Every once in a while I get a special request from a reader asking me to address this or that problem in m/m fiction. So today I’m going to talk about characters who suffer from the dreaded disease of Career Amnesia. It is estimated that between ten and twenty percent of all romance heroes will at one point during a book either forget that he has a job or will suddenly behave in a way that profoundly impairs his workplace credibility. Something should be done to help these characters retain their imaginary employment, but what?
First let’s look at the symptoms. This particular malady manifests in many ways. It can be as simple as a policeman sleeping with a suspect—by far the most widespread form of career amnesia I’ve encountered—while not worrying about the consequences of his action. Or it could be a soldier who, upon discovering that he loves an enemy combatant, has no qualms changing sides and becoming a traitor. Even poor Dr. Binky has recently come down with a bad case of intermittent mind-wipe. Observe:
Dr. Binky sat his coffee cup down on the nightstand and smiled at Ranger Brutus’s sleeping form. The big lug was so cute when he was snoozing. Because of the stupid wildfires he’d been up at the national park for weeks, and Binky had been all alone.
Not any more though. Absently, he raked his fingers through Brutus’s lush chest hair.
Brutus cracked an eye. “Didn’t anybody tell you that you shouldn’t wake a sleeping bear?”
Before Binky could reply Brutus was on him, tearing his white lab coat and scrubs aside and feasting himself on Binky’s naked flesh like a grizzly ripping through salmon after salmon after salmon. When at last he finished, Binky lay savaged and quivering and mostly upside down. He glanced at the clock and alarm thrilled through him.
“Oh no!” he said. “I was due in open heart surgery an hour ago! Do you think they’ll all be mad at me at the hospital?”
`“S’okay, baby. You take on too much responsibility,” Brutus mumbled into his pillow. “I’m sure it all went fine. And if they can’t, fuck ‘em. Let them stand on their own hind legs for a change.”
“You're right,” Binky said, snuggling up against him wriggling his ass against Brutus’s hairy thighs. “It is nice to sleep in!”
Brutus said,“Guess it’s time for another bear attack.”
Oh, Dr. Binky, how could you? What about poor Grandpa, laying there anesthetized on the table all morning cause you can’t stop getting laid long enough to complete his double bypass? Why did you bother to go to medical school at all if you’re just going to behave this way?
It’s because the Cruel Author forgot you were a surgeon. And at that moment you developed Career Amnesia.
Career Amnesia is the root cause of all these seemingly competent men forgetting who they’re supposed to be proud of being? I suggest that there might be a few culprits. First and foremost there is the desire to create dramatic tension between the characters via the oft-repeated saw, “Opposites Attract”.
This is an industry standard that has been around forever. From this concept we have angel on devil action, cops doing criminals, conservatives boinking liberals, jocks greasing up nerds… You get the picture.
Having the protagonists in opposition creates natural friction and gives both characters something to talk about and room for growth. But it goes wrong when no friction occurs. Time and time again I see cops not really too worried about their cat burglar boyfriend’s frequent felonies. Not to mention the lack of judgment shown by the felons. TSTL does not begin to describe the mental capacity of an assassin who just can’t stop dipping his dick into an FBI agent.
But Nicole, you say, it’s okay because it’s romance. That’s the kind of fantasy romance is all about.
I’m sorry but I just don’t think it is. As self-proclaimed advocate for abused characters the world over, I stand firm in my conviction that Cruel Authors should give them plausible reasoning and solid motivation. More than that, characters need personal integrity. Otherwise, they’re just not very hot in the first place. Who fanaticizes about being loved by an incompetent boob who is about to loose his job because he can’t figure out that “conflict of interest” is a real thing? Not me, for sure.
The second manifestation of Career Amnesia I’ve been seeing of late when a Cruel Author has a character perform an action that he, because of his position in society, should not be performing in order to elevate the hawt-ness of a scene by use of a transgressive act.
Again, Binky’s right on trend here:
Father Binky looked at Brutus kneeling there among the rest of the parishioners before him. His breath caught as Brutus parted his lips to receive communion. As the police detective prepared to receive the sacramental wafer, a chill ran down Binky’s spine. So many nights he’d lain awake, imagining Brutus’ hands on his body. Days working shoulder-to-shoulder with the man on the Case of the Missing Nun had brought his level of sexual frustration up to a frenzied agony. Now he could bear it no longer. As he placed the wafer on Brutus’ tongue he suddenly leaned forward and pressed his mouth to Brutus’.
The burly detective forgot all about the Body of Christ and pulled Father Binky down in a crushing embrace worthy of From Here to Eternity. As he felt his mouth invaded by Brutus’ hot tongue he heard the gasps of the parishioners around him. Brutus continued the kiss, going harder and deeper until Father Binky’s mouth felt red and raw.
Then he pulled back, lifted Binky into his arms and strode down the center aisle of the packed Christmas Eve Midnight mass.
