writing

Putting Place Names in their Proper Frames

Wizened issues Average a calling with a slew of fanciful place namesWhenever I see fanciful or imaginative place names, real or fictional, my first instinct is not, “Ooh, how neat!” It’s more along the lines of, “What were they smoking when they named that?”

I live in a city called Mesa. Literally “table,” because it sits on a plateau. Nearby land features include South Mountain (to the south), Red Mountain (guess what color!), and the Salt River, which runs through salt banks on the Fort Apache Reservation.

The Salt is fed by the Black and White Rivers, which come from the White Mountains to the north. (Where it snows. Surprise.) We also have the Verde River and the ever exotic Gila River (pronounced “hee-lah”), but don’t get too excited. They translate to “green” and “salty,” respectively.

The most imaginatively named land features in the area? Those would probably be Camelback Mountain, which looks roughly camel-shaped from the side, and a range to the east called the Superstitions. But these are, of course, part of that vast and intuitively named North American system, the Rocky Mountains.

(Spoiler alert: you can find many rocks therein.)

Place Names: A Fine Art

One might contend that this stark realism in naming is a feature of desert living, but it’s not. Place names across the world break down in a similar manner.

The British Isles sport a number of “feature” names that, thanks to language change, no longer appear as mundane as they once were. Consider the following elements:

  • “dun” = hill
  • “fen” = swamp
  • “-more” = moor
  • “-kirk” = church
  • “avon” = river
  • “-lea”/”-ly” = meadow
  • “thorp”/”throp” = village
  • “-ford” = river crossing
  • “way” = road
  • “strat” = street

When you start combining these with each other and with other elements, the resulting names have a classical, established sense to them. And then you realize that the River Avon is literally the River River, a “dunhill” is a hill-hill, and the high-sounding Fenmore can only denote an exceptionally boggy bog.

Even the poetic Stratford-upon-Avon breaks down into “street-river-crossing-upon-river.” And suddenly it’s not so poetic anymore.

This convention holds true for other languages as well. The infamous Llanfairpwllgwyngyll in Wales translates (reportedly) to “the parish of St. Mary in the hollow of the white hazel.”

Meanwhile, the New Zealand landmark of Taumatawhakatangi­hangakoauauotamatea­turipukakapikimaunga­horonukupokaiwhen­uakitanatahu might intimidate the casual reader, but it only means, “The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the slider, climber of mountains, the land-swallower who travelled about, played his nose flute to his loved one.” (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

Which is why, when I see fantasy book maps with mountain ranges called the Jagged Spine or the Teeth of Hecate or whatever, it rings false. From what I can tell, settlers across cultures have arrived in new areas, looked around, and said something along the lines of, “Hey, this forest is pretty black. Let’s call it the Black Forest.”

Semantic Bleaching at its Finest

Many place names carry an otherworldly, fanciful sense because their meaning is not readily accessible to the average speaker. Foreign wording or language change swathes the landmark in a layer of mystery. Places named for their founders or in honor of other notable figures further establish that esoteric feel, because more and more often, proper names exist separate from their original definitions.

This chasm between word and meaning introduces uniqueness and wonder, but it can also give the impression that place names are arbitrary.

Typically, they’re not.

Now, this isn’t to say that the run-of-the-mill fantasy author should put away their scrabble tiles and take a more conventional route to naming their landmarks. Rather, when the darts are thrown and the seemingly random letters assemble into a slick-sounding country, the questions that follow might be, “How came this name in the history of my world? What is its root? What does it mean?”

And the answer doesn’t need a lot of window dressing. In the end, there’s nothing wrong with a place called “Red River” or “Castle View.” On the contrary, that simple detail can lend authenticity in a world where the unfamiliar reigns.

My two cents. (Of course.)

The Official Un-obligatory Project Update

2017 project title plate: Namesake

I finally finished my experimental manuscript. I’ve battled this beast for over a year, and my brain wanted it done a long time ago, so the last stretch took a lot out of me. I typed “The End” on April 4, exported the text to Word, and closed the Scrivener project file.

And I haven’t opened it again.

Gleefully.

I’ve learned enough of my writing patterns to expect a creative depression to hit me after I finish a draft. The focus required in that end-game sequence of tying all my plot elements together really jacks up my everyday life. I forget how to live outside of my craft, and when the project closes and I have to come back into the real world, I experience a loss of purpose and become despondent for a spell.

