences that would result from engaging with one another get scant attention. And if the author throws a contrived love triangle into the mix—with a more traditional love interest juxtaposed against the Rogue to manufacture even more angst, of course—the story as a whole becomes disingenuous to any reader who’s paying attention.

Which is terrible. The very purpose of the Dashing Rogue is to create a sense of excitement and danger, not yawns and eye-rolling.

For a good example of this trope, I tip my hat once again to Elizabeth Peters: in Street of the Five Moons, art historian and dedicated museum curator Dr. Vicky Bliss meets her match in art thief and unrepentant con man Sir John Smythe. Their adversarial relationship continues through four additional novels, with Vicky able to maintain her (mostly) law-abiding ideals while John slinks around in his questionable pursuits. She knows he’s a scoundrel and he knows she’s too good for him. And yet they work as a couple because they’re an intellectual match. They respect each other, and they compromise beautifully when they must.

Plus, he’s just so dashing.

(I’d say “just kidding,” but he really is.)

Terrified of the Truth

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Did you know that failure to disclose food items to the US Customs and Border Control can get you up to $10,000 in fines and penalties? It’s srs bsns, people!

(For the record, I’ve never smuggled meat-paste from Canada. I’ve never even been to Canada. I’m certainly not waiting for any 7-year statute of limitations to expire. *shifty eyes*)

The Family Secret trope has many variations, from the classic Skeleton-in-the-Closet to the urban-fantasy Supernaturals-in-Hiding. Criminal records, past misdeeds, a shameful heritage, special powers, coveted talismans: any or all of these could spell impending conflict and/or doom.

The drama! The angst! What will happen when the secret comes out?!

My favorite use of this trope is when the family keeps a secret so close to the vest that the main character has no clue it exists. Because responsible parents would never warn their offspring that a dire and awful circumstance hangs over them all like a Sword of Damocles. There’s no reason whatsoever that the precious child should be burdened with that knowledge.

/sarcasm

I get bugged when the main is portrayed as level-headed, logical, and responsible, yet is kept ignorant solely for the convenience of the plot. If it’s a matter of life and death (and in some instances, someone’s already died because of the secret), it seems illogical not to sit down and have a straightforward conversation.

“Honey, we’re direct descendants of Attila the Hun, and there’s this cult following that wants to reestablish his empire and make us the rulers of Eastern Europe, but your dad is allergic to swords and bloodshed, so we’re in hiding. Don’t talk to strangers, mm’kay?”

or

“Sweetie-pie, your mom and I used to be bank robbers, and we double-crossed one of our partners and left him for dead, but he’s alive and he’s looking for the loot we stashed in the Appalachian foothills and once he finds it he wants to burn us all in our beds. Watch your back coming to and from school, would you please?”

or

“Pumpkin, I had a love affair with Thoth. You’re part ibis, and you’re going to sprout feathers, and people are going to hunt you for those feathers because they’re magic and can grant mad writing skillz when powdered and rubbed on the face. Steer clear of poets and novelists, I beg you.”

(I was going to make a remark about when the secret is too over-the-top to be believable, but actually that last example sounds hilarious. Someone write that story, stat.)

If these conversations take place at all, it’s never by choice in a quiet moment. See, we can’t give the main character too long to process their family secrets because, again, drama and angst. Instead, the secret gets squelched and suppressed until everything finally comes bursting forth like filthy water from a patchwork dam to flood the character’s life with destruction and devastation.

Unless the buildup was overdone and the secret’s not really that big a deal. In that case the “destruction and devastation” are manufactured and the whole premise falls flat on its face and everyone wants a refund because it was so anticlimactic.

(Those Family Secret situations are the absolute worst.)

And of course, some characters shouldn’t be entrusted with secrets at all. Like, ever. If the main could be a poster-child for Ritalin advocates, for example, the parents are probably wise to keep their secrets to themselves.

Unfortunately, it seems like these are the stories where the secret is divulged early on and I’m left going, “Really, Mom and Dad? Your kid was practically licking the paint off the walls two minutes ago. Everyone can see that they’re going to turn around and screw everything up so that the author can cobble together a plot out of this little ‘oopsie.’ What were you thinking?!”

(I may have some strong feelings on this subject. I will repent.)

