Let’s Talk about Tropes #11: The Character in the Fridge

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I just watched the first episode of The Boys this week.

I have not read the comics, but I’m loosely familiar with Garth Ennis’ style from Preacher; I’ve read the first volume and intend to read the rest, and I watched the first season of the adaptation but lost track of it amidst the ninety million other shows to watch and haven’t continued. I know what kind of headspace his work creates, how gory, brutal, disturbing, and darkly humorous it can be.

I was also forewarned by both my husband (who has read the source material) and a good friend (who binged the entire show before I started) that this story is intended, in basically every way possible, to be upsetting and make the reader/viewer uncomfortable.

Brilliant success, there.

A lot of seemingly good people in this story do a lot of horrible things, but it’s the inciting incident that sets the tone, that grabs you by the stomach and makes you want to puke. So, obligatory warning, spoilers below for the first episode of The Boys.

On the surface, I was thoroughly disgusted by Robin’s death. It’s gore on a level I rarely see, for starters, with the slow-motion blood-drenching. When the camera pans down to show Hughie still holding her dismembered hands, I felt actively sick. And then, as I had time to absorb the implications of what happened, I was sickened by the apparently poor choice of having the white protagonist’s girlfriend be a woman of color and immediately get killed, because that’s a good look. (That being said, I don’t know what her ethnicity was in the source material, and I’m generally pro “colorblind” casting, it never bothers me if a canonically white character is cast as non-white, unless it creates other racially charged issues, as it may have done here. Or may not have.)

And, on a meta level, we all know fridging characters is bad, right? Especially when it’s a woman, especially to spur on the story of a male protagonist.

Yet, here, that’s actually the entire point.

As I watched the rest of the episode and saw that fridging a character was only the very tip of this horrible, horrible iceberg, I realized Robin’s death is emblematic of all the collateral damage the Seven, and superheroes in general, have caused, and that the story probably couldn’t have started any other way. What else would have caused Hughie, slightly neurotic and generally Everyman as he is, to take on the most powerful cadre of superheroes in the world? What else would have so gripped and angered the readers/viewers with its senselessness, its casual cruelty (especially after A-Train’s later scene, joking about Robin’s death,) and the combination of its horror in the moment, and discovering the horror of how very commonplace similar incidents have been?

I spend a lot of time and word count talking about tropes and how not to use them, how to avoid the common pitfalls involved, and before watching The Boys I probably would have said it’s impossible to fridge a character to good purpose. I would have been wrong. Ennis takes the laziness out of this trope by using it quite deliberately to evoke the expected reaction for his own story goals; proof that even the most overused tropes, the ones we consider the worst, the laziest, the least useful, still have their place when carefully thought out.

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Let’s Talk About Tropes #10: There Was Only One Bed

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First of all, a quick apology: somehow I neglected the Tropes series for over a year? I really didn’t feel like #9 was that long ago. Also, in checking over past subject matter to make sure I didn’t repeat myself, I discovered that the title format changed partway through, because I’m not great at consistency when I’m juggling this many projects, apparently. I’m making a category for them so they’re all available in one place if you want to catch up.

Now, about the beds. What do you do when you need to up the romantic or sexual tension between a couple? One answer is to put them in any situation where there’s only one bed to share. They could be traveling together and there’s a mix-up with their hotel, or they didn’t have a hotel to begin with and they’re pulling over into some cheap place that only has one room left, and guess what–there’s only one bed.

I love this trope, and I hate it. It can be handled well (anything can!) but there’s so many easy traps to fall into, so many assumptions made by the creators who use it.

1. In mass media, this trope is entirely heteronormative. “Oh no, a boy and a girl might have to share a bed! What will happen next?!?” But on one hand, not all boys are attracted to girls, and vice versa. This trope is pulled out to put the not-couple in a questionable situation where we can assume hanky-panky might ensue. But where are the subversions where it’s no big deal because the guy isn’t into women (or the reverse, of course?) Why doesn’t this ever get paired up with the gay best friend trope? (Not that that isn’t a problematic one, too, but that’s for another post.)

2. On the other hand, why doesn’t “one bed” every raise any alarm bells for same-gender pairs? In high school, I went on a trip to Toronto to see The Phantom of the Opera as a part of the National Honor Society. Obviously all the hotel rooms were segregated by gender, so I was sharing a room with two queen beds in it with three other girls. I drew the short straw and had to sleep beside a girl I barely knew, whose first name I think I remember but last name, no clue. (To be fair, this was just over twenty years ago.) Why didn’t that raise any concerns to any adults? What if that girl was a lesbian? What if I was? (I identified as straight at the time, now I know I’m bisexual. I didn’t start anything with that girl or either of the other two in the room–but if I’d been a boy, all hands on deck, it’s a nightmare!) If a boy and a girl are in danger of having sex with each other simply because there’s only one bed, why not two boys? Why not two girls? Why not two of anybody, regardless of gender identity?