Not so this time around.

The Boondoggle Project

When I started into Namesake, I didn’t think much of it. I had jotted the idea down almost a decade ago. I even sketched out some scenes, gave some characters names, and outlined a couple of major events. But I did it almost flippantly. The concept seemed too predictable and the conflicts too trite, so I hadn’t considered further development a good use of my time.

I can’t remember why I picked it up again. I think the throes of real-life drama made me want something brain-candy-ish to experiment with. It was an escape. I changed the POV from 3rd Limited Omniscient to 1st Lyric Present and made my protagonist a sarcastic little punk. I wasn’t going to do anything with it, so why shouldn’t I play?

The plot merited a novella, a quick there-and-back-again adventure where my bitter protag could get some perspective knocked into her. For kicks, and because I wasn’t working on anything serious, I brought it to my critique group.

And that’s where I ran into trouble.

The Questionable Joys of Critique

Critique groups are awesome. They make you accountable for your work and help you refine your craft. And sometimes—sometimes—when you phone in a brain-candy draft, they demand that you get your act together and develop it properly.

I didn’t want to. Rachel and Jill insisted. When I told them last summer that I was five chapters away from the end, they looked at each other in alarm and said, “No you’re not.”

I balked. They lectured. I revised characters and scenes and villains and plot points and lived in dread of that weekly meeting.

(Sometimes accountability really bites, y’know?)

But the process refined me. I had to take my craft seriously instead of flouncing through self-indulgent mediocrity.

And the end-result? This story is wayyyyy better than I ever expected it to be. Color me pleasantly surprised.

 The Moral

My grandfather used to say, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right,” but in the literary world, “right” can be subjective. The road from Mediocre to Fantabulous requires slogging through a lot of hard work. It definitely helps to have course checks along the way.

(And yes, “Mediocre” and “Fantabulous” are both subjective as well.)

Further Reading

Curious about Namesake? I’ve posted a couple of excerpts over on my critique group’s site, Novel Three:

From Chapter 1, here.

From Chapter 6, here.

Look for the book sometime this summer. If I get my act together, I should announce more specific dates soon.

Dangerous Artifacts and the Characters Who Love Them

Average has a gift for neutralizing dangerous artifacts.
When it comes to dangerous artifacts in a fictional setting, every writer faces at least two dilemmas:

  1. Why does everyone want this thing?
  2. Why is the main character the most appropriate to deal with it?

(I mean, you can ignore those two issues, but then you end up with a confirmed MacGuffin and a contrived plot. If that’s your cup o’ tea, more power to you.)

Issue #1: The Cause for Desire

The obsession with dangerous artifacts usually boils down to one word: power. “Dangerous artifacts” are dangerous because they grant or disrupt power and thereby throw off the balance of the universe. Consider:

  • The One Ring (LOTR)
  • The Elder Wand (HP)
  • The Amulet of Samarkand (Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy)
  • The Orb of Aldur (Eddings’s Belgariad)
  • The Godstone (Carson’s Fire and Thorns)
  • Every dragon egg and enchanted sword across the fantasy spectrum

Each is a singular item that amplifies its user into a new class of abilities. Hence, the bad guys want the power, and the good guys (generally) want to keep it hidden. Or, either side might want to destroy it, depending on how its powers affect them.

And then there’s that one poor sap who stumbles across it unwittingly.

Issue #2: “Why Me?”

When a dangerous artifact lies at the center of a crisis, the story inevitably needs someone to deal with it.

Enter the Chosen One.

I’ve encountered a lot of critique lately about how books—and fantasy epics in particular—keep focusing on this motif of a Chosen One. The snarkier critics point to it almost with a sneer.

“Oh, look! Another story about a Chosen One! How original!”

While I agree that the motif can be too heavy-handed, stories by their very nature must center on unique individuals. Protagonists have to measure up to their conflicts, or else they’d get eliminated in the first three chapters. And then what was the point?

(Or you can take away the conflict, but then we’re left wandering the hills with Wordsworth. Again, what’s the point?)

In a sense, every protagonist is a Chosen One, because the author chooses to tell their story.

