Cheating at Characterisation…

No, not this Thing. This Thing is awesome and cute and more than slightly hilarious.

There’s this Thing.

It’s an irritating Thing. A far-too-prevalent Thing. I’d all but forgotten about it until recently, when I came across it again in one of the books from my TBR pile.

It sounded like a good book, so I was reasonably anticipatory as I flipped to the first chapter. It was a solid first chapter, fluffy and bright and quite a bit of fun. There were glimmerings of decent characterisation, and the setting was an interesting one with some fun ideas I hadn’t seen before.

I actually quite enjoyed it until I started seeing the Thing in chapter two. At first, it was just a touch or two of the Thing. Nothing too obvious. Just an edging here or there that could have just been a character being different. Then I got to chapter four and the Thing burst onto the scene in all its warty annoyance, unmistakable and unavoidable.

First, one of the MCs was introduced. She was a politically loud, rebellious, environmentally proactive MC, trying hard to do the right thing by sourcing ethically produced products for her store. She had a habit of talking down to anyone and about anyone who didn’t align exactly with her politics.

Okay, I thought. She’s kinda annoying, but she’s also really energetic and even if she’s a bit preachy and self-righteous, people tend to grow up. Besides which, I’m the kind of reader that can appreciate an MC that isn’t perfect. And even if I didn’t agree with the way she put across her opinions, I agreed with and could appreciate quite a few of them.

Then the main bad guy was introduced. How did I know he was the main bad guy? He was introduced as ‘ranting’ about Trump, illegal immigrants, and one or two other hot-button topics of today’s world.

I groaned. I mean, I seriously, literally groaned. Not the Thing. Please, not the Thing!

But it was the Thing. The author was introducing all the ‘evil’ or ‘unpleasant’ characters as those who held to a certain set of political views and/or ethical beliefs, while introducing all the ‘good’ or ‘right’ characters as those of (I assume) the author’s own preferred beliefs. It didn’t stop with one or two characters, and it didn’t get any better from there on in.

I haven’t seen a more egregious example of the Thing since re-reading Louise Lawrence’s Chronicles of Llandor. I loved those books as a kid. There are some books that give more with age, but those books unfortunately only gave annoyance. You knew a character was bad simply because they advocated eating meat. And you knew when a ‘good’ character was going to the bad because they would start to think eating meat wasn’t quite so bad, or that perhaps killing an enemy who was trying kill their friends wasn’t so bad.

It wasn’t so much a case of politics being included in the storyline so much as a bit of story being included in the politics. And, just as with the first book I mentioned, it was being used as a shorthand form of characterisation.

I’m not a person who thinks politics and religion and Stuff That Matters should be kept out of books. My own books are hardly free from threads and themes (though not overt ones) that tie directly back to my heritage and growth as a Christian. Of course, the odds are, if you have a differing political/religious/Thing opinion than me, I will enjoy your books less–especially if you choose to use your books to low-key preach at me. It will not, however, stop me reading your books.

What will stop me reading your books is the use of political/religious/Thing as character development or characterisation. If your character is a bad guy just because he supports Trump/supports free immigration/opposes abortion/supports gay marriage/whatever, or if you use any of these as shorthand for what a horrible person s/he is, I will stop reading. Because that’s not characterisation. That’s laziness.

Also, newsflash: people aren’t the sum of their opinions. People are a mix of good and bad, and just because someone supports the death penalty, it doesn’t mean they’re out murdering puppies in the street. Characterisation means drawing people who have a mix of good and bad in them: things they struggle with, stupid ideas they support until they know better/because they’re too stubborn to change.

Characterisation is one of the most amazing things about Lloyd Alexander’s The Kestrel. (It’s the 2nd book in the Westmark trilogy–yes, I read it first, I’m an idiot; no, I haven’t read the 1st or 3rd yet, I’m not yet ready for the emotional damage that I know is coming). The characters, each on their side of the war–at times uneasy allies, at times enemies, at all times spectacularly human–are all such a mix of good and bad. The good make bad decisions, do wrong things, experience the fallout of their wrong decisions. The bad have both good and bad parts: their opinions are sometimes morally evil and sometimes morally good. Not all the bad guys believe the same thing. The good guys aren’t all united under the same umbrella. They each have their own motivations, and it is, in the end, their actions that define how they are seen.

Please. Please. Authors. Don’t do the Thing. The Thing is lazy. It’s irritating. It’s Bad Writing.