3. Which brings me to the third problem. Yes, the trope is generally trotted out to be specifically about sex, to create the will-they-won’t-they tension. But that only reinforces negative stereotypes about men/boys and predatory sexuality. Why can’t two people share a bed without sex being a specter hovering over the situation? Why do we assume the men/boys won’t be able to control themselves and take advantage (or try to take advantage of) the women/girls? A) Why can’t it be the girls lusting after the boys; or B) why can’t these two just act like rational human beings and understand that sleeping in the same bed doesn’t mean sex is happening? (It’s sort of forgivable when we’re talking teenagers who don’t have the life experience, necessarily, to make good/safe choices, but when I’m reading an adult romance novel that falls into this trap, I usually walk away disappointed. Men aren’t hormone-driven chauvinist pigs, and when they are, they shouldn’t be the hero of the story!)

That isn’t to say that two people can’t be uncomfortable with sharing a bed, ever, at all. If one person (character) has personal space issues; if they have real reason not to trust the other (though this brings up the larger issue of whether or not the two of them can even share the room at all, let alone the bed;) if one admits to being a total cover hog, or a tendency to toss and turn, or anything else that might make the other person uncomfortable sharing a bed with them. There’s no reason not to be considerate, after all.

And this isn’t me, O Great Author Elena Who Knows Everything About Everything, telling you not to ever use this trope. (/sarcasm) It’s popular for a reason. It’s a back bone of fan fic, especially alternate-universe fic, everywhere, and since I don’t read a lot of that these days, I wouldn’t be surprised if the more progressive fic authors are already dismantling the classic trope in the ways I’ve taken issue with. (And probably a few ways I haven’t even considered yet.) As with all my Tropes posts, I’m asking you to consider why you’re writing a character or situation the way you are, and if there’s a way you could break free of the same old patterns everyone else uses. And if you choose to follow the pattern, if you’re doing so deliberately, that’s fine. Just take the time to examine the tropes you use and make sure you’re not writing them out of laziness, and you’ll be fine.

 

Writing Homework #20: Create a Style Sheet

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With my rewrite for #spookyromancenovel entering the home stretch, I’ve been thinking increasingly about the future line-editing stage and what I can do to make it easier on myself.

Looming large in my list of regrets from previous novels is the fact that I never made a style sheet.

From Romance Refined: “A manuscript style sheet is a critical tool for authors, editors, and proofreaders to use for ensuring consistency within a single manuscript or across a series. Traditionally, a copy editor creates a style sheet as they edit, and they pass that style sheet to the proofreader so they can adhere to the same conventions.

I’ve nudged at the edges of this topic before, but never covered it completely, so here goes.

In a traditional author-publisher setup, the style sheet, as described above, isn’t something you’d generate yourself, since you’re not your own editor. However, for independent authors who, whether by choice or necessity, do some or all of their own editing, this is going to save you time and stress throughout the editing process. And, of course, even most traditionally published authors spend a lot of time polishing their manuscripts before sending them in, so it’s not a bad idea to work up a personal one to ensure your submission is as clean and shiny as you can make it.

So what goes on a style sheet? Anything that will help you provide consistency in tone and appearance throughout your work.

That’s vague, but some of it will depend on your writing style and the project itself. I can give you some good places to start, however, based on my own experience:

