Saturday, November 17, 2018

"world renowned"

I'm embarking on a reading retreat this week.

When I read a lot of manuscripts in succession some patterns I might have missed if I wasn't reading so much, stand out clearly.

One such pattern: the tendency to describe characters in superlatives. World renowned, elite, billionaire, first dog on Carkoon.

When you really start to think about it, characters don't need to be the top of their field in order to develop the plot.

And when you REALLY start to think about it, the people who are top of the top? They don't have much time for anything BUT the work that got them there.

While novels are fiction, and you get to make all that stuff up, the truth is you want your characters to feel real. And if you've known anyone who is that elite, you know they're all a little crazy. Obsessive even. Focused. As in laser.

The other words for that are: one-dimensional, not fully developed, boring.

Thus if you need a character to be really good at something, just have them be good at it. They don't need to be world renowned. A good point guard, doesn't have to be the best. They can be accomplished without being Olympic level.

Take a look at your characters. Are any of the burdened with superlatives they don't need?


E.M. Goldsmith said...

Funny, I have been noticing this trend in published fiction I have been reading. We have an obsession with super-heroes. Maybe that is simply a genre thing? I find I put those books down and don't finish them. One of the things that makes our own Sam Hawke's book, City of Lies so good is the characters are skilled with true human challenges and frailty. And they've earned their skill through trials and many errors.

Happy reading, your Majesty. I am getting ready to head to New York to visit the kid. Could you please warm up the city before I get there? Maybe?

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Okay, I'll lower husband of main character's number one, top of the heap, world renowned, bad status to number two.
Yeh...number two dog-pile will suit him well.

CynthiaMc said...

I'm on VACATION!!!!!!!!!!!!

I may actually get to read something.

Pericula Ludus said...

Ah, I often have the opposite concern. My characters are all so average. Not particularly smart or rich or accomplished or good-looking... Just normal people. Which sometimes makes me doubt anyone wants to read about them. So I understand the tendency to write superheroes, characters that scream "I'M SUPER INTERESTING; READ ME!"
Another thing I've grown rather tired of is the super-duper-broken character. The competition for most horrendous inspirational backstory leaves me uninspired. Characters overcoming obstacles is wonderful, but I'm not sure they all need to have every possible bad thing happen to them. To me that tends to read like an excitable little kid telling an "and then... and then... and then..." story.

Colin Smith said...

However, that obsessiveness and laser-focus can blind these "world's greatest" to things going on around them, or maybe even the negative effects of their work. Turn that into a major flaw and you could make an otherwise dull character into someone interesting.

Just a thought. :)

roadkills-r-us said...

Thanks, Janet. I tend to get bored quickly with such characters, unless there’s a real reason for it, and there are offsetting factors.
I do have one character who is thought to be the leading expert in his field (at least in the British Isles), but there’s a solid reason for it, and he isn’t perfect even in that area.
Agatha Christie did this well with Poirot, but I definitely don’t want all detectives I read to be That.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

Pericula, I agree regarding the super-duper-broken character. It's becoming a cliche now to have the character experience sexual abuse in childhood, plus bullying in adolescence, plus every imaginable misfortune or wrong life choices when we meet him/her/them. While it is reflective of the circumstances of many people, I find I grow weary of seeing them repeatedly in novels that I carve time out of my busy life to read. Give me characters like Eleanor Oliphant, Major Pettigrew, AJ Fikry, ordinary people thrust into seemingly ordinary conundrums but who, at the hands of an able author, show me, vividly, a human being's capacity for extraordinariness. I will gladly fork over my thirty four dollars (canadian) to you.

John Davis Frain said...

You can also twist that character with a flaw that relates to both your plot and your character's strength.

So that point guard? Too bad he's addicted to gambling and gets into debt with your main character. He'll come in handy for a scene this weekend as your main character watches a basketball game in the background while she counts her money in the foreground--until she realizes the guy that was supposed to throw the game just had a triple-double and is getting interviewed on espn in the post-game...

Never mind. I went over a hundred words and I haven't used "renowned" or "pattern" yet.

Kate Higgins said...

"...burdened with superlatives they don't need." plagues many people in real life.

I think trying to live up to the hype and expectations of a "great potential" of any kind is a burden that some humans struggle with their whole life.

If a superlative has tagged you early in life, you spend the rest of your life wondering if you are living up to it or disappointing everyone or just your self. Or if you are so sure you deserve the "superlatives" that you become a social pariah.

I wouldn't wish that on my worst character
...on second thought, maybe I would.

Adele said...

A couple of years ago I took a city tour. To the tour guide, every spot was dramatic and superlative - the best tree, the biggest street, the world-renowned everything. His belief was touching, but ridiculous. When he pointed at a building and announced that it had the biggest theatre lobby in The Entire History of the World, I giggled. But most of the people took it in uncritically; they didn't see the absurdity.

About a dozen years ago writing books advised beginners to pump up the drama. Beginning writers were told their plot must be super-important to everybody. Your kidnapped child was not just anybody's child, but the Daughter of a Senator! Your serious illness wasn't just the flu, it was Anthrax! And suddenly the World was in Jeopardy.

I think the original advice was likely intended to be something like - increase the tension by making your plot points more important to the characters in the book. I'm thinking of Jack Nicholson's character in "As Good As It Gets", desperate to reach Helen Hunt but forced to step on all those cracks. You really felt for him.

K.DeFlane said...

It's my pet peeve with TV writing, too. So many characters graduated at the top of their class, totally unbelievable.

Timothy Lowe said...