It needs to die.

“Introducing the Players”

I can’t remember if I’ve talked about Nero Wolfe before. If I haven’t, please excuse me while I hyperventilate in disbelief, because Nero Wolfe is flamin’ amazing.

“Book or T.V. Nero Wolfe?” you ask me.

“Both,” is my reply. “Both, my sprightly word-lover.”

My first introduction to Nero Wolfe was in book form, with Rex Stout’s novels. I still love them, and I still re-read them (and gasp excitedly whenever a newly-converted-to-kindle book that I haven’t been able to find at the library comes up on my Amazon storefront). I could really rave for ages about how awesome Wolfe and Archie are, and how much I enjoy the books. I’m not going to do so, because that isn’t the point of this blog post.

No, for this blog post, I’m going to talk about the T.V. version of Nero Wolfe (and a couple other things which are the actual point I’m currently illustrating by using the Nero Wolfe T.V. series).

Deep, ain’t it?

So. The Nero Wolfe T.V. show. For the purposes of this blog post, let the record show that I’m referencing the Maury Chaykin/Timothy Hutton series: I believe there are other movies and maybe another series, but since I can’t possibly see them being anywhere near as good as the Chaykin/Hutton effort, I’m ignoring them as if they don’t exist.


The whole show is well done: the casting is perfect (Chaykin and Hutton are Wolfe and Archie; mad and bad and dangerous to know–ie, flippant, selfish, and frequently crazy), the dialogue as sparkling and hilarious as in the books, the directing some of the best I’ve seen, and the costumes both bright and entirely accurate. And like all the best shows, the Nero Wolfe series has a peculiarity that will either endear it to you, or annoy you intensely. You can possibly guess which it is in my case.

This peculiarity, in the case of the Nero Wolfe series, is the fact that the show, instead of introducing the actors, introduces “the Players”.

Maybe you can see where this is going.

If not, allow me to explain. By introducing “the Players”, the show is letting you in on the secret that you may otherwise not notice until two or three episodes later– which is the fact that each of the actors is present in nearly every episode.

That’s right. Each of the actors is almost always present, and they each play a different part in each different episode. In the case of one particular episode, one actress even plays two parts– her recurring part as Lily Rowan, and that of another lady in the story. Only Archie Goodwin, Nero Wolfe, Fritz, and Lily Rowan are always the same. Even Saul changes face once before he remains Saul, and Orrie gets the same treatment. And when Saul and Orrie aren’t in the storyline, those actors play different parts, too.

It’s something that makes you really appreciate the skills of the actors, since with their different parts, they quite often have different accents as well as completely different personalities, and none of them fall short in any of those things. After a while it becomes a game to pick which ones are the same as last episode, because it’s not always easy to tell at first.

I was reminded of this lately as I watched a couple of Taiwanese dramas.

So far I’ve seen two. They’re hilarious and weird, and really very sweet– and insanely long (oh my goodness, 35 episodes?!?!)

Why am I bringing up Taiwanese drama after Nero Wolfe? Ah, now for the second illustration of my point (which, btw, I haven’t yet brought up. Wait for it).

I originally started watching the second drama because I really liked the main male lead in the first (Office Girls) and found out he was in Miss Rose is Getting Married, which sounded as hilarious as Office Girls.

Smiling eyes, hilariously hammy acting on occasion, perfect comedic timing, and then a sucker-punch kind of sweetness that catches you by surprise, Roy Chiu has quickly become one of my favourite actors.

Smiling eyes, hilariously hammy acting on occasion, perfect comedic timing, and then a sucker-punch kind of sweetness that catches you by surprise, Roy Chiu has quickly become one of my favourite actors.

So I began watching the second drama along with the first (really livin’ it up, yeah?)

My first surprise was that my (again, favourite) 2nd male lead was also in this one, in a bigger role (hooray!) Then the mean girl from Office Girls turned up as the cute, peppy best friend (also hooray, b/c she’s just adorable). It didn’t occur to me until about three or four episodes in that the main female lead was also 2nd female lead in Office Girls.

From this discovery I went on to find that nearly every single actor in Miss Rose is Getting Married was also in Office Girls. I’m not even exaggerating. Every main lead and most of the secondaries are in both dramas, simply playing different parts. They’ve even included some of the actors in fake video clips that you see in the background, causing me to choke on my tea and nearly die of death by drowning in my hitherto safe armchair. I’m now having a great old time trying to catch ’em all–er, I mean spot them all.

