When I first started my snarks, I was mostly riffing, but eventually I started going in-depth into a book’s flaws and why they didn’t work. So I’ve decided to compile some things that people should never do, using books I’ve snarked as a guide to what to avoid.
Don’t Negative Describe
I don’t know if there is a term for what I’m describing here, but I shall call it “negative description.” Specifically, it’s when an author describes something… by saying what it’s NOT.
This can be okay if it’s a binary kind of thing, like “you’re not pretty” or “you’re not fat,” or if it is followed by a POSITIVE description of what the person/thing/sensation is (“handsome” or “pleasantly chubby”). But in books, if it’s all you have to go on, it makes the discerning reader stop and go, “Well… what is it then?”
For instance, there’s a scene in New Moonwhere Bella starts homoerotically huffing Alice’s scent, and we’re told that it wasn’t like anything else—not floral or spice, citrus or musk. No perfume in the world could compare. Are we ever told what she DOES smell like? Nope. So we’re informed that she has a smell… but we haven’t got any idea what that smell is like. There’s a description hole in this narrative.
Know What You Think
One really distracting part of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Quadrilogy is that… well, even if you didn’t already hear the story of the teenager who wrote a bestselling fantasy series, you can discern pretty quickly that Paolini was pretty young when he wrote all this. One way is… well, the fact that he seems to have been working out his individual worldviews as the series went on.
Now I’m not saying that people can’t change their views over time. John C. Wright, a respected sci-fi author, was an atheist for many years before he changed his mind and became a Roman Catholic. But the difference between him and Paolini is that even if he changed it, Wright’s life experiences as an adult had solidified into a steady worldview. His viewpoints were his own, completely.
But Paolini felt like… well, what he probably was: a sheltered kid who was absolutely sure of the viewpoints he was taught by his parents, who hadn’t really formed any of his own because he didn’t have enough exposure to alternate viewpoints and attitudes. This would be all right if he didn’t go into much detail on important, heavy topics like religion and politics (both of which he clearly knows little about).
This is most obvious in his attitudes toward religion, which shift wildly and randomly throughout the series. I don’t know what kind of religious/spiritual beliefs Paolini has (probably none), but the depiction of religion’s very existence – let alone what we’re supposed to see it as – vacillates a lot and seems very uncertain.
- Eragon: We see snatches of religious REFERENCES (Eragon challenging a god, burial rituals) but they’re free-floating, not attached to any real mythology. The only reference to an actual religion is a crazy self-mutilating cult who worship minor villains.
- Eldest: We’re assured that the Elves are all atheists because there is no proof of any deity… which means that logically they should be agnostic, not atheistic. Anyway, they’re elegant and smart and cool, and the dwarf clerics who DO believe in gods are fussy and ugly and angry. So there.
- Brisingr: We actually see the crazy self-mutilating cult, which depicts the ONLY human religion as “monstrous” and depraved. It’s like really, really bad anti-Christian propaganda: “ooooh, those depraved people DRINK BLOOD!”. On the flip side, Eragon actually SEES a dwarf deity appearing among the faithful, challenging his elflike atheism, and… nothing really comes of it.
- Inheritance: Eragon decides that maybe a god/gods exist, but he isn’t the churchgoing type.
See what I mean? There’s an underlying hostility towards religion throughout most of the series, but Paolini can’t make up his mind whether religious people have a basis for their beliefs (the dwarves and their deity) or whether they’re just stupid deluded fundies whom the cool, smart, elegant, always-right
elves atheists look down their noses at, because of their obvious wrongness. It feels like he’s trying to figure out how what these concepts gel with actual people in real life, outside of what he’s been taught and simply accepted.
It’s especially glaring because he takes so much content from people like George Lucas and JRR Tolkien. Tolkien was a devout Catholic whose mythos was informed by both his beliefs and his fascination with ancient folklore. I don’t know what George Lucas believes (I think he was raised Methodist), but the Star Wars movies were strongly influenced by Buddhism and the approach to the Force varies between Jedi, like how different people see God differently. So it seems very strange that he would clearly love these works and creators so much, while also believing that anyone who believes as they do is a stupid poop-head.