But for all my complaints, I have to admit: the Family Secret done well is one of my favorite tropes ever. It can invoke drama, humor, horror, betrayal, and a host of other emotions. It wields a narrative punch that can suck me right into a story, or kick me right back out.

It is, in short, a wonderful tool. Use it wisely. (Or not at all.)

Hitting Every Branch in the Cliche Tree

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So many parent cliches. So little time.

The desire for loving, supportive parents is basic. It’s biological. And when it’s unfulfilled, you have pure and captivating story-fodder. The arguing parents, the sick parents, the career-oriented or incompetent parents: all these character types have a common thread.

They all wear a label of unreliability.

Trouble-ridden main characters won’t rely on contentious or angry parents for help. They won’t want to bother parents who are chronically or terminally ill. They won’t seek the ones who have no time for them, and they won’t trust the ones who can’t function up to par.

In other words, these parent cliches invoke the orphan-as-main-character trope, only with a lower body count. Don’t want to kill off your MC’s mom? Make her emotionally unavailable instead, and you’ll get roughly the same result: psychological trauma and a spur for your main to act independently when conflicts arise.

It’s a writer’s cheat for creating instant drama. Everyone’s butted head with parents or parental figures at some point in their life, so it’s an easy way to draw the reader and the main onto the same page. Plus, it leaves an opening for that oh-so-satisfying Parent Redeemed™ scene near the end of the book. You know the one I’m talking about. The main and a parent sit down and heart-to-heart back into one another’s good graces:

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you, but I only ever wanted the best for you, sweetie.”

“I know that now, Mom/Dad.”

[Cue hugs, tears, sunshine, rainbows, and a wholesome sense of the world re-aligned to its proper sphere.]

To some extent, the Unreliable Parent is necessary. Fully functional parents protect and support their children, not the other way around. If a main character has to save the world (literally or metaphorically), the parent has to be somehow unavailable. This enables the main to act as a main instead of a child. It triggers character growth and independence. It’s one of those conditions that allows the main to wear the mantle of a hero in the first place.

(And this doesn’t apply only to adventure/quest stories. Go look at the parents in Jane Austen’s novels and get back to me.)

In the same vein as the Unreliable Parent, the Antagonistic Parent pushes a main character even further into independence. The main who faces a parent as a villain also faces the process of de-tangling emotions and identity from that parent.

It makes for delectable drama when done correctly. It makes for cloyed melodrama when flubbed.

(I would here name names, but I’m in a kindly mood.)

For this parent vs. child situation to work, the characterization must be spot-on. If I don’t care about the main, I’m certainly not going to care about any angst with their parents. And for them to be genuine adversaries, a deep and meaningful rift must lie between them. But please note: “Deep and meaningful” does not equal “overdeveloped and complicated.” The relationship, even if adversarial, must ring true. Sometimes the source of deep rifts can be appallingly simple.

Something as simple as a parent stubbornly viewing the child as an extension of himself.

The hero must be independent, after all, one way or another.

 

Happy Family, Dismal Plot

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I am so guilty of the “dead mother” trope. So guilty. When you’re writing fantasy, it’s almost like a default condition for the main character, to the point where I’ve had to stop myself and say, “No, really, why would his/her mother be dead?”

I could postulate a number of theories on the prevalence of this trope. Sometimes it’s simply because the story wouldn’t take place otherwise. It says a lot about the stability a mother brings into her children’s lives, that her absence creates conditions for danger, adventure, and difficulty. Often, the death of a mother becomes one of the driving forces for the main character’s actions. If her death was sacrificial, even more so.

It’s an easy plot mechanism, in other words.

Sometimes, a character has no mother because that’s one less character to muddy up the narrative. If a plot doesn’t call for a mother, the mother gets left out. The author doesn’t have to specify what happened to her; the reader can deduce that she died (or more generically, that she’s not in the picture) and move on.

We’re encouraged to keep our character lists trim and efficient. Readers only have so much of an attention span, and extra characters who have no great bearing on the plot can become a distraction or, worse, an annoyance. When making cuts of this sort, family members often don’t survive.

Convenient plot devices and efficient casting are superficial excuses, though. In my view, the “dead mother” trope has another likely source: it’s a narrative drawn from the unfortunate realities of life.