Which (finally) brings me to my point. Hooray?

As a writer, there is one thing that I’m constantly worried about. If you’ve been paying attention up until this point, you’ve probably guessed what that is.

It’s this: after you’ve written about four or five books, you start to worry about your characters. Specifically, you begin to worry that your characters are all the same. You worry that you’ve simply regurgitated the same old characters into a new setting and a new plot. You wonder if their reactions, dialogue, and essential character are just too similar to each other.

In short, you begin to see them as the same old actors, painted to look superficially different. I remember the first time that I realised Ellis Peters’ characters were essentially the same characters for each book, simply put into a different setting, plot, and murder mystery.

To some extent, you can’t get away from it. There are only so many types of characters out there, and each writer is generally geared to a certain type/s of character that they enjoy/are good at writing. It’s not even necessarily a bad thing: your fans and readers like a certain kind of character, and they won’t always appreciate you growing your craft at their expense.

So, if I can’t fully escape it, why am I stressing over it?

Because sometimes, just having the problem in mind is enough to ameliorate it, even if that’s only by a small amount. If you’ve got that nagging doubt at the back of your mind, you’ll be more careful about your character drawing. You’ll tweak this or that to add small shades of other colours. You’ll consider different circumstances that might lead to different character development. In short, by thinking about your craft as you work, it’s likely that your craft will improve.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have similar characters. Our core values don’t change too much, and as writers, that will always be disseminated in our writing– and especially in our characterisation. But as a writer, I don’t want to have the same old character in every book because I wasn’t good enough or disciplined enough to write different ones. If I have similar characters, I want it to be because I intended it that way, not because I don’t know any better.

So I watched CRIMSON PEAK…

…or at least, I tried to watch it.

CRIMSON PEAK is one of those beautifully costumed, beautifully shot, beautifully cast movies that you see and right away know you’re going to love. Because how could you not?

Allow me to explain why not.

Such pretty! Such gothic! And I wanted SO MUCH to love you!

Such pretty! Such gothic! And I wanted SO MUCH to love you!

I was slightly trepidatious going in: I’ve never seen Tom Hiddleston be anything but awesome, but Mia Wasikowska has a habit of playing characters that annoy me, in films that are (IMO) either complete rubbish, utter disappointments or plain grotty.

CRIMSON PEAK, unfortunately, was just like Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND (another Mia Wasikowska vehicle)–an utter disappointment. And it managed to be so all in the first half hour, after which I turned it off in frustration.

Disappointment #1: The Characters

*Edith Cushing. Oh my. What can be said about such a self-important little twit? She fancies herself a writer. Cool, yanno. She loves to tell people that her ghost stories are not ghost stories, they are stories with a ghost in them. Because the ghost is a metaphor. She is smug, inconsiderate, likes to belittle people she has never met, and has the flamin’ unmitigated gall to be snide about Austen. Because writing ‘love stories’ is so much beneath her. So obviously I couldn’t love her, but I still gave her a chance. Only then, after protesting repeatedly for the first 20 mins of the movie that she has never been in love and it being shoved in our faces that this special snowflake is too much of an author to be in love–in fact, seems to despise love–what does she do? Of course. She falls in instalove with the rich nobleman. Which only really solidifies my dislike of her, since there’s a perfectly lovely young optician who seems to be very keen on her–which Edith is quite well aware of. I can only deplore her taste in men and think much less of her for preferring charm over decency.

*Sir Thomas Sharpe. Wow. I know Tom Hiddleston is a good actor, so I’m assuming it was the writers who managed to write this character so abominably flat. There isn’t much to say about him except that we only know he’s meant to be charming because we are told he is so. Mostly I can’t help wondering how the heck Edith imagines herself in love with him.

*Lady Lucille Sharpe. Actually the most interesting character in the movie. She’s kinda awesome in a sharp, deadly

Lucille Shape--because she was actually brilliant

Lucille Shape–because she was actually brilliant

sort of a way. Manages to be beautiful not because of her looks but because of they way she carries herself. I almost kept watching the movie just because she was amazing.

*Carter Cushing. Edith’s dad. Oh. My. Goodness. Such a snob! I know it’s meant to be his Dad-Radar™, and that he dislikes Sir Thomas Sharpe on instinct, but the reason he gives for not liking Sir Thomas and refusing to finance his business proposal? Yeah, it’s because he’s a nobleman and has soft hands. He actually discriminates against Sir Thomas because he was born a nobleman. That’s irritating.