“We’re going to Vegas and getting married. Now.” Brutus’ voice rang through the stunned silence of the church.
I love this man, Binky thought. I love him more than Jesus.
Aloud he said, “Oh boy!”
As he gazed up at Brutus, he heard a single clap grow to raucous applause as the parishioners rose to their feet in a standing ovation.
If you’re saying, “What?!? Why would the congregation do that? Who is going to run the mass now? The altar boy? Doesn’t anyone care about celebrating Christmas?” You’re not alone. Binky’s Career Amnesia has now metastasized to include the supporting characters. They, too, have started responding in a completely unrealistic fashion to the protagonist’s basic dereliction of duty.Would it be great if Father Binky could get a big thumbs-up from his congregation for deciding to marry Det. Brutus? Well, sure. But having every single member of a church agree that disrupting an important holiday is not absolutely selfish is highly unlikely. The only way Binky could be a worse working priest is to leave to go on a date with Brutus in the middle of Last Rites.
Moreover, I suggest that Career Amnesia at this level diminishes the victory of Father Binky’s choice to pursue love. Because what has his love triumphed over? Who opposed it? No one, apparently. And in that case why make him a priest at all, except that it’s kind of fetishy?
I suggest to you that characterization should be deeper and more pervasive than just a slutty Halloween costume. For the sake of shallow characters everywhere who yearn to be meaningful—or at least competent—I renew the clarion call to Cruel Authors: let your doctors heal, allow your cops to enforce, permit your priests to minister. You will be rewarded with many readers.
Over and out.
How to Defeat the Plot Zombie Menace
Okay, here’s the scenario: Our Intrepid Hero, Dr. Binky, is has just found the man of his dreams.
Commander Brutus is everything that Dr. Binky could have asked for and more. A strong soldier, good leader to his men, Brutus also writes poetry. Unbeknownst to anyone, Brutus has been extensively published. He wants to be a father, even though he’s gay. Strong, yet sensitive—that’s our Brutus.
After meeting in Afghanistan, where Dr. Binky had been volunteering for Doctors Without Borders on a massive inoculation program, Binky and Brutus begin a whirlwind affair that leaves them both breathless and infatuated.
Then tragedy strikes—a roadside bomb leaves two men under Brutus’ command dead and while Brutus is only mildly injured. Binky rushes to his bedside but meets with only a cold stare.
“See what harm you do, treating anybody who comes for you?” Brutus asks. “Those men died because of you.”
“No! It’s not my fault!” Binky cries.
“It is. Those men would have been dead if they hadn’t been given medical care at your facility. You’re just making the insurgents stronger and better at killing us. It’s over between us.” Brutus glances to the MPs on duty. “Get him out of my sight.”
Binky is thrown out of the army hospital and onto the dark streets of Kandahar, where he is immediately kidnapped by bandits.
As he is bouncing around in the back of the truck with his head covered by a burlap sack Binky thinks, “Brutus will never come for me now. I’m done for.”
If you’re like me you think, “What the hell, Brutus? I though you were smart. Any idiot can see that Binky inoculating eight year olds and helping old ladies with their diabetes did not cause those soldiers’ deaths. Why are you being such an asshole?”
But Brutus being a complete prick is not his fault because Brutus is a Plot Zombie.
“Plot Zombie” is a term that I picked up from Ginn Hale a while ago. It describes a character whose slavery to the author’s plot choices render their actions emotionally and motivationally incomprehensible.
Why did Brutus accuse Binky of somehow being complicit in the killing of his men? Well, one need only turn the page and realize that the plot called for Binky to be kidnapped. Only an idiot would be walking around alone at night so to avoid TSTL, Dr. Binky’s vulnerability has to be someone else’s fault. Enter Brutus’ unprovoked and rationally improbable temper tantrum.
Plot Zombies are not motivated by their thoughts, goals or their emotions. They cannot remember that two scenes before they expressed ethics and morals in direct opposition to their current actions. They behave in a way that is convenient to the scene they are in, regardless of who they are supposed to be. They can’t help it, because they are not really characters, merely functionaries performing the events of the story.
It’s hard to care what happens to a Plot Zombie. They’re hard to get attached to on account of their unpredictability and nonsensical behavior.
Leafing further along in the book, one comes across another sequence of events: Brutus has just rescued Binky. The bandits have escaped, but Brutus and Binky have had make-up sex because there’s nothing that mitigates the trauma of being kidnapped like unprotected anal intercourse in the back of an army jeep.
Immediately following orgasm, Binky forgets everything that has happened in the last forty-eight hours, turns to Brutus and says, “How could you have done this to me? I don’t think that I can trust you.”
Oh, Binky… You can do the old in-and-out with Brutus, but not trust him twenty seconds later? What is wrong with you? Are you bipolar?