Although modern science and medicine have drastically reduced maternal mortality rates, only a hundred years ago a woman would take her life into her hands to deliver a child into this world. And women had more children back then, and the risk didn’t change with each successive birth, which meant that, for the greater part of recorded history, a multitude of mothers died during or immediately after childbirth.

And their children grew up motherless. (If they survived, that is. Infant mortality above-and-beyond overshadowed maternal mortality.) Having no mother wasn’t an anomaly. It was a relatively common occurrence. The narrative appears in fairy tales and folklore. Motherless characters abound in classic works and history alike. If childbirth wasn’t the culprit, a dozen other potential executioners waited in the wings.

A mere century of good hygiene and medical practice isn’t enough to eradicate a narrative that’s existed for thousands of years, a narrative that yet exists in many developing nations. Maternal mortality rates continue to drop worldwide (thankfully), but the effects of bygone years don’t vanish.

In that respect, it makes sense for writers who look to the past for inspiration to include what was once a very real possibility.

Still, it’s not a trope to take lightly. I can’t imagine my life without my mother. She knows me better than anyone else, she loves me more than anyone else (probably, haha), and she keeps me emotionally grounded. When I think about my relationship with her, I realize what a crummy thing it is to deprive a character of that same relationship.

But, granted, not all mothers are as amazing as mine.

The antagonistic parent is a trope for another day, however.

 

And Some People Just Don’t Measure Up

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Poor Special. Quirky side characters only find love with other quirky side characters. A triangle is out of the question.

(Unless it’s really quirky, I mean.)

Often when MarySue appears in a story, another phenomenon occurs: side characters that exist only to validate or compliment her existence. Their motivations are flat, their desires are unimportant, and if they have a relationship, it’s quite possibly for comic purposes alone. These side characters give MarySue someone to talk to, someone to make her look good, someone to highlight how awesome she is without ever stealing the limelight.

They are, in essence, cardboard cutouts. Decorations. Props.

They parrot dialogue that allows MarySue to show her wit. They make rash decisions that allow her to demonstrate wisdom. MarySue is the center of the universe. Everything else must point to her and her amazincredifabulosity.

And it’s a colossal waste.

Side characters can have their own hopes, dreams, motivations, impulses, personalities, etc. without ruining a story. I would posit that they need all of these for a story to really, truly shine. The world is made up of individuals, all possessing a unique perspective on life. We’re all the main character in our own story. Literary worlds should reflect that diversity of thought.

Some authors who do this particularly well:

  • Diana Wynne Jones: While I love Howl’s Moving Castle, I think House of Many Ways might be my favorite of her books. The main characters from Howl’s appear as side characters in House, to hysterical ends. (I’m sorry. There is no keeping a straight face during Twinkle’s scenes. It’s just not possible, unless you have no soul.) Even so, they don’t outshine House‘s Charmain in the least. Rather, they all work together nicely to create a sense of a broad and varied world where many interesting people live.
  • Elizabeth Peters: Some authors create a new, alternate world for every book they write. Peters’s characters apparently all live together in one grand universe. The Vicky Bliss series in particular ties together multiple literary threads: Sir John Smythe has his first jaunt in a non-series book (as the villain, no less), the crime syndicate from Books #3 and 5 operates beyond the scope of the series, and even Amelia Peabody, from a completely different series and era, gets a nod.
  • Agatha Christie: Keep an eye on her side characters. They’re doubtless up to something. Bundle Brent, a side from The Secret of Chimneys, gets her romp as the main in The Seven Dials Mystery; Superintendent Battle from both of those shows up in the Poirot mystery, Cards on the Table. And even though Poirot and Miss Marple never cross paths, they do exist in the same universe.

I’m not saying that characters from one book must appear in another. I’m also not advocating an over-development of side characters to create an entire cast of MarySues. For me, a good side character is one with enough substance to have his or her own story as a main character, even if that story is never written. What makes characters real is not just reading about them in the small frame of the story, but knowing that there is more to their life than is contained within that story’s scope—and not because external events even receive mention, but because the characters behave in such a way that I can imagine them in situations beyond what the author gives me.