So, answer #1 to the question of “Why this protagonist?” is simply “Because it had to be someone.”

A pretty crummy answer by itself. Which is why there must be something more.

That Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi

Some characters merit their Chosen One status because they are literally chosen by God, prophecy, or the villain himself to rise up against the conflict:

  • Princess Lucero-Elisa de Riqueza (chosen by God)
  • Taran of Caer Dallben (chosen by prophecy)
  • Harry Potter (chosen by prophecy and/or Voldemort)

Others merit it because of their heritage, lineage, or inborn talent:

  • Frodo Baggins (mild-mannered hobbit = less susceptible to the Ring)
  • Arthur Pendragon (son of Uther Pendragon and Igraine, daughter of a Welsh king)
  • Nathanial/John Mandrake (natural-born magician with all the advantages therein)

In some rare cases, the protagonist appears to assume their role by happenstance, but beware that condition. “Chance” almost always ties into fate.

Accept it. Embrace it. Enjoy it.

A Final Observation on Dangerous Artifacts

While jewelry and weapons receive favored status, the truly innovative artifacts fall outside these categories. For example, Lloyd Alexander’s black cauldron grants its owner the means to an immortal army and his oracular pig allows glimpses into the future. They’re both brilliant artifacts, because no one expects anything so grand from cookware and livestock.

(And yes, h/t to the Mabinogion for that innovation. Source material matters, my friends.)

Verisimilitude: A Most Essential Plot Element

Average and Nerdly discuss the newest plot element
NOTE: In case anyone’s forgotten my generic characters’ names, “Totally” refers to “Totally Everyguy,” Average’s male counterpart. (I add this note because my own mother said, “Wait, who?” Hahaha. I’m sure he would do wonders with this latest plot element.)

The Science of a Good Plot Element

So, it’s been at least 15 years since I studied any of the natural sciences. I had CP Chem in high school and a semester of Physical Science in college that included a chemistry unit. I don’t remember a ton about them (because that was half a lifetime ago, y’know), but one thing that did impress me was the solid truth of the periodic table.

Like, “These are the elements, and because of how atoms work, these elements are set in stone.”

(We’re not getting into isotopes or any of that complicated stuff, m’kay?)

The result is that any time I come across a fictional work where characters utter something akin to “This is a non-earth element,” my BS detector pings off the chart.

Because, as far as I understand, the periodic table has defined every possible element in existence, with the exception of a handful of man-made elements appended at the end. And all of those are extremely unstable and thus unlikely to exist anywhere outside the laboratory in which they are (briefly) created.

Am I wrong? Maybe I’m wrong. If so, my apologies. (And please leave an explanation for why I’m wrong in the comments. References much appreciated.)

It’s Not “Just a Story”

The realms of fiction exist to take us beyond the natural world. Even so, they have to follow natural laws or else they destroy verisimilitude.

Verisimilitude: The semblance of truth. The term indicates the degree to which a work creates the appearance of the truth. (Harmon & Holman, A Handbook to Literature, p. 538)

This oh-so-useful term doesn’t apply only to realistic fiction. For me, it’s a defining feature that separates good writing from bad across the spectrum of literature. This “semblance of truth” allows us to slip into the story, to feel alongside the characters, to agonize over plot twists and rejoice at happily ever afters.

When it breaks, we jolt out of that fictional world, and we’re generally none too happy about it. (This ties back to the unspoken Author-Audience Contract. We want a story to fool us, but without verisimilitude, it can’t.)

Verisimilitude is a tricky beast. It allows the same person to accept Tolkien’s mithril wholesale while they give the squinty side-eye to Doc Brown’s flux capacitor. In the Star Wars franchise, it simultaneously invokes the adoration of millions and the scorn of physics teachers everywhere.

(Or maybe it was only my physics teacher. My class once got a lecture on the properties of outer space thanks to someone mentioning Star Wars.)

It is, in short, subjective according to an individual’s understanding of Truth.

Fantasy at an Advantage

When it comes to verisimilitude, the fantasy genre holds a distinct advantage: the reader comes to the story with their sense of realism already disengaged.

No one fact-checks J.K. Rowling on the existence of magic. Nor do they chide C. S. Lewis on the implausibility of an inter-dimentional portal at the back of a wardrobe. A plot element need not be anchored in reality to resonate truth. It need only resonate truth within its fictional domain.