But we readers know. Binky suffers from a much more sinister disease. He has become the Plot Zombie now. His freak-out keeps the relationship conflict going. It ensures that the book can go on for a hundred more pages before he and the guilt-ridden Commander Brutus can, after a stand-off against the bandits in the Doctors Without Borders clinic, resolve their relationship in a frenzy of tears, apology and mad-hot mansex.
Pulled along by the plot, we readers make it to the end of this story, but at the end discover that we truly do not care about either of these characters because they make no sense.
So what is to be done? Both these characters need better reasons for doing the things that they do. That doesn’t mean that the plot must change. The characters must be given better motivation for their actions than ‘the outline says I reject you hurtfully, but it all turns out to be a big misunderstanding 100 pages later’. They also need a logical train of thought that explains why they’re feeling the way that they feel and making the choices they make.
There are a million reasons Dr. Binky could be out on the street alone that don’t involve Brutus throwing a hissy fit. The burden of the author is to go beyond that first, easy solution. Maybe Binky could have been lured out by a false cry for help. Maybe his car could have broken down? Or Binky might be betrayed by his young driver, who is secretly working for the bandits.
Why, then, does Brutus feel guilty? That’s easy. He wasn’t there for Binky. It doesn’t matter that he could not have been there for Binky. That’s not the way guilt works. But let’s give Brutus a solid reason. Let’s say the driver who betrayed Binky had been personally recommended by Brutus. Let’s make him an orphan who Brutus has been mentoring.
Okay, then after Brutus rescues Binky what keeps their relationship conflict going for a hundred more pages if Binky doesn’t dissolve into plot-advancing automaton and reject Brutus just because the plot requires him to?
Well, first it’s important to understand that the first scenario, where Brutus’ illogical tantrum sends Binky away to be kidnapped, does not constitute a real relationship conflict in the first place. Conflicts between characters (and with real people) have to do with clashes of personality that are amplified by external forces.
Because Plot Zombies have no steady characteristics, they don’t have genuine personalities. So now the author must think soulfully upon how both Binky and Brutus might react to Binky’s ordeal and find the conflict between them. What about if Brutus wanted to pursue and kill the bandits, who are no more than poverty-stricken teenagers? What if Binky stopped him because there had been enough bloodshed?
Then Brutus could have a real beef with Binky—he’s naïve and reckless and therefore Brutus may fear he’s not the man for him. And Binky could perceive that Brutus has the capacity to be vengeful and unjust and therefore is a far cry from a perfect match for him, regardless of physical attraction.
Their conflict is now with each other—and has the advantage of mirroring a real conflict between military organizations and NGOs. That creates resonance, which is like anti-serum Z to Plot Zombies. Also it requires both the characters to consider each other’s beliefs and ideas—not just smoking hot asses—to reach a resolution. Now the plot has to be about something instead of just being a list of dramatic actions and sex scenes.
This brings us to the end of the book, which is the stand-off in the clinic. How the author resolves the stand-off should be informed by the conflict between the two protagonists as much as it is by a plot outline. Ultimately, that depends on what the author wants to say about the conflict. If the author agrees with Binky, then Binky should be able to talk the bandits down.
Should the author’s opinion be more in line with Brutus, Brutus goes in with guns blazing.
So, both the Plot Zombie version of the story and the more naturally motivated version end happily. Both feature an abduction as well as bandits but it’s only when the characters are developed and their personalities are built into the plot that they evolve from being mere functions to people we can care about.
Which kind of book would you rather write? Which kind of book would you rather read?
I call upon authors to eradicate Plot Zombies wherever they occur and give readers genuine characters to care about.
Over and out.
The Lights Are On
As you may know, I’m ever on the lookout for fearsome epidemics coursing through the world of m/m romance. A few months ago I brought you my plea for writers to become job-creators by giving their unemployed protagonists something to do.
Now I’ve come to you once again with this shocking news: cluelessness has now reached an all-time high in m/m romance.
I’m not talking about characters who are TSTL—that would be an entirely different post that I’m not sure I’m smart enough to tackle. I refer instead to characters who do not seem to understand that as gays they face discrimination. In most countries they are not allowed to get married and in a few special nations, may actually face the death penalty just for expressing their sexuality.
One would think that, given the propensity in m/m for angst, these clueless characters would be all-over thinking about their inequality. But weirdly, hardly any protagonists ever seem to notice it.
And I don’t just mean thinking about politics. I am constantly shocked by how little many m/m protagonists—especially the “alpha” males—consider their own physical safety when entering a situation. While you might say, “But Nikki, having a character get beaten up for being a fag is so cliché.” And it is. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still happen. More than that it doesn’t mean that the characters would not ponder, before going into any random sports bar, lowrider convention or boardroom, how likely they are to be attacked either physically or verbally should they choose to reveal that they are gay.
