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Dear readers (both of you!): I am still delaying starting on my next novel. Well, that’s not exactly true. I’ve been cheating. I’ve… written a bit, I’m afraid. But I am still delaying posting. I think that’s the point.

As my final attempt to delay posting the next bleeping novel, I want to follow up on my series of rants about writing with a plea for respect for your characters.

There are certain things that television and film writers, having learned from trashy science fiction, horror, gothic et al writers of fiction from generations past, seem to fall back on reflexively under the pressure of the twenty-two episode season. Some of them don’t make sense, some of them are exploitative, some of them are downright cruel, but I’m going to promise right now never to do these five things. My characters—Goddess love ’em, they have their flaws, among which is the fact, which I am well aware of, that they are not actually real. But they deserve respect.

  1. No rape threats. Explicit, or more often implicit, this is just not acceptable behavior toward your characters. They may have sex with the wrong person now and again—statistically, 60% of all adults at some point have sex with someone they later regret fucking. (I made that up, but I’m sure it’s correct. My excuse for inventing the statistic is simply that it would be impossible to get accurate numbers on this one. But it must be somewhere around there.) It’s also the case that rape, in the real world, is shockingly common. You may even feel the need to raise the issue of sexual assault. But pull it out of your box of plot tricks because you can’t think how else to proceed? Put… the rape threat… down. And walk away.
  2. Hostage situations. I just watched a Doc Martin episode that made a complete mockery of this surprisingly durable ridiculousness. For another mockery, see Blazing Saddles. Again, I don’t mock the very real and very serious hostage situations that occur in the world. But let’s make a distinction. Out here, IRL, a hostage situation tends to go like this: enraged man (possibly woman) aims gun at loved one (or possibly stranger or co-worker); someone calls police, who surround house (possibly office); man eventually surrenders (possibly shoots self) after possibly murdering other people. The reason is generally chosen from the set {Alcohol, history of domestic violence, mental disorder, anger management gone way out of whack, marital issues, job issues, child custody, etc}. Again, not to diminish the horribleness of all this: it’s never done to force one’s enemies to give up control of the ultimate weapon that can destroy the universe. It’s never a bargaining chip as such. Why not? Because it sucks as a bargaining chip.

    Seriously. Suppose Villain A demands that Hero B give Secret X, under threat of death to Damsel C. Possible outcomes: (1) B gives X to A. Why should A ever let C go? She’s still a bargaining chip. But on the other hand, (2) B doesn’t give X to A. A can’t now kill C; he’d lose his bargaining chip. It makes zero sense, it’s cruel and unrealistic, and oh, by the way, it’s a lazy cliche. Don’t do it.

  3. Mind control. Even for a mid-level character, this is cruel. For a major character, it’s close to unforgivable. The fourth and final Aurian novel, Dhiammara, in some ways is the only really well-written one, but. But. One of the villains implants a program in the brains of some of Aurian’s trusted associates that allows her (the villain) to control them and also to, at her whim, kill them. It’s awful. And it’s unnecessary. It doesn’t symbolize anything, it doesn’t give any emotional resonance, it just makes us jittery. It’s meth for plots. And it’s a stand-in for rape; it’s a way of challenging a major character’s independence of will. It also, and I think this is enough reason not to use this, removes what makes the character who she or he is: what she or he does. If Sally is forced to act against her tendencies, or even against her own interest, then Sally isn’t really Sally. (Note that J. K. Rowling’s inclusion of the imperius curse doesn’t rise to this level: no character of any importance is actually put under the curse during the books.)

    On top of that, mind control by a bad guy means that when I want to be reading about the good guys and what they’re doing to thwart the bad guys, I end up reading, in effect, about the bad guys. I want to shout, “Stop hitting yourself!”

    A primary, perhaps the primary offender here is Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine. I loved the book. Except for one thing. On pretty much every tenth page, Ella, whom I loved, was going to be forced to do something she explicitly didn’t want to do, just because someone figured out they could make her do anything. It was humiliating and unpleasant.

  4. The secret shame. When was the last time this happened to you? You come home from work and your wife of thirty years has just discovered that you were an axe-murdering psycho when you were single. You learn that the guy you’ve been dating is actually a terrorist. You find out your dad was dishonored by wartime cowardice in 1944. IRL, things like this don’t surface all of a sudden. Nor do happy marriages suddenly break up because she discovers he had an affair ten years ago. (No, they list and stagger for years full of unexciting fights and silences and possibly very exciting passionate forgivings. Now that actually happens.)

    It’s not that people don’t have secrets. It’s that people aren’t very good at keeping secrets. For a writer, the secret is a hugely important tool—Alice in Princess of Ghosts, for instance, has to figure out what this thing is that makes her able to talk to ghosts. Countess Vivian spends her entire 200,000+ word Tale trying to figure out what it is about herself. But their secrets aren’t something they live with and keep to themselves—no, like the rest of us, their secrets are something they have to figure out. The “deep dark secret” that your character feels she needs to hide from the world is just a plot device, a trick of motivation.

  5. Weak women. Sally thought she wanted a career, fame, fortune, adventure—and then she met Rinaldo, and after 300 pages of resisting his charm and his strong arms, she finally accepts that her destiny is simply to be his wife. She was silly to think she could have it all—that she should want it all. But now she knows that there are more important things than money and fame and, um, some level of actual control over your, um, life. You would think people would have stopped writing (or reading) this way about forty years ago, but you would be wrong. (This is a major peeve of Jodie Llewellyn, a writer-blogger who specializes in young adult novels by and for women. It’s a pet peeve of mine too.)

    Whoever you are, whatever your gender or preference, if you’re giving control of your life to someone else, you’re going to get a life that is less what you need than you would get if you kept control. And for a main character to yield control like that, especially a female main character—it’s an abject surrender of responsibility. I didn’t read 500 pages of Sally’s struggles only to be told in the end that Sally’s better off letting Rinaldo run her life. It all brings back the Joss Whedon quote (from a speech he gave in 2006): “So, why do you write these strong female characters? Because you’re still asking me that question.”

I admit it. I’m a feminist. But even if you aren’t, your characters are the primary reason you’re writing, and the primary thing that keeps your readers (both of them!) reading. If you mistreat your characters egregiously, your readers will rebel. And if you take control away from your characters, you take away the very thing that makes them seem interesting—the way that what they are shows in what they do.

So treat your characters with respect, even the ones you have to kill (I understand you have to kill some of them—Goddess knows I have). Among other things, I have a suspicion that when a fiction writer dies, he or she wakes up in an afterlife inhabited by, and possibly chosen by, his or her characters. So be polite with them, at the very least.

Thoughts?

—————-

Okay. Come 1 January 2016, I will be posting (right here on WordPress) the story of Daisy, a border-town girl who’s learning magic and joining her friends in raiding the catacombs for loot and adventure. What secrets is she going to learn about herself? Things that are not going to happen: she is threatened with rape, mind controlled, discovers a secret shame, is held hostage, or throws it all away to win the heart of the man she would throw it all away to win the heart of. Nah. You don’t want to read that kind of trash.

Paul

 

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