Remember, Paolini first wrote Eragon when he was fifteen. Eldest came out when he was twenty two. Brisingr when he was twenty-five. And Inheritance was when he was twenty-eight. There’s an arc of maturity there, and being a widely-published, successful author means he probably had to go out there and deal with people who didn’t fit into the neat “all non-atheists = stupidevilbad” image he clearly had in his mind.
I know that Paolini had a very sheltered upbringing, so I think as a kid he was fed all this “atheists = smart, kewl and logical, religious people = stupid, evil and crazy!” bullshit. And he stuck to it faithfully when he was younger, but eventually he probably encountered some stuff that challenged his worldview, and forced him to reexamine what he thinks. Because despite what a lot of idiot parents think, feeding your kid unchallenged opinions and beliefs will only make them more likely to drop them later when someone else intelligently disagrees with them.
Let’s take another example: Laurell K. Hamilton. She is a not-very-smart, not-very-open-minded woman raised in a rather isolated, conservative household. She went to a religious college, and got married right out of that college. It’s not really that surprising that she didn’t have much time or experience that would allow her to form opinions and viewpoints of her own on religion, monogamy, relationships, etc.
And this was reflected in her books. Early on, Anita was sexually conservative, very self-reliant, and she thought of monogamous marriage as the endgame of relationships. Then when LKH hooked up with her current husband, suddenly she/Anita decided that was all bullshit, and began depicting all monogamists as bigots/prudes, sexual boundaries as things that should be broken, and Anita suddenly became someone who literally needs to be chauffeured around if she gets upset.
Seriously, LKH acts sometimes like a college-aged teenager who has just discovered sex and non-traditional romantic arrangements, and now she can’t shut up about how she’s so much more enlightened than all those other people.
The entire series after seven or eight books became LKH working out what she liked sexually and romantically THROUGH the books, rather than telling a story. She had no solid personal viewpoints at its beginning, because she was merely doing what she thought she was supposed to as told to her by other people. As far as I can tell, she had merely concluded that this was what she was taught, this is what was right, don’t question it or figure out WHY you believe it. Simply put, she had – and still has – no solid identity or viewpoints.
And sadly this is still ongoing, because LKH doesn’t have many solid opinions even today, when she tends to agree or disagree with people ALL THE TIME in ways that contradict her previous statements. She has a few that she sticks with – guns are awesome, Europeans are cool with her books, Neil Gaiman is a god, and all current urban fantasy was inspired by her – but a lot of her viewpoints are rooted in quicksand.
So yeah, if you’re going to write about complicated, controversial topics like religion, politics or sex… make sure you have an opinion of your own, based on reality, before you try to write it into your books. Nobody wants to hear you working through how you see the world, because most of them have already figured out their viewpoints.
Be Honest With Your Self-Inserts!
Self-inserts tend to suck hardcore, because… well, if you’re going to fantasize about being the hero of a story, you might as well be inhumanly gorgeous, immortal, superpowered, have everyone in love with you, and be a badass princess. It’s the big temptation when writing a hero. And writing about your own experiences is a lot easier than, say, writing about a fairy princess who lived in a space station.
Now to be fair, not all self-inserts (or inserts of loved ones) are Mary Sues. Just look at Gravity Falls, where the Pines twins are effectively the inserts of the series creator and his twin sister. The funny sweaters are because Ariel Hirsch also had lots of funny sweaters, the setting is due to them going to Oregon very often, and the pig is because Ariel always wanted one.
But if you make a self-insert, OWN IT.
It really is irritating when writers create obvious self-inserts but insist that they are NOT at all based on them. No way! No how! They may resemble them in every important way, but they totally are not the same person! And this is almost always when the author has written someone truly awesome.
For an example, let’s use one of the most notorious examples:
Laurell K. Hamilton has denied for years that she has written Anita as an idealized version of her, or that anyone Anita knows is based on anyone in her life. What do they have in common?
- Mother died when they were young
- Education focused on biology
- Partly raised by strict grandmother
- Dark hair (until Hamilton dyed it because of impending greyness)
- Fair skinned
- Wangsts about being small while only being average-height
- Starts monogamous but becomes sorta-polyamorous
- Lives in St. Louis, Missouri
- Obsessed with guns
- Got with a tall, handsome, muscled guy with purty hair and a “year round tan” (ie not completely lily-white), whom they later broke up with and bitched about endlessly… at roughly the same time
- Immediately got together with a short red-haired man (or two) who claims they fart rainbows… at roughly the same time
- Detests tall blondes
- Showed interest in a big strong manly man… only for him to vanish effectively for no explained reason. The literary version was murdered by Anita; thankfully, LKH doesn’t seem that far gone yet!