Because, I’m telling you, every real gay thinks about this. Even the stupid ones. Even the ones who only vote to legalize gay marriage because they “love sucking cock” takes a moment to assess an unfamiliar environment, person, nation or state for its apparent level of hostility against gays.
They have to, because that level of hostility will affect their lives in fundamental and immediate ways. Recently, Washington State, where I happen to reside, voted to legalize gay marriage. That is awesome. But I encourage readers to take a moment to ponder that from my perspective: millions of people whom I have never met were asked whether or not I should be allowed to get married.
How weird is that?
Let’s imagine the scenario in another context. Let’s ponder a world where I got to vote on whether or not, say, tall guys were allowed to get married to ladies who were more than six inches shorter than them. The very idea is surreal and absurd—the stuff of science-fiction dystopia.
And yet it that is the world that real-life gays and lesbians inhabit.
Permit me to, briefly describe my own personal efforts to get married. The first time was in Portland, Oregon. In 2004 Multnomah County, in an act of civil disobedience began issuing same-sex marriage licenses. My wife and I drove down there to participate. My logic went something like this: This is never going to work out, but what if they started allowing same-sex marriage and nobody showed up for it?
So we went. We joined 1,700 other couples who’d also decided to take Multnomah County up on their offer. The atmosphere at the courthouse was Superbowl-like. Newly-married couples exiting the judge’s chambers walked through a gauntlet of cheers and high-fives from strangers waiting their turn to experience the novel experience of the civil wedding.
Later that year, when we received a letter from the judge saying that our marriage had been annulled, we were not surprised.
But the rejection of millions of people who I had never met still hurt—much more than I thought it would. (And yes, the county did refund the forty dollar fee.)
After that my wife and I tried again. In 2008, we married in San Mateo, California. The very famous Prop 8 put that one on hold only a couple of weeks later. Once again, the faceless millions had considered our relationship and found it unworthy.
Back in our home state of Washington, we decided to go ahead and enter into a registered domestic partnership. We paid our money and were issued cards stating that we were legally entangled. When I brought the card to work, one of my coworkers was deeply confused, “What is that for?” he asked.
“It proves I have the right to make decisions about my wife—like if she were in the hospital or something.”
My coworker looked at his own newly-minted wedding ring and said, “But wait, do I need a card to make decisions for Lydia? Do I have to prove that I’m married?”
“I doubt it. I think they’d probably just believe you.”
My coworker sat in silence for a moment then said, “That is messed up.”
And it was.
But back to clueless characters and how they can be made more realistic. The first and most important thing to remember is that because gays are widely despised even the least political of us will be aware of the laws governing the state in which we reside. So if a writer sets a story in, say, Nashville the protagonist should be aware that is his state bans same sex marriage, does not allow hospital visits or adoption, and offers no legal protection from housing, employment or education discrimination. One bright spot for Tennessee: they have a hate crimes law. But otherwise the Volunteer State offers little support for its gay residents, essentially saying, “We can’t actually kill you, but we’re determined to prevent you from seeking a wide variety of other everyday happinesses.”
While not always front and center, this knowledge should run like an undercurrent through his character, informing the protagonist’s behavior. The Nashville-dwelling homo will be more cautious than his New York City counterpart in revealing the details of his private life to strangers. He will be more cautious when it comes to his safety. And unless he’s got a really good reason to stay, he very well might consider moving to a state that offers him more protection from the condemning millions who voted to bar him from legal marriage.
Avoiding cluelessness does not mean that a protagonist must constantly be dismally aware of his inequality or downtrodden. The recent reversal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, combined with the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maryland sets the perfect stage for a romance set in the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. Uniforms! Sailors! Gratuitous use of Old Bay Seasoning! Secret weekend getaways to exquisite Baltimore!
Alternately, a story set in Maine in early 2012 has a natural crisis and resolution. The protagonist, inflamed by defeat in 2009, could turn activist. As part of the aggressive door-to-door campaign he could meet the reclusive (and possibly closeted) love interest whose own gradual self-acceptance echoes the changing views of Mainers. How triumphant would that be? And of course it would naturally include lighthouses and lobster rolls. Perhaps even actual head given at West Quoddy Head. The sky is the limit here.
Washington State has its own share of magic. When young state senator Troy Miller asks billionaire internet magnate Arthur Dahlgren to support the passage of R-74 he has no idea that the wedding he’s fighting so hard to make a reality will be his own.
I mean, this story practically writes itself. Late nights working shoulder to shoulder. The elation of election night made even more spectacular by a proposal on bended knee! And no story about the Pacific Northwest would ever be complete without prominently featuring at least one geoduck.
The most important thing to remember is that character cluelessness can be cured. All it takes is a few minutes of research and little bit common-sense extrapolation.
Over and out.
Fear The Swampy Womanfolds
By special request this foray into the World of Binky deals with ladies and the ladyparts—most specifically the sometimes strange portrayal of such dark and mysterious environments.