Because fantasy storylines exist outside of the normal, explainable world, many patterns of truth fall instead to characters, relationships, and personal growth.

But this doesn’t let a fantasy writer off the hook when it comes to rules. If Harry Potter suddenly created a portal to another dimension by playing a song on a flute, for example, the reader would likely object. (The HP universe requires wands for working magic, and Harry’s more of a jock than a musician. Not that he couldn’t be both, but he isn’t.)

Those who write fantasy engage in a boatload of world-building for this very reason. If they skip this step and change rules to accommodate their plot, they’ll undermine the story’s verisimilitude.

And this goes double for the author who writes in a “real world” setting. If that’s your bread and butter, beware the errant plot element.

Ultimately, you see, all fiction is fantasy. Some is simply more upfront about it.

***

Citation: Harmon, William and Holman, C. Hugh. A Handbook to Literature, 8th Ed., Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Dear Readers, I come bearing gifts.

Well, just one gift, actually. And I made it myself, and it’s not a cat sweater.

It is a writing tool extraordinaire (if I do say so myself), dedicated to my dear friend Jen and offered to all. I’ve worked on this thing off and on since May, and there’s a backstory that inspired it, but in the interest of brevity (too late), I’ll let the graphic speak for itself.

May you enjoy it, but never put it to practical use.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

DISCLAIMER #1: I do not write modern romance. This is satire, and any resemblance to any existing modern romance heroine or tag line is purely coincidental. (That sometimes happens when you’re playing with clichés, haha.)

DISCLAIMER #2: This graphic is BIG, and I am not tech-savvy. I muddled over the best way to present it but decided just to toss it up on this post. Good luck. (Protip: Click on the picture to get at the larger version, Mom. It should open in a new screen.)

DISCLAIMER #3: I do have a PDF version, if anyone is silly enough to want a physical copy of this. Sized for A2 paper. (Closest American equivalent is 18″ x 24″.) It cost me $20 to get a draft copy, but the result was delightful. Uhh… leave a comment if you’re interested?

 

Finding the Easy Way Out

averageeverygirl093

Anticlimactic plot twist? Guilty as charged!

The Author-Audience Contract

An unwritten contract exists between every author and their audience. The author promises to take the audience somewhere new—to greater knowledge or fantastic lands—and the audience promises to go along for the ride. The lion’s share of the work lies on the author’s side. If they fail to engage with cunning word-craft, the audience has every right to abandon ship or—worse—to remain on board and snark through the whole trip.

Which can be grossly entertaining, I’ll be the first to admit. (MST3K, anyone? Coming soon to a Netflix near you!)

Generally, though, it’s never the author’s goal to inspire rampant mockery. The author-audience relationship is meant to be cooperative: author provides story, audience is entertained. One of these days I’m going to write a whole series of posts on the linguistic principle of cooperation. For now, suffice it to say that this cooperative relationship involves a delicate balancing act on the author’s part.

The savvy reader looks at every book as a puzzle to decipher. The savvy author looks at every reader as a customer to entertain. And that is where plot twists come into play.

The Garden Path

Plot twists, plainly defined, are the punchline to a joke you didn’t know you were being told. Sometimes the joke isn’t at all funny. Sometimes it’s horrific or heart-wrenching. The punchline catches you off-guard and sends you reeling. That moment of enlightenment, of surprise and delight or despair is the ambrosia sought after by author and audience alike.

We sometimes refer to authors adept at plot twists as “leading [their audience] down the garden path.” The audience, in large part, signs up for this deception too, and if they don’t receive it, they can feel cheated in the end.

Which leads us to our worst offender…

Deus ex Machina

Literally “God from the Machine,” this infamous plot device is the cheapest ploy on the block. It refers to a convention in Ancient Greek plays where the characters would become so entangled in their dire and twisted circumstances that their only way out was through divine intervention in the form of a god lowered onto the stage via crane.

Modern versions don’t typically involve deities or pulley systems. They might lean on happenstance or good fortune that drops out of the blue to save the day. Sometimes they are simply a conflict too easily resolved: a villain that isn’t as bad as they seem, a “catastrophe” with minimal impact, or the ever-popular “it was all a dream” cop-out.