- Dislikes children
And so on… and so forth. It doesn’t take a genius to see that except for a few minor details (Anita’s halfbreed angst, her stepfamily), Anita is almost a perfect match for LKH. Hell, sometimes Anita spouts off opinions that LKH herself has expressed. And really, none of those few details are enough to derail the obvious facts.
Here’s another notorious example.
Stephenie Meyer is a bit more devious about the whole self-insert thing, since she claims that she deliberately kept Bella vacuous and boring so that readers could step into her shoes and experience the whole miserable series as if it were happening to them. Hence why Bella has no hobbies, interests, past experiences, friendships or anything that ever shaped her until she moved to Forks. Smeyer did that on purpose.
Except… she didn’t. Oh, Bella is boring and vacuous, all right. And her middle-class white-girl wangst over how different she is and how nobody understands her is exactly what boring, vacuous girls/women gobble up.
But she’s not devoid of details or descriptions, as you’d expect a total tabula rasa to be. There are a lot of extremely specific interests and details that she has… that Smeyer also has.
- They both grew up in an affluent area of Phoenix, AZ, and went to school in that area.
- They have extremely specific literary tastes, namely romances from the 18th to 19th centuries (preferably with male leads who are assholes) and Shakespeare (also romances).
- Smeyer claims to have modeled Bella’s experiences in Forks on her own college experiences.
- Though Bella is not a Mormon, her behavior tends to adhere to Smeyer’s beliefs.
- Similar passive-aggressive attitudes towards blondes.
- Smeyer admitted to naming several people around Bella after people SHE knows.
- Despite claiming to be uninterested in cars because she has a vagina, Bella is super-invested in knowing exact make/models of certain cars… just like a certain author.
- Both abandon jobs and further education to get married and pop out babies.
- They look similar. When asked to describe how Bella looks, Smeyer described a skinnier, younger version of herself, right down to the HAIRLINE:
Now, admittedly she isn’t QUITE as bad as LKH. F’rinstance, the whole family backstory is completely different (Meyer has several siblings, and I don’t know if her parents are divorced), and she never lived in Washington prior to her books. But there’s definitely too much specificity to overlook.
So if you’re going to write a self-insert, admit it to yourself and everyone else. Frankly, people who are honest about it seem to be the ones who don’t suck, because they have to work to keep their characters from becoming Sues.
No Superior Species
One of the earliest things that ever pissed me off as a snarker is… well, it was the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was (generously put) a total creative failure and a clusterfuck of basic errors. It was preachy, silly, pompous, already-dated and filled with Gene Roddenberry’s weirder (sometimes more perverted) ideas. Now, TNG became a magnificent epic story in its own right after the second season, and I love it dearly.
But I think one of the things that bothered me the most about the first season was the sense of smug superiority in the crew. They reminded us over and over that these were BETTER human beings, and that the ape-like humans of the twentieth century were greedy, brainless, savage and in all ways morally despicable. They actually featured a whole episode where they found cryogenically frozen humans from the 1980s, just so they could explain all the ways in which they sucked compared to the “evolved” crew of the Enterprise… even though the people were all more likable than the crew.
Even objectively, this is a very obnoxious viewpoint – and an unwise one, since the entire audience was made up of humans living in the 1980s. So telling your entire audience that they suck merely because they were born into a particular century is kind of a dumb one if you want them to keep tuning in. It’s like a contemporary that just has to mock the people of the Middle-Ages for being primitive and having lots of wars in almost every episode, even if it has nothing to do with the story.
But it’s actually something I find pretty commonly in fantasy/SF: what TVTropes callsthe Superior Species.
Now, I have no problem with aliens or supernatural species who might consider themselves superior… but I do have a problem with the WRITER doing this. Not only is it obnoxious… but it’s a completely hollow way of communicating what a “better” kind of person is.