I must start with a disclaimer: I did not coin the term “swampy womanfolds.” The unfortunate verbiage came via my editorial intern, who read them in a het romance some time ago. Usually I shy away from using real text from real books in this column but for the life of me, I couldn’t invent any less appealing or more horribly imagematic term for the female genital region.
I also couldn’t imagine our Binky getting himself into a scary situation with a naked lady. For all his faults, I think Binky is comfortable with and likes women.
No, being alarmed when confronted with the damp, ruckled wetlands of the vajayjay would have to fall upon the broad, tanned shoulders of man’s man Brutus.
This episode finds Brutus in a dimly-lit hotel room on a hot summer night in Paris. Having just returned from his tour of super-spy duty in Istanbul, Brutus is waiting for the arrival of his lover.
Unfortunately an impromptu strike by customs agents in Charles de Gualle airport has resulted in Binky being stranded in the airport smoking lounge with nothing but a crumpled pack of gitanes cigarettes and the near-certain knowledge that he doesn’t smoke. His phone is dead and his charger is in his checked luggage. An inadvertent victim of French organized-labor solidarity, Binky gazes at the blue gypsy decorating the pack and hopes Brutus won’t be too mad.
Across town in Monmartre, Brutus watches the candles burn low over his room-service dinner and waits, but not patiently. He drinks a whole bottle of red wine then drunk-texts Binky fourteen times to no avail.
The night grows longer.
Then comes a knock at the door. A look through the peephole reveals the heart-shaped face of Sirena Rodriquez-Valeron, crack Spanish operative. Born to a family of flamenco dancers, the woman has feet fast enough to stamp out a tsunami of cockroaches and hips strong enough to break a mechanical bull. She is the ultimate femme fatale.
Against his better judgement, Brutus invites her in. (His handler hadn’t mentioned contacting Sirena, but he’s bored and lonely.) Apparently overwhelmed with heatstroke, Sirena immediately sheds her clothes.
The woman’s dress fell away and there she stood, naked. The wobbly fat of her breasts jiggled as she slid one red-clawed hand down her abdomen to the hairy cleft between her legs.
“Do you like what you see?” she asked.
Brutus was about to answer that he couldn’t see or do anything else straight at the moment, but Sirena sat back on the bed and spread her legs to reveal the hot and swampy womanfolds of her crotch.
Brutus reeled back in repulsion, sickened by the sight of that moist and glistening nethermouth. The lips opened like the leaves of a venus fly trap revealing the pink flesh within.
“Just get the fuck out of my room,” he growled. “You’re disgusting.”
He yanked her to her feet and shoved her, naked, into the hallway, throwing her clothes out after her. Then locked the door, staggered to the bathroom and vomited into the sink.
Oh Brutus… Don’t you think you’re overreacting a little bit?
Leaving aside the point that a super-spy should be able to look at a naked lady without getting so scared he pukes, there is something really wrong with this scene. Brutus is acting like a five year old confronted with a plate anchovy-spiked liver in broccoli-sauce.
Why would Cruel Author force an otherwise suave character to behave in this ungentlemanly fashion? Why would she or he use such awful language to describe what is supposed to be a woman so beautiful that she can convince other humans to commit treason?
I can think of a couple of plausible diagnoses. The first involves misapplied research. Who among us hasn’t heard some actual gay guy badmouth pussy? This true-life occurrence normally happens when the homosexual in question has been pressured one too many times to “just try it once, maybe you’ll like it.” The result is a reactionary backlash employing vile and offensive language in order to make one’s own sexual preference inarguably clear. It is the verbal equivalent of expressing dislike by spitting a mouthful of banana pudding across the kitchen.
What’s important to understand here is that the speaker most likely feels nothing for the genitals of the opposite sex. They are irrelevant things concealed beneath pants…or sometimes skirts…in any case they don’t signify. It’s only unwanted offers from others to dive into a cooter that triggers an anti-cooter tirade.
A straight lady writer using genuine rude statements made by their drunk gay friend as a reference point could easily telegraph this language inappropriately into the character’s internal dialogue. Alternately, lack of familiarity might induce a gay dude author to accidentally use icky or insulting language to describe the female red zone.
But I suggest that in many cases there is one other factor at work: shame. Many, many women are simply uncomfortable with their own bodies and, by extension, the bodies of other women. I’m not talking about gender dysphoria here. I’m talking about having ingested the derogatory, fearful and critical language of thousands of years of androcentric culture.
It’s my opinion that almost no author in this field is being offensive to her female readership on purpose. I have to say “in this field” because I’m sure that in some other genres portraying women as scary whores who are trying to entrap the protagonists by deployment of Fiendish, Primordial Hoo-Hoo is standard operating procedure.