It’s one of the reasons I dislike the term “window character.” While yes, side characters are great for allowing the reader to witness a main character’s true self, they can do this while still having their own personalities, while being more than a transparent pane of glass. They have to exist beyond their interactions with the main character. Otherwise they’re just little yes-men.

And if that’s the case, they might as well be made from cardboard. Really.

Love Is Such a Trial When You’re Perfect

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Okay, so MarySue doesn’t always end up with both her triangle love interests. Sometimes she does have to choose one candidate over the other. If Character B wins the battle for her heart, Character C has three options:

  1. Accept it with dignity and deference. Reflect on how he wasn’t good enough for MarySue to begin with so the reader doesn’t have to feel bad for him.
  2. Pair off with a minor character so the reader doesn’t have to feel bad for him.
  3. Become a villain so the reader doesn’t have to feel bad for him. Because he was really a jerk who didn’t deserve MarySue in the first place.

You may have noticed a trend.

When MarySue appears in a plot, the reader should not feel bad for anyone but her. She gets all the feels, people. And choosing between B and C is, like, totes one of the most difficult things she’s ever done in her life. They are both so wonderful, and she would never want to hurt a soul (unless she’s showcasing her mad fighting skillz, yo), and this choice is tearing her up and why can’t you see how BROKEN and DISTRESSED AND IT’S SO ANGSTY!1!! HOW CAN SHE GO ON WITH ALL THIS PAIN??!?

Ahem.

When it comes to relationships, MarySue gets away with all kinds of shenanigans that Average Everygirl couldn’t touch. In some ways the Love Triangle Scenario itself might be indicative of a MarySue character: someone who is so effortlessly perfect that they attract multiple love interests. Or maybe I just think it’s a MarySue characteristic because I’ve never seen its equal in real life.

*shrugs*

For the record, MarySue is not always a girl. Back when I first encountered this term, people called the boys Gary Stu, but I’ve also seen Larry Stu, Marty Stu, Marty Sam, etc. I like MarySue as the gender-neutral term. Less confusion, and they’re all cut from the same cloth anyway.

And that’s enough of this silliness for today.

The Most Perfect-est Perfectness You Will Ever Perfect.

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I read a book last week with a whole cast of MarySues. I kid you not. Everyone was royalty, half-elf, full elf, an amazing fighter, horrendously accomplished/respected/feared despite their young age, dressed dashingly to the nines even in squalid circumstances, etc. The heroine MarySue-bested the hero when they crossed swords on their first encounter, and the hero was grudgingly impressed because he was, like, the Bestest Swordsman Evar!!1!1! His elf-prince sidekick had a nicely tragic backstory to make his alone-ness all the more poignant. The Lesser Sues either died nobly or received their glory moments so that the reader would know how omigosh speshul they were.

It was a riot. (And no, I’m not going to call out the book by name. That would be bad form.)

Basically, MarySue embodies the acme of ham-handed character development. Although she’s more common to fanfic and RPGs, she rears her head often enough in fiction to merit discussion. Everyone loves MarySue. Everyone readily sympathizes with her. Everyone knows that in the end, she will triumph and her cause will be vindicated. She is special, the exception to every rule, the outlier character with superficial flaws that are easily glossed over.

I’m guessing that at some point in our development, all writers are guilty of creating a MarySue—or a whole cast of MarySue variations. It stems from our natural desire for readers to love and sympathize with a character (or characters). Ironically, though, the more MarySue a character becomes, the less the reader is likely to connect. At some point, sooner rather than later, “amazing” becomes “absurd.”

Sorry to break the news. Your handsome prince-turned-highwayman who’s out for revenge against the wicked coward who murdered his father, and he’s only 18 but commands a whole crew of sycophants and has since he was 12, and they’re all unfailingly loyal to him because his cause is Just and True™ (except for that traitor-in-the-midst who is evil and self-serving and whose traitorous behavior no one ever saw coming because who could be so traitorous), who attracts the beautiful-and-contrary heroine with his dashingly noble behavior and draws her to his side despite him now being a horrible criminal (but he’s a noble criminal, you see), and their love is so destined because they are both awesomesauce with a side of angst? That guy is absurd.