  1. Any word or phrase where you choose your preferred usage. I covered this in my post on multiple accepted spellings. If you have to decide between two or more options, make a note of which you choose, so you’re not like me, looking it up again later, or worse, doing a Ctrl+F in your first book’s file to hunt down what you decided when you need to refer to it again in book three.
  2. Any word or phrase you’re deliberately avoiding. Not to be conflated or confused with filter words; let me explain. The best example I have from my own reading is Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Universe series. In it, she never uses the word “thing” to refer to an object, situation, or concept–“Thing” is reserved for use in the Viking/Icelandic sense of a governmental meeting. The base culture of her alternate-history fantasy is French, and simply doesn’t have that word as we use it in modern English. If that seems like a pretty big ask for an author, it is; “thing” shows up on overused-word lists all the time. But your “do not use” word list doesn’t have to include anything so fundamental or pervasive–in fact, you might not start out with any prohibited words at all.
  3. Anything that defines character voice. For this, an example from my own works. In the What We Need series, Paul starts his sentences with “Well,” a lot. In the early drafts of What We Need to Survive, that wasn’t specific to him; during edits, I eliminated it from other characters to clean up the dialogue overall while giving him a more pronounced vocal style. I kept this up until book three, when, through long exposure, Nina has unconsciously picked up this tic and uses it occasionally.
  4. How you handle ellipses. Three periods with no spaces? With spaces between? Are there spaces before and after, or not? I’ve read various articles debating the truly “correct” form for ellipses, but I’ve seen several ways of handling them across published works, so there’s still probably an element of choice, at least if you’re an indie author. Note down whatever you decide on.
  5. Any special punctuation or formatting guidelines stylistically unique to your project. I’ve seen books that italicize internal monologue (common) but plenty that don’t, leaving it in plain text like so: “She thought, I don’t want to be here right now.” I’ve seen books that use alternate characters in place of quotation marks when the characters are using telepathy to communicate, like so: *This is stupid,* she thought at him. (Granted, that was ages ago when I was a kid, but I remember it, because it was so strange.) A much more modern issue–how do you format conversations via text? I just read a book that uses actual text bubble images, to make it look authentic, but in plenty of other works I’ve seen it handled exactly like dialogue, only the tags or context around it mentions it’s a text message; I’ve seen texted conversation formatted in bold, both with and without quotation marks; I’ve seen italics as well, though less commonly, since (as above) many authors use that for internal dialogue and don’t want to confuse the reader by making italics perform double duty.

What all of these examples boil down to is essentially this: if you have to make a decision about how you want something to be handled in your manuscript, then it probably needs to go on your style sheet so that a) you remember what you chose down the line, whether you’re coming back to the project after a break, or writing a long-running series; and b) during the editing process you can make certain your style is consistent.

As you continue to write, you might find yourself splitting your style sheet into a master sheet and a project-specific sheet would be helpful. You’re not that likely to want to change how you handle ellipses, but anything character-specific won’t transfer between projects that don’t have the same characters. This leads me to my last piece of advice: label and DATE your style sheets so that you know what they are and when you created them. Your style might evolve over time; you might decide there’s a better way to do something in your next book. That’s fine. But you wouldn’t want to refer to an outdated style sheet for a new project, in that case, and with the amount of note files and draft versions and other associated digital junk that can accumulate around even a single book project, a style sheet is something you wouldn’t want to go missing or use incorrectly, when its entire purpose is to make your writing better.

Writing Resources: 4thewords

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Last month, I described my early experience with 750words, which I’d been introduced to via social media. I was using the 30-day free trial, and I had many good things to say about it.

I’m not retracting any of it, but I’m also not using it anymore, because a week later, my Tumblr dashboard one-upped itself by throwing 4thewords at me instead.

4TW is a true gamification site for writing, with quests to undertake and monsters to “fight” and rewards to earn. For that, I already like it better than 750words. What’s more, though, it provides a better interface for organization, as shown above by my #spookyromancenovel project. Customizable goal/deadline combos; individual files to write on, rather than “days” on 750words, which are not editable after the day is over; the ability to add a book cover; total word count and total time spent writing.

I’m sure I haven’t even figured out all of its features in the almost-two-weeks I’ve been using it.

Also, I didn’t fudge those numbers. As of last night, I really have (re)written 33K of my novel in 12 days.

Gamification like this heavily relies on the “just one more” principle. Getting started is still mostly up to your own executive function–there are rewards for maintaining a daily streak, of course, but you still have to do the work of sitting down to write. And the daily word count necessary to maintain the streak is minimal–a mere 444 words.

But once you get started, it’s easy to say, okay, I’m going to finish this quest today. And when you do, you realize you only need one more item to finish a different quest, so you fight a creature that drops that item. Then you see you’re only 500 words away from finishing another quest, so you pound that out.

And so on.

If 750words boosted my productivity by existing, then 4TW boosts it more by being reward-driven, turning the worst parts of inhumane game design (I’m looking at you, Skinner boxes and lack of reasonable exit points) on their ears, incentivizing writing instead of pointless in-game tasks designed to keep you playing longer.

(Yeah, I’m bitter, I played World of Warcraft for years after it stopped being more fun than not. Investment’s a bitch like that.)

As I said, and will repeat, I’m not walking back anything good I said about 750words. Those analytics were cool and helpful, and I’ll miss the word clouds. But it’s designed primarily for daily journaling, while 4TW is designed for writing, and it shows in the features and mechanics.