So as a beta reader (or just a concerned citizen) what do you do when you come across a scene like this? The trick is not to get mad about it. Instead, talk to the author. Appeal to sympathy, mixed with concern. Try using lines like, “as a reader who is also female, the ugly words the character is using to describe what is essentially my body is kind of hurting my feelings. I feel like others might have the same experience with the text.”
If that doesn’t work take a stab at misinterpretation: “I’m interested to know why the main character has such a violent reaction to the sight of female nudity. Was he ritualistically abused by an all-female Satanic cult? If so, maybe you could develop the evidence of his phobia a little bit before this.”
And finally if the author just keeps on not getting the message, employ the Red Line of Death argument: “If I were not your friend, I would stop reading this book right here because I stopped liking the character. I’m pretty sure that’s not what you’re going for so maybe take a look at this.”
After that, there’s nothing you can do.
Over and out.
Oh Binky, It's Not Your Fault
Four letters strike fear into the hearts of romance writers everywhere: TSTL.
Too Stupid to Live—the worst possible criticism. The brand on the forehead of idiotic protagonists that just can’t be ignored. The sign that the reader really, really hates your character and hopes that they won’t survive till the last page.
Today I ask what, really, is TSTL Syndrome? Gut instinct says that it’s a problem with characterization, because the ire of the reader gets focused on the offending character. But I suggest that TSTL is merely a symptom of other afflictions in a book—and not just one.
Here’s an example:
As the first shots rang out, Binky felt Brutus hand clamp around his bicep like iron. He pulled Binky behind the shelter of the concrete pylon. Overhead cars thundered across the overpass. Binky gazed up at them helplessly as shrapnel peppered his arm.
From the shelter of their van, the gunmen kept firing.
“Why are they shooting at us?” Binky demanded. “What have I ever done to them?”
“You killed their mother,” Brutus growled. “What did you expect?”
“No, that was an accident.” Binky recalled the day clearly, the image of the woman lying motionless in the crosswalk still burned in his mind as though it were yesterday. “I was just trying to get through the light because I was late for a rehearsal I had to be at. It was my first leading role at the Cupcake Playhouse.”
“Right.” Brutus drew his pistol.
“And that wasn’t even my fault because how could I have know the toilet was going to overflow? And so I was driving fast and I didn’t see the old lady in the crosswalk because it was dark and she was wearing all black. I regret it every single day.”
“She was the widow of the head of the Tortellini Family,” Brutus said, through clenched teeth. He lunged out to return fire. The report of the gun echoed through the cavernous space like thunder. “What did you expect?”
“You mean they’re in the mafia?” Binky’s heart hammered. “But it’s a mistake. Couldn’t I try to talk to them?”
“The time for talking is over.”
Binky stared at his rescuer, taking in his lean, strong body as he pumped out round after round. Finally the shots faded. Their pursuers had fled. Brutus holstered his weapon and turned toward Binky.
Staring into those deep blue eyes, Binky whispered, “Who are you anyway?”
I have four fresh letters to describe this scene: B.A.R.F.
Here two separate forces conspire to make Binky look like a moron. First the author is trying to get too much exposition into an action scene. Could Binky possibly think of ANY other time to talk about his play? Like maybe when fewer bullets were flying?
And how could Binky, who would have certainly been tried for vehicular homicide, not remember his victim’s name and not know her family by sight? If they truly are the Tortellini family, wouldn’t they have been glaring at him from the gallery during his trial?
In addition to that, the author is doing her best to make the love interest, Brutus, look cool. But rather than having Brutus do anything exceptional or clever, she just has Binky get dumber and dumber so that Brutus can seem more awesome by comparison.
Another common fail could be referred to as, “Is this really the time?”
When the first shots rang out, Brutus grabbed Binky, pulling him behind the shelter of the concrete pylon. Overhead cars thundered across the overpass. The sensation of Brutus’ body against his suffused Binky’s entire awareness.
He felt his cock swell with desire. His heartbeat quickened, his skin flushed. Were they going to do it right here?
Now if you’re like me you’re wondering how Binky could possibly manage to get a boner while in imminent danger of death—not after surviving but during what should be the most terrifying moment of his life. Binky’s TSTL attack is the result of the author trying to create a unique sexy setting (under fire under a highway overpass) without realizing that any dumbass who thinks about his dick this much while in a life-threatening situation is not a keeper.
This brings us to my personal favorite drama-based TSTL scenario: Hurt/Comfort gone wrong.
As the first shots rang out, Binky felt Brutus hand clamp around his bicep like iron. He pulled Binky behind the shelter of the concrete pylon. Overhead cars thundered across the overpass. Binky gazed up at them helplessly as shrapnel peppered the pylon.
From the shelter of their van, the gunmen kept firing. Brutus pulled out his gun.
“Why are they shooting at us?” Binky demanded. “What have I ever done to them?”