“Well, when you put it that way, Kate…”

I’m not trying to be harsh. Like I said, I think it’s a stage of creation that all authors pass through at some point or another. And if you’re at all worried that your favorite brain-child might be tipping over into MarySue territory, Springhole.net provides a fun and enlightening diagnostic:

The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test

Please note, this test has a very low tolerance for MarySue-ness. 5 – 16 points is the “very safe range” to be in. I took one of my early characters for a spin and was disheartened when she scored a 31 (“high-to-very high chance” of being a MarySue). But then out of curiosity, I tested a character from a fairly recent Big-5-published novel. Even leaving out the “author specific” questions (whether the character’s looks were patterned after the author’s; whether the author wanted to be the character or adopt the character, etc.), the score was 74.

And I felt marginally better—not because “My character is less MarySue than yours, lol!” but because I had mostly liked the second character. A few of the extra attributes got on my nerves, sure, but for the most part, I related to her and was interested in her story, MarySue or not.

I think that, particularly for writing fantasy, there will always be an element of MarySue, because MarySue is fantasy personified. I don’t have plans to overhaul my 31-scoring character, in other words. I like her the way she is for the world in which she lives. However, I might, on my next revision of her manuscript, highlight more of her human side, particularly the mistakes and poor choices that she makes.

There’s nothing I can do about her backstory, though. If she’s not a demon-princess-shapeshifter-dragon-elf-halfling-sorceress, the whole plot will fall apart.

(Loljk. She’s only two of those.)

When Fiction and Reality Collide

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I think one of my favorite cliches about the “Ruthless Character with a Heart of Gold” is to what lengths an author might go to show no, really, he’s a super nice guy; he’s just emotionally tortured and misunderstood. The whole “Character A walks in on Character B playing a heart-felt instrument solo and suddenly sees Character B in a different light” scenario gets me in the feels every time. If “the feels” are somewhere around the upper intestines and share characteristics with bilious indigestion, I mean.

But I digress.

The point of this week’s series, in a nutshell, is this:

Dear World,

Please stop glorifying abusive behavior.

Thanks and Kisses,
Kate

And I’ll readily admit that I might be too serious about it. What some consider harmless escapism I consider mental programming. I’ve witnessed manipulative, destructive relationships firsthand. I’ve seen the damage they can cause even years later. I’ve seen otherwise bright, intelligent women on the receiving end of abuse, harrowed of mind because they somehow failed to please someone who was hellbent on treating them like an object from start to finish.

Their relationship was supposed to be “Happily Ever After,” just like in the stories. Except that it never was.

It’s all fun and games in fiction, because the man reforms by the end of the book. Not so much in real life, where emotional patterns become etched upon a person’s heart. That’s not to say that an abuser can never reform, can never break bad habits, can never change for the better, but it’s an endless uphill path, and it requires a relationship with a Higher Power for true success.

That Higher Power, sadly, is not the undying Lurrrve of a submissive woman desperate for affection.

The Honeymoon Phase of any relationship is just that, a phase. When the dust settles and the infatuation dies, both parties typically revert to their former behaviors. If that behavior included abuse before, it will likely include abuse again. “The rats in the cellar,” as C.S. Lewis calls them, don’t disappear just because we haven’t gone down the stairs in a while.

Part of good literature is that it propels our minds into the unknown that exists beyond the lines on the page. We don’t have to take an author’s word for it that their characters lived happily ever after when the pattern for such a life exists in the story. When that pattern is false, though, when it goes against every instinct and statistic, when it undermines worth or objectifies individuals, its “unknown beyond” becomes a sinister wasteland. Sometimes this is what the author intends. Sometimes it’s a byproduct of superficial storytelling.

Sometimes we close our eyes and pretend that the wasteland is all sunshine and butterflies, just like an abuse victim might pretend that their abuser didn’t really mean it, won’t do it again, and loves them more than anything.

I prefer to keep my eyes open. Don’t expect me to cheer for a character whose only positive traits are external. Wealth and good looks might make a nice addition to any love interest, but coupled with destructive behavior, these attributes create only a cheap veneer, easily cracked by those who dare to look at the monster that lies beneath.

The book that invokes such a character is not a great romance. It’s not brain candy. It’s not escapism.

It’s a prequel to Sleeping with the Enemy.

Yikes.

Be smart. Choose better patterns. Maybe someday we can finally let this trope wither and die.