Because the Superior Species IS FICTIONAL. You can have them turn lead to gold and blast rainbows from their butts, but it won’t have any meaning because the Superior Species can be as awesome as you want them to be. It’s just a finger-wagging gesture like a parent telling her kid, “Why can’t you be as awesome as your imaginary brother Mikey? He graduated Harvard at the age of six, created a clean energy source, built his own functioning spacecraft from scrap metal, and brokered peace in the Middle-East. All you did was get Bs in everything and not make the football team, you loser!”
As a prime example, let’s look at Dennis McKiernan. His fantasy world is mostly populated by the Elves, Humans, Wobbits, Mages, Dwarves and Hidden Ones. And even though humans are undeniably the majority… they are considered to suck compared to everyone else, who lives peaceful non-polluting lives of communal bliss. Humans are the ONLY ones who pollute, who fight amongst themselves, or who exploit the world in any way (yeah, apparently humans are the ONLY ONES who ever clear farmland or have sewage systems. For Elves, the farmland just magically clears itself, and they poop nothing but gold and sparkles).
Want some examples? Every race is considered to have their own special gift. Like Wobbits have Sue eyes, and dwarves can always retrace their footsteps, and elves can automatically navigate by the stars. What’s the human gift? OVERPOPULATION. Real subtle there.
And in The Dragonstone,the whole subject of pirates comes up between a mage and a bunch of Elves… and their attitude is “oh, those stupid humans, when will they learn to be as Suetifully perfect as us?”
Now I’m not saying that McKiernan has no heroic humans… although often they’re only heroic because they worship the Elves or Wobbits, or even try to emulate them. But the species on a WHOLE is regarded as childish, barbaric and too dumb to take care of the planet properly… which is only true compared to the fictional races because they’re fictional, and therefore McKiernan can make them as uniformly enlightened and peaceful and awesome as he likes.
Let’s move on to Christopher Paolini. Same basic approach, with the elves and dwarves and everything in a very Tolkien mode. While he doesn’t denigrate humans nearly as much as McKiernan does, Paolini DOES make the elves flawless paragons of… everything. They’re natural magic-users who can do pretty much whatever they want, all effortlessly gorgeous, all atheists (depicted as a good thing), vegetarians (ditto), and good at everything. Everybody (good) kowtows to them, and it’s taken for granted that they are wiser and more right about everything than any other race, such as the theistic unpretty dwarves.
By having everyone automatically assume the elves are right in every situation, and give them much most authority than they deserve, Paolini ends up making them a superior species.
And of course, let’s not forget Stephenie Meyer. Is there a species more superior than the Twishite sparklepires? Not only does Meyer shit on “ordinary” humans who aren’t clearly earmarked for vampiric happily-ever-afters, but she also depicts vampires as having superior morality, appearance, wealth, intellect (though you’d never know it), sexual pleasure, they effortlessly steal the attention of everyone, all people lust after them, etc. Oh, and they all adhere rigidly to her religious values at all times (except for the pesky suicide-for-drama)… while also sneering at and looking down on humans at all times.
Now, I’m not saying you can’t make a species that is beautiful and graceful and cool and stuff. JRR Tolkien’s elves are a template for all of the species above (to some degree – Meyer ripped off more from Anne Rice, but she wasn’t above ripping off Tolkien too), and if you only read LOTR, you might think they were. But look more carefully.
- There is only one elf in the whole trilogy who looks down on mortals. The others seem quite friendly and noncritical.
- The aloofness and remoteness of the elves is not because they’re way better, but because their time in the world is drawing to a close and they are having to leave.
- The elves don’t always know best. If they did, then the Council of Elrond wouldn’t have been necessary, and Galadriel wouldn’t have been tempted by the Ring. Hell, Frodo might have gotten some actual advice from Gildor. And Legolas probably would have been in charge of the fellowship rather than following Aragorn.
- If you read the Silmarillion, you’ll find that there isn’t much that Superior-Speciesy about the elves. Yes, they got first dibs on the world, officially, and they’re long-lived and occasionally marry angels and all that shit. But they’re revealed to have all the same failings as humans, making war and being subdivided into many races and occasionally causing trouble for their angelic overlords.
- While Tolkien depicts the elves’ lifestyles as being antithetical to the wanton nature-destroying industrialism he despised, they aren’t the only species who live that way. The majority of humans do too, and the hobbits live in an idyllic place.
So yeah, if you’re going to write a species who is graceful and awesome and amazing…. don’t write them just to inform us “oh, and they’re WAY better than you apelike humans, doncha know.”