“You killed their mother,” Brutus growled. “What did you expect? Here, take this.”
Brutus pulled a second pistol from his jacket and pressed it into Binky’s hands. “Cover me.”
“Cover you?” Binky stared at the gun. “I don’t know…” Suddenly a barrage a fire erupted from the van. Binky jumped and the gun fell from his hand. After that he felt a thunderous crack and blinding pain and a bullet penetrated his leg. The gun Brutus had given him seconds before lay smoking on the asphalt.
I can’t believe it, Binky stared at the blood welling from his injury.
Brutus was at his side immediately. “It’s going to be okay, baby.”
“I’m sorry,” Binky said, through tears of pain and humiliation. “It misfired. I…”
“It’s my fault,” Brutus’ voice turned husky. “I should never have given you a gun.”
I suppose some of you might think that by shooting himself, Binky has reached maximum stupid. And you are right. But also consider Brutus: What kind of person must he be that he finds a man this inept attractive? What the hell is wrong with him? Is he such a power-tripper that he has to find idiots to rescue to make himself feel better? How creepy is that?
While it is undeniably true that drama requires characters to take more risks than the average sensible real-life person might, it is also true that when drama goes wrong TSTL is right around the corner.
Drama gone wrong is not the only reason characters end up branded TSTL. Another source is unmet expectations of skill and competence, as you can see below.
As the first shots rang out, Dr. Binky felt Brutus hand clamp around his bicep like iron. He pulled Dr. Binky behind the shelter of the concrete pylon. Overhead cars thundered across the overpass. Binky gazed up at them helplessly as shrapnel peppered the pylon.
From the shelter of their van, the gunmen kept firing.
Binky stared at his rescuer, taking in his lean, strong body as he pumped out round after round.
Staring into those deep blue eyes—the eyes he remembered so coldly telling him that they needed to “take a break” so many years ago. Dr. Binky cried, “Why are you doing this?”
“You’re the president’s top neurosurgeon, Binky,” Brutus growled. “And I’m here to save your fine ass, so you can save his.”
Just as Brutus spoke a bullet whizzed past his arm. Brutus ducked back behind the pylon. “I’m hit.”
The tiny rivulet of blood trickling from Brutus’ shoulder reminded Dr. Binky of all the time that had bled away since their days together in the Special Forces.
“A tourniquet should stop the bleeding.” Brutus’ voice was low and strong.
“A tourniquet… Right.” Dr. Binky felt the panic rising within him, what if he lost Brutus—again? Dr. Binky’s vision tunneled and he hit the dirt.
Oh, poor Binky! How could the cruel author have made him such a bad surgeon? Sure, fainting at the sight of a loved one’s grievous injury might be somewhat acceptable if Binky were an accountant or Waldorf School teacher. But when Binky’s surgeon there is an expectation that he can handle the sight of a little blood, particularly if he’s supposed to have also have served in the “Special Forces”. On top of that, his author seems to have sent him to an unaccredited medical school where scratches are treated with tourniquets. When he keels over, we keel over too, groaning at how badly he’s failed in the face of all the expectations that the author has built up around him.
And yet we know why our author did it. Her impulse was to show Binky’s visceral reaction to Brutus being shot. Unfortunately, in doing so she made him unbelievably incompetent at his job.
The same rules apply to Special Agent Binky, Detective Binky, Chairman Binky, Top Gun Binky, Genius Hacker Binky… Even Father Binky.
Writers of the world, I beg you. Don’t keep making Binky look like a dope! Give him a little common sense, be willing to do some research on his behalf and we’ll all come out of it happier…and maybe even smarter.
Probing the Depths of Binky
Probing the Depths of Binky
As regular readers know, every other month I try to address problems I come across in various manuscripts. Many of these deal with pitfalls in characterization so dismal that I believe they constitute a form of abuse committed by authors against their poor creations. These crimes can include instances of neglect wherein an author deprives her characters of careers, interests, hobbies or intelligent thought. Other auctorial actions are more subtle, such as arranging for her protagonists to become clueless plot-zombies or giving them limited reasoning ability, which renders them TSTL.
But there is another form of cruelty perpetrated by authors on their poor characters.
Binky stood on his verandah, gazing out over the fine houses of Savannah. At the edge of the city he saw the blinking fires of the mass of General Sherman’s army. The Union general aimed to take his beautiful home town. Most likely Sherman would burn it to the ground as he’d laid waste to every other town and plantation that stood in his way.
Where did that leave Binky’s dance this evening? He’d invited Captain Brutus, but the handsome cavalryman wouldn’t be able to sneak through the picket line to attend. Damn Yankees—they ruined everything—even the social life of other damn Yankees like Brutus himself.