These and their ilk are the literary equivalents of expecting a decadent truffle and biting into a stale marshmallow instead.

But sometimes, from the author’s perspective, deus ex machina is oh-so-tempting. Especially in that first draft stage when you get to the point where you just want to set the whole manuscript on fire and walk away.

*cough*

It’s hard work to embroil one’s characters in turmoil and ruin. It’s harder work to get them believably back out again. For the sake of the author-audience relationship, though, plotting is always time well spent.

***

PS – Happy Birthday to Average Everygirl. Today marks a year from her Average debut, and what a long way she’s come.

 

Honing In on What Matters Most

AverageEverygirl092

Last week, in the midst of procrastinating a fair number of tasks, I read a book. It was a decent story, sound in writing mechanics, pretty good dialogue, interesting plot points, and so forth, but there was one major problem: its pacing was

so

very

slow.

I wanted to like this book, I really did, but I kid you not, it took eight pages—eight—for the protagonist to wake up, get dressed, and go down to the kitchen for breakfast.

Eight pages.

There was backstory aplenty and introspection galore, and even a little eavesdropping on other characters Doing Things, but the end result was a narrative that dragged like a legless dog on a leash.

Which was tragic because, again, the writing was sound. This was a skilled author.

I’m not passing judgement. I’ve been there before, so deep in my character’s life that I included every minute detail and motivation and thought. To some extent, it’s part of my drafting process, to reassure myself that I know my character, that I know my plot, and that I know what’s happening at any given moment.

But the reader doesn’t need to know 90% of it and may well get annoyed at the surplus of information. We live in an age of instant gratification. No one wants to wade through eight pages of prose just to transport a main character from their bedroom to the breakfast table. Those details might make it into the first draft, but that doesn’t mean they should stay for the final one.

The Value of a Crisis Mindset

I’ve heard publication dates referred to as “book birthdays,” but I prefer to view them as another life event entirely: they are manuscript death-days. The book, once published, exits the creative process. Sure, you can make minor changes or corrections here and there, and the modern indie industry actually allows for full-blown plot overhauls and rewrites, but going forward, any drastic changes will disrupt the trust relationship between author and reader. The goal in publishing has to be a polished end-product.

The publication deadline, then, presents a crisis—an end-of-the-world scenario, if you will.

And, as with real-life crises, it gives the author cause to hone in on what is truly essential.

The drafting process, hard work as it is, has a carefree angle to it. You can create a whole cast of characters, endless gratuitous scenes, and witty dialogue that runs on for pages and pages. Eventually, through this drafting stage, everything gets cobbled together into one flowing narrative, and you type “The End” with a final flourish on the last page.

But that’s actually only the beginning. With a first draft complete, the looming crisis of publication engages. You enter the editing stage.

Some authors edit as they go along. (I do, certainly.) They get to the end of a draft and feel as though their project is complete. (Again, guilty as charged.) There is a fundamental difference between the drafting and the editing stages of writing, though:

Drafting is for the author’s benefit; editing is for the reader’s.

Pretty much any project that does not consider its audience’s needs separate from its creator’s intentions will fall short of its full potential. The purpose of the editing stage is to refine that raw material produced in the drafting stage.

This is a time to strip away all the extra descriptions, break up with the unnecessary characters, ditch the irrelevant scenes, and train a narrative’s focus upon the fundamental themes of the story. It’s a time to honor the reader by considering their expectations and ensuring that the story delivers on any promises it made.

The crisis mindset allows an author to sit down with their manuscript, acknowledge that the two will soon part ways, and to reinforce the story’s most important principles before sending that little bundle of joy out into the world to get shredded to pieces by the rabid readers that await.

(Only kidding, readers. You are mostly wonderful.)

While there’s no possible way to please 100% of an audience—and I’m not saying anyone should try—the end goal, simply, is to present the most polished story that an author can for where they are in their writing journey.

As difficult, tedious, and headache-inducing as the editing process can be, it’s nothing to bemoan. Editing is where the true craft of writing begins.

It is, in short, essential. Carefully attended, it allows an author to meet that crisis of publication with confidence and bid farewell to their lovely manuscript with no regrets.