Don’t Assume I Like Your Character
Is your character a total asshole? Vicious? Calculating? Looks down on everyone else? Do they treat their family like shit? Do they menace old ladies for money?
Well, too bad. They’re the main character, which means you’re supposed to like them.
This is a very common mistake that I see in a lot of books, including almost everything I’ve snarked here: the main character who isn’t actually likable. And not in an antihero way like Sam Spade, or a thought-provoking way like Hamlet, or a lovably-flawed way like Sherlock Holmes. I mean characters we are meant to love and root for and identify with as if they were a mixture of Han Solo, Sir Galahad, Captain America, Frodo Baggins and Ellen Ripley.
No, these characters are, objectively speaking, assholes. But we’re not meant to see them as assholes, because the authors were too lazy/blinkered to actually realize what their words and actions mean.
This is often associated with Mary Sue/self-insert characters, because the author is putting THEMSELVES into the character, and therefore sees absolutely nothing wrong with all the horrible things that THEY would say, do and think in these scenarios. It may not even be conscious, but it definitely does come through. And so they often can’t grasp why people would have a problem with the attitudes of their MC.
For instance, Anita Blake has committed many, many, many horrifying crimes over the course of the AB series, ranging from many many murders to rapes to metaphysically mind-wiping people into becoming her slaves. But we’re not actually meant to see any of this as a problem. Either she has a convenient excuse so nobody will blame her, or we’re assured that everything she has done is perfectly all right. And to hammer home the point, anyone who dares to question her methods or actions is depicted as an evil bigot who secretly wants all the giant penii she’s bouncing on.
And then there’s the BORING lead characters, where a character is really dull and nondescript, but dammit, she’s the lead character of the book and therefore I am invested in what happens to White Suburban Teen Girl In Love With The Grim Reaper Or Some Such Shit #2,952. Oh wait, I’m not, because she’s dull and empty.
Let’s see one of the rarer examples: Clary Fray. She is not the worst UF heroine by far (see above comments on Anita Blake) but in her very first scenes of City of Bones,I disliked her. Why? Because she dragged a friend of hers to a trendy club even though she know he didn’t like the place and didn’t want to go there, and rolled her eyes contemptuously when he semi-sarcastically faked enthusiasm for her benefit. I think the author was trying to demonstrate that she’s cooler than said friend, but she just made Clary look bitchy and selfish for not either leaving said friend at home, softening the experience (like saying, “If you spend an hour at this club, we can go to the video game store afterwards”) or even feeling remorse.
Unfortunately I seem to be in the minority when it comes to this problem, since the success of Twilight shows that dumb shallow people WILL completely overlook main characters who voice every petty, whiny thought the author has. If a character is designated “protagonist,” they will immediately worship that person.
But still, don’t assume I will like your character. MAKE me like your character by showing them to be witty, likable or at least good.
I probably shouldn’t have to say this, but… don’t use weird words or slang in your books.
And I don’t mean making up slang for your stories like Clockwork Orange or “frak” or “frelling full of dren.” I mean writing current-day stories in our own world that are meant to be written in modern English… but which have weird verbal tics or terminology that nobody else in the world uses.
The worst example of this would be Stephenie Meyer, who keeps using the phrase “holy crow!” in her books. As far as I can tell, this is a super-religious Mormon thing, where they avoid saying “holy cow” for some reason (because… Hindus?) and won’t say “holy crap” because… it’s mildly vulgar, and that is bad? I don’t get it. Not to mention that she occasionally DOES use the word “crap,” which makes the phrase even more pointless.
Here’s another: Laurell K. Hamilton talking about orgasms. You know how people refer to orgasming as “coming”? You’ll hear people talking about “he/she came” or “I’m coming,” and you’d expect that word to come up in a series whose main character is a succubus, and which revolves so much around sex.
But no… LKH uses the word “gone” or “going” to refer to an orgasmic finish. Not only does this become confusing when your characters are having sex (“Where did he go?”), but it often makes it sound like the characters are peeing during the act of sex. She ALWAYS uses this instead of “come,” and it’s… baffling. I actually thought at first that it was a regional thing, but I’ve encountered others from St. Louis who didn’t use that kind of terminology.
So… yeah, don’t confuse your readers with weird terminology that will mean nothing to them.