Binky scowled at the unfairness of it. He’d planned this Christmas cotillion specially to be able to showcase his skill at The Lancers Quadrille. Surely Brutus would have enjoyed the sight of Binky’s footwork, as he’d always excelled at dancing. Thinking on Brutus, he moved through the steps. Perhaps Brutus would come after all. Maybe they could slip away into the chill December night and he could give Brutus an early Christmas present.
Oh, Binky, no! How can you stand there with the Union Army on your doorstep and your lover in the direct line of fire and think of nothing but your Christmas party? What happened to the big picture?
And yet, I can see exactly how it all went down.
The author, infatuated by the idea of the American Civil War, decided to set a book during that time period. The costumes! The drama of brother against brother! The blue and the gray!
I know what you’re thinking—that I’m going to say Binky’s problems arise from being unjustly cast in a wallpaper historical. But that’s not so. Is it plausible that there existed in Civil War-era Savannah a gay guy as clueless as our Binky? Sure, why not? Realism isn’t the issue in this particular column. Even if every single detail of Binky’s historical foray were correct, he’d still be the victim of auctorial abuse. Why?
Because in giving Binky no thoughts or ideas that are unrelated to his own gratification, the author has unjustly created Binky shallow.
Oftentimes when people discuss this facet of writing, they talk about flat characters versus round characters. But that only addresses the issue of one-dimensional stereotypes, such as the Hardened Criminal or the Loving Mother. A character can be flat without being vapid. Because they are functionaries, rather than people, these characters just end up being predictable and therefore forgetable.
I suggest that a character can be perfectly rounded and still be shallow beyond all imagining because shallow people do exist. It’s just that nobody wants to spend hours with them on purpose because though they have emotions and an interior life, their relentless self-obsession keeps them from fully interacting with the world. It’s not that shallow characters (or shallow people) lack insight—they are very intimate with themselves—what they lack is perception.
That’s why creating shallow or vapid protagonists is a problem. Your protagonist is the lens through which every other aspect of the book is revealed. A character with no ability to perceive the feelings of others and no ability to notice larger events in his world can relate nothing to a reader beyond his own feelings. That lack of scope handicaps the author hoping to create a broad, compelling story.
So how does one give a character greater perception and therefore depth? First, you’ve got to figure out if he’s shallow in the first place. Here’s a little diagnostic exercise:
Does your character view the other players in his tale as valid individuals, or are other characters are seen only as accessories or resources?
Binky gave Brutus the once-over. He had nice bones and an even nicer Jaguar key fob. In his mind’s eye, he saw himself riding in the passenger seat of that swell car driven by a handsome man.
Binky gave Brutus the once-over. He had nice bones and a charming smile. Binky couldn’t help but notice that Brutus still carried his car keys, though he’d been at the barbecue for twenty minutes already. Was he trying to show off his Jaguar fob? Or was he just preparing to make a quick getaway?
Notice how in the second example we come away curious about Brutus’ character, whereas in the first we only know that Binky likes Jaguars at least as much as he likes men—possibly more.
In conclusion, I suggest that encouraging characters to expand their mental territory to include perception of others can make the author’s job a lot easier—and make the character a lot more likable.
With that in mind, let’s go back to Civil War Binky:
Binky stood on his verandah, gazing out over the fine houses of Savannah. At the edge of the city he saw the blinking fires of the mass of General Sherman’s army. The Union general aimed to take his beautiful hometown. Most likely Sherman would burn it to the ground as he’d laid waste to every other town and plantation that stood in his way.
He wondered if Captain Brutus was out there somewhere among those faint lights, wearing Union blue and riding the picket line on the other side. Much as he hated Sherman, he could feel nothing but ambivalence for the soldiers up on the ridge. When the war started, everyone had been called home. Whether those homes happened to be in New York or Georgia determined the color of a man’s coat. That was all.
Binky knew this more than anyone.
Unwanted memories welled up in Binky’s mind—visions of Binky’s medical school days. It was Boston in the wintertime when he met the young cavalry officer. Dr. Canby always hosted a fine Christmas dance that and as his student Binky was obliged to attend, though Binky had never much liked social dances. He was awkward with women and stilted with men, so he lingered near the drinks table waiting for a chance to abscond.
Captain Brutus hadn’t been a captain then, just the nephew of Canby and a student of law. He’d been easy to talk to and pleasant to drink with. Late in the night, he’d braved the bitter December cold to walk Binky back to his room near the Common. There he’d shown Binky the steps of The Lancer’s Quadrille and those of another more intimate dance.
Binky had hoped to show Brutus Savannah one day. And now it seemed that in a few days time there would be no Savannah left to show.
He closed his eyes and prayed for his city just as he prayed for Brutus and every soul caught up in this terrible war.
As we can see, Binky isn’t doing anything different. He’s standing around thinking about life, but this contemplation conveys so much more about every aspect of their story.
I urge all authors to go ahead and allow your characters to explore life outside of immediate gratification. You’ll be glad you did.