 

Exhausting All Your Options

AverageEverygirl086: two options become threeLong ago in my disaffected youth, I found great solace in the music of The Wallflowers. Fronted by singer-songwriter Jakob Dylan, this alt-rock band rose to fame when their album Bringing Down the Horse (1996) went mainstream.

That album is now 20 years old, and I suddenly feel ancient.

But I digress.

Hidden in their discography—on Red Letter Days (2002), to be specific—is a gem of a song called “Three Ways.” My brother introduced me to it (because he bought the CD before I could), and we both had a good laugh at the plot twist in the lyrics.

A plot twist that has stuck with me through the years.

I’m not going to wade into the weeds on what Dylan might have meant when he penned this song. I’m sure there are multiple interpretations. Mine is very straightforward: every problem has at least three possible solutions. Two of them are fairly obvious.

Creative Options

As a writer, this pattern plays an invaluable role in my creative process. Whenever a narrative problem perplexes me, I stop and ask myself, “Okay, what’s the third option here?”

The song’s first-verse example of being stuck in a box provides a template with three solutions for escape:

  1. “Fall out the bottom,” i.e., be acted upon. If a character bides their time, something will change without them having to do anything; the problem will resolve itself.
  2. “Crawl out the top,” i.e., act. A character exerts strength and determination to extricate him- or herself; they are the problem-solver.
  3. “Burn it to the ground,” i.e., act, but in a way that shifts the paradigm. In this third option, the character destroys the construct of the problem itself and moves into a different frame of understanding.

It’s easy to assume that our only options are “this one or that one.” When you stand at a fork in the road, you have to choose one path or the other if you want to move forward, right?

Wrong. You can leave the road altogether and head into the bush. Your constraints to stay on the path are, ultimately, self-imposed.

Option #3 is not always the correct choice, and it’s certainly not always the smartest one, but even the simple act of identifying it brings the other two choices into better focus. And when it comes to characters and plotting, it’s always worth consideration.

So, if you’re ever stuck muddling between uninspiring Options #1 and #2, go ahead and ask yourself, “What’s my third option here?”

The enlightenment that follows might surprise you.

The Grand Mystery of It All

AverageEverygirl052Apparently there’s an unspoken rule that fictional detectives have to be off the beaten path, so to speak. I suppose we can blame that one on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his hyper-intelligent sociopath of a creation. A hundred-twenty or so years after Sherlock’s inception, the Quirky Detective has become a staple of both literature and film.

A few prominent examples of this delectable trope:

  • Sherlock Holmes (of course): anti-social and hoarding tendencies, with a smattering of recreational drug use when he’s bored.
  • Hercule Poirot: Belgian, with an enormous ego and exceptional vanity; fastidious and persnickety in his affectations.
  • Nero Wolfe: unapologetically obese, zealous about food and orchids; practically a shut-in and devoted to his daily rituals.

Almost everything about these characters screams “Eccentric!” even down to their very names. (What, you know a lot of people named Sherlock, Hercule, and Nero out there? Sure you do.) All three detectives are extremely intelligent. They also exhibit a marked indifference—even aversion—towards women, insofar as love is concerned.

We wouldn’t want any icky romance getting in the way of our sleuthing, now, would we?

But really, that particular quirk is almost a relief, because in some ways, this eccentric archetype is so off-putting that you’d have to pity anyone who was in a relationship with them. (Can you even imagine Hercule Poirot with a wife? Or a lover? The little grey cells, how they perish at the thought!)

As my stick-figure caricature indicates, Poirot is my favorite of this lot. For some reason, I like him even better knowing that his own creator did not.

“Why, why, why did I ever invent this detestable, bombastic, tiresome little creature?” ~ Agatha Christie

I especially like that Dame Agatha parodied herself in her fictional Ariadne Oliver and her doubly fictional Sven Hjerson. Ariadne, one presumes, provides a lovely window into Agatha’s life dealing with such a fussy main character.

“How do I know why I ever thought of the revolting man? I must have been mad! Why a Finn when I know nothing about Finland? Why a vegetarian? Why all the idiotic mannerisms he’s got? These things just happen.” ~Ariadne Oliver

(As an aside, Arthur Conan Doyle apparently hated Holmes, too. No word on how Rex Stout felt about Wolfe.)