Disappointment #2: The Inaccuracies

Okay, so it’s a sort-of Victorian era thing. The costumes are beautiful and for the most part really accurate–except for a few places where Edith has a gorgeous dress with spaghetti straps. Um. No. Bare arms in that period? Yeah, you’re a hooker. It was socially unacceptable to have bare arms. I mean, it was a smashing dress, but it wasn’t right.

This is supposed to be Sir Thomas. But really, it's just Tom Hiddleston in a cravat.

This is supposed to be Sir Thomas. But really, it’s just Tom Hiddleston in a cravat.

Then there’s the time that Edith refuses to go to a dinner engagement, sends her regrets to the hostess previously, sends off her father and the optician in a carriage (while in her nightie and wrapper, no less!) and then turns up at the dinner anyway with Sir Thomas. Never mind that she’d sent her regrets and there would be no place for her at the dinner table–or that her hostess would have to scramble to make a place for her and make special arrangements. It’s extremely unlikely that anyone of Edith’s social status would have been so completely rude–and if she was, it just makes dislike her more. And then she looks so surprised when the hostess is sweetly rude to her. No, the hostess isn’t a rude cow, Edith; you are.

Edith. Again. Seriously. The girl gets up from the dinner table and runs out in tears when she learns that Sir Thomas is leaving (after knowing him a couple days). If–and I really reiterate–IF she had been so rude as to do such a thing, she would not have been followed by Sir Thomas and the flamin’ entirety of the dinner guests so they could watch him tearing apart her book as a pretext on the stairs to the family rooms above. No. They would have politely ignored her rudeness and gone on with their dinner.

Disappointment #3: The complete MEH-ness of the actual story.

I just didn’t care. Disappointments #1 & #2 just made me unwilling to give the mediocrity of the storytelling a real

This is the nice little optician who obviously just wasn't special enough for Edith.

The nice little optician who obviously just wasn’t special enough for Edith.

chance. Normally I’d give it longer, and because of Lucille I almost did, but I just couldn’t stand Edith. Like every other movie I’ve seen with Mia Wasikowska, it seemed to be only a vehicle for her to show how talented, special, sweet, different, special, amazing, special and special her character was. Did I mention how special Edith was? I know Mia Wasikowska is one of Hollywood’s darlings–and she actually is a great actress–but enough already! Stop forcing her quirkyness down my throat. Quirkyness can become boring when that’s all you ever show.

All in all?

Beautiful shooting. Beautiful clothes. Beautiful actors. Rubbish movie. Which is such a shame, because I’ve loved almost everything else I’ve seen of Guillermo Del Toro’s. There are just so many tropes that turn up, and none of them are done with the slightest amount of panache or difference. It’s a trope-soup of meh-ness served up in gorgeous Royal Doulton settings and antique silverware.

Musings: Why Won’t This Thing Die??

There’s this thing I see a lot in fiction. It happens in movie/tv series as much as in books, and it’s even more annoying there (for my long-suffering hubby as well, because then I remonstrate with the tv. At the top of my lungs.).

It’s the thing where the detective/cop/insurance investigator is too close to the investigation due to a personal connection (ie, investigating the death of his/her own wife/husband/brother/whatever), and throws convention and the orders of their superior officers to the wind to investigate and generally make a nuisance of themselves. The plucky detective then goes on to prove that he/she can handle the pressure and bring the murderer to justice.

It’s a reasonably irritating trope, but I can live with it cos I can sympathise with the desire to make sure justice is done by doing it oneself.

The thing I want to die? The episode further down the road where an officer from another precinct or a grieving father of a murdered/missing girl is determined to push themselves into an investigation. Same setup, same idea. But this time, the officer or father is painted at best as an interfering annoyance and at worst as a trouble-stirring ambulance chaser.

No. Just no. If something is laudable because your MC does it, it can’t become dreggy and wrong because a side-character does it. That’s flamin’ bad writing and needs to be fixed. Give your side-characters and walk-on characters a better form of conflict. Flip your point of view. Just because your MCs are bothered, it doesn’t mean the thing that bothers them has to be a bad thing. Maybe they need to learn a lesson. There’s nothing more annoying than a set of characters who encourage you to see only from one point of view, and automatically assign opposing ones the status of being wrong by virtue of disagreeing with them.

Repeat it with me: “It’s flamin’ BAD WRITING”.