Am I the only idiot who kept wondering why everyone was starting their comments with AM or PM? I JUST figured it out!

Not sure that makes me the most renowned anything, but I had to mention it.

Steve Stubbs said...

OT: I have been catching up on your posts (illness) and wanted to thank you for the superb advice you gave you posted a couple of days ago.

You wrote: "If you write crime, you have to be as good or better than Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly etc. I don't expect you to be better than Patrick Lee. I'm not insane. Or Lee Child. But you've got to be playing in the big leagues to have a shot at being published."

That is the best advice you have given since you started this blog. It gives a very concrete idea what we have to aim at.

It was also a real eye opener. Having read a lot of publish-ed/able MSS I had no idea the competition was generally that formidable. It certainly makes sense publishers would demand that standard. If I were an editor I would do the same. I am not arrogant enough to think I could write as well as Patrick Lee. (Are you reading this, Patrick?) He really is very good. But I don't mind setting the bar at Lee Child. (Yes, he is very good, too. Very, very good.) In fact, I re-titled my WIP CHILD SQUARED just to stay reminded of how high the bar is.

That kind of challenge makes this that much more fun.

Of course Lee Child has said the market has grown so tough even he could not break in today.

CHILD SQUARED is going well and should be ready for rejection this coming March. Let's just hope he doesn't publish anything even better than THE KILLING FLOOR before then.

Thanks again for the post.

Craig F said...

I do have some 2 dimensional characters in my writing. It is one purpose because I the dozen characters I have fleshed out are close to as many as I can keep breathing without CPR. It is also about the right number to keep the flow and rhythm on the upbeat. Then there is the problem of keeping the interest of the reader.

I try to paint those 2 dimensional types with either quirk or foible but don't push it because they have no purpose in the book except for their one little bit part.

Janet Reid said...

CraigF Dick Francis had a nifty way of bringing minor characters on and off stage without a lot of development. He needed the cast of dozens since he often wrote about horse racing, and he needed a multitude of horses, jockeys, and owners.

Bob Crais and Michael Connelly also do minor characters with distinction.

Craig F said...

Thank you my queen.

I, personally, think that you need primary, secondary and tertiary characters. You only want to fully develop the primary characters, mostly for your own sanity in keeping track of them and also for the sake of your reader's sanity. It allows them to work along with the story and not have to dig back and find this character they had forgotten.

Secondary characters should enter a scene with more panache than tertiary characters. It makes for an easier read. Especially for me since the sci-fi thing I am writing has a lot of non-character crap going on.

Mister Furkles said...

But...but...what if the MC's boss is generally acknowledged as the biggest A-hole in the company?

"I hear, ya, Bill. But that's why I quit. He's gotta be the biggest a**hole in the state."

Julie Weathers said...


"You only want to fully develop the primary characters, mostly for your own sanity in keeping track of them and also for the sake of your reader's sanity."

I'm not so sure I agree. I tend to make a large variety of characters interesting. My MC, Lorena, has a father who's dead, but readers have fallen in love with him. Who knew a ghost who just makes a few appearances could be so intriguing? Four horses have become characters in their own right and one is dead. Etc.

David Gemmell had a very minor character in Legend who has always stuck with me. He's a soldier going off to a battle we all know isn't going to end well, but they are going to make their last stand. He only spends a few paragraphs introducing this character, but the impact is heart-rendering.

It's definitely a lesson in character writing. That being said, they can't all be larger than life.

Back to the topic at hand, sometimes being special goes with the territory. A smitten soldier asks Lorena if she has any faults and she replies, "My mother thinks I'm a perfect heathen, but no one is perfect." She also opines that every man in uniform is a god made flesh and every maiden a Venus thanks to the winds of war. There's some truth to it.

LibraryHungry said...

This post reminded me of Stephen Fry on Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (spoiler: he HATED it), in which he complains that the book is terrible from the first word--which is "renowned." He makes the same point you have here.

Also, I don't think you need to spend a lot of page time building the tertiary characters, but it's worth spending mental energy on it. I am more reader than writer, but I absolutely recognize and appreciate when characters who only appear for a moment behave in ways that are consistent with SOME potential interior life, back story, and personal priorities, even if I don't know what those are. While it's true that sometimes that will cause them to act the same way that a stock character would act, every now and then there will be a detail that lets me notice that the author knows that each of those people is the star of their own story, even if it's not the one I'm reading.

Anonymous said...

Lots of good insights in this post and in the comments on it.

I agree that being hailed as exceptional at anything can really ruin a person, even if they actually are. Look at Mozart.

Another problem I've noticed is when authors want to write about a character who is a super genius, but the author clearly isn't. The genius ends up looking like an obnoxious know-it-all, and the reader is left scratching his/her head over plot holes. Or, we find out that the author's definition of 'genius' is extremely narrowly defined.

(Rule of thumb: don't write about people smarter than yourself? ... No way, I think that would limit my writing a bit too much!)

MA Hudson said...

Love this new bit of astronomically awesome advice from our favourite world-reknowned super agent.

MA Hudson said...


Janet Reid said...

*giving the fisheye to MA Hudson
world renowned???

MA Hudson said...

*face palm

*universe renowned, eagle-eyed, super duper uper agent.

AJ Blythe said...

I've also noticed this in news reporting. Headlines these days are full of superlatives, but after a while they lose impact because every news item can't be a bombshell, have broken the internet, be that horrific etc. Drives me bonkers!

Jonathan Levy said...

In other words, you don't have to be a QueryShark, you can be QueryMackerel, QuerySeaBass, etc.