In homage to this trope, detectives across all media platforms display a full spectrum of eccentricities.

  • Batman: dresses up in bat-themed clothing and roams the streets at night. (Does it get more eccentric than this?)
  • Adrian Monk: OCD to an extreme and (rightfully) pining after his dead wife.
  • Shawn Spencer: fake psychic; also a man-child with a fear of commitment.
  • Flavia de Luce: 11 years old, morbidly fixated on chemistry and death.

We love them not in spite of their eccentricities, but because of them. To separate the Quirky Detectives from their traits would be to bleach their very characters of color.

But sometimes… Sometimes those eccentricities push their welcome a little too far. Sometimes it’s nice to take a step back, breathe deep, and look to some other genre for entertainment.

There’s a threshold of tolerance in the consumer. It’s like eating deviled eggs. One is delicious. Two is quite nice. A dozen is cause to upchuck into a trashcan, because your system literally cannot handle that many eggs in one sitting.

Or maybe that’s just me. I loves me some eccentric sleuths, but you won’t find me binge-reading any such series. (Or binge-watching, as the case may be.) In small doses they are delightful. In large, they’re a headache.

(Yes, even you, Poirot. I’m sorry to break the news.)

The Man to Trust When the World Falls Apart

AverageEverygirl039

Here’s what I don’t understand. If someone majorly screws up, why is that same someone trusted to correct the massive error? You may be as well-meaning as a nun, O Clumsy Protagonist, but I instinctively want you far, far away from anything and everything regarding the conflict you just caused.

But of course, the protagonist must prove his worth. And, as the Narrative Fates would often have it, he pretty much ends up being the only one capable of correcting the mistake.

Because contrived plot.

Or not. In justifying this trope, I’ve come up with some possible reasons a bumbling protagonist might be let back into the action.

Nepotism

The protagonist is related to the person in charge, who may or may not be competent. Assuming the relative of higher status is competent, one of the following conditions may apply:

  1. The relative has a soft spot for the bumbling protagonist and feels obligated to let them give the fix an honest try.
  2. The relative shrewdly sees the conflict as an opportunity for the bumbling protagonist to mature and develop their character.
  3. The relative hates the bumbling protagonist and sees this as an opportunity to let them die without having to actively kill them.

Note that in the first two conditions, the conflict can’t be too dire. You don’t send someone you care about into a situation that’s obviously far above their abilities, character-development opportunity or not. Such an act would tip the higher-ranked relative toward the incompetent side of the scale (which I’m not against, mind you) unless the situation is so dire that there’s absolutely no hope to overcome it.

I mean, if everyone’s going to die anyway, why not let the screw-up take a whack at solving things, amirite?

Superstition

The protagonist bears marks that indicate they are the Prophesied Hero. Whoever is in charge recognizes this and defers to that belief.

This one can readily feel like a cheap ploy, unless those prophesies are solid as all get-out. I guess my belief in this would depend heavily on the world-building and character development for the story. If either of these are shoddy, kiss the validity of this excuse goodbye.

Its near cousin, Mistaken for a Prophesied Hero, gets trotted out fairly frequently. The protagonist gets called before higher powers who think he’s a Prophesied Hero, he screws up royally (thus disproving their assumptions), and then works to fix his error. Sometimes he ends up being the true Prophesied Hero after all. Sometimes he proves that we each determine our own fate.

Subterfuge

The protagonist is forbidden from helping to fix the problem, but they defy orders. Some possibilities for this one:

  1. They stow away with the company of heroes, not discovered until it’s too late to return them.
  2. They switch places with the chosen hero, and no one discovers the switch until it’s too late.
  3. They set off on their own, perhaps with a trusted friend or animal sidekick, and no one discovers they’re missing until it’s too late.

You might have noticed a common theme. In cases involving subterfuge, timing is an essential factor. Because no one wants the protagonist anywhere near the conflict, no one can discover what they’re up to until they’re past the point of no return. Otherwise they get sent back to square one.

Long Story Short

I’m sure there are a multitude of situations that might justify a bumbling protagonist getting a second chance. The one that doesn’t fly, for me, is when they receive that second chance simply because they’re the protagonist.

“Why?” is the best question an author can ask when plotting a story. If there’s no sure answer, keep digging until you have one.