(Also, it should be noted: while I haven’t yet paid for subscription time on either site, 750words is $5/month, while 4TW is only $4, and apparently it’s possible to redeem in-game currency to lower that cost. I don’t know precisely how that works yet, but from a writer’s standpoint, I feel that 4TW provides more value.)

When I ended my post on 750words, I said that I would continue the free trial and decide if I would subscribe. I did not–I switched to 4TW after two days of using them both concurrently. And I will be subscribing to it when my free trial is over.

Dialogue Prompts: #spookyromancenovel Edition

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I am deep in the throes of rewriting #spookyromancenovel, and I am coming across some real gems, some honestly golden nuggets of dialogue in the midst of all the crap I’ve got to change, polish up, or cut completely.

Bonus: out of context, some of them are ridiculous! My favorite kind of writing prompt!

So have fun with these. Technically since they’re from my own work which I intend to publish, I should tell you to change them a little so as not to infringe on my copyright, yada yada, but a) you’re not stealing scenes or story ideas from me since they’re single lines, and b) I’m offering them for prompt purposes.

On top of that, the entire first half of the rough draft came entirely from writing prompts I was given during #fictober18. So it’s time I give some of that love back. Go nuts!

  1. “You know the rules. Prove it’s you.”
  2. “Your fault for being tailed, if that ever happens.”
  3. “My last hideout got taken over by wolves.”
  4. “Everything with you is blood lust and quick death.”
  5. “I’ll let you sleep again when I’m done.”
  6. “Why did you stay away so long this time?”
  7. “You’re the only person in the whole world who’s on my side.”
  8. “Will you be offended if I eat an entire pepperoni pizza by myself?”
  9. “I can’t tell if you’re kidding.”
  10. “I know I seemed calm, but I was panicking inside, you were dying.”
  11. “Scavengers do have their place in the food chain.”
  12. “How can you ask me not to pursue something that might save you?”
  13. “Maybe that will give me some inspiration.”
  14. “I can’t protect you if I can’t get to you.”
  15. “Don’t make this a habit, okay?”

Writing Resources: 750 Words

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Social media alerted me last week to a new (to me) website for motivating writers, 750words. (It’s actually been around a long time, I almost can’t believe I’ve never heard of it before.)

In essence, it’s really simple–log in and get a fresh blank page daily to write at least 750 words, or about three pages of material. It tracks how long you write, how long it takes you to reach 750, how many breaks you take, and your typing speed. All useful metrics, if you’re into that sort of thing.

And because gamification is a great way to motivate people in general, and especially people like me who grew up with video games, you get rewarded with badges for meeting goals. Who doesn’t love badges?

What’s really selling me on this site, though, is its analytic stats based on the writing you produce itself. While I’m using this (so far) as a way to motivate myself for rewriting #spookyromancenovel, it’s clear from both the website description/FAQ and many of the testimonials that people use this as a daily journal, and based on the language, it tracks how you feel.

Which is really, really cool, from a mental-health perspective. And still helpful for writing fiction! Since I started using the site, I’ve rewritten one chapter a day (which is far more productive than I’d been previously, not gonna lie) and that means my daily analysis is looking at the tone of my chapter for me. I can see what its algorithms think and say, “Is that what I was going for?”

Plus, it generates a frequency-based word cloud, which will be helpful down the road, during the line-editing stage. I already have an extensive list of words to reduce or eliminate in general, but having specific darlings to kill for each chapter? I think it’s going to be amazing to be able to target them so specifically.

So, I love it, and can definitely recommend it based on these strengths.

What’s the catch? …it’s not free. New accounts get a 30-day trial period (that’s where I am) but after that, to become a member you pay $5/month.

Some people are going to look at that and say, Five bucks a month for all this cool stuff! Sign me up!

Others will think, Sixty bucks a year just to motivate me to get off my ass and write! Not worth it!

And still others might want to use this site, but not able to afford it. I’ve been there, I’ve lived so close to the bone at times that even $5 wasn’t a reasonable monthly expense. I can now, but I definitely remember what it felt like, and that makes me wonder if I really need this.

So I recommend it with that caveat in mind. Use the free trial, if you’re interested, and decide for yourself if the site is helpful enough for you to want to pay for its services. I’m in love with it now, on day four, but in a month will I still be using it consistently? Will I have broken my streak already, will I burn out?

I’ll check back in at the end of June and let you know.

5 More Writing Prompts to Develop Your Characters: Tattoos

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What comes to mind when you think of people with tattoos?

That answer is going to be different for everyone, but according to the bulk of the romance genre, the major types boil down to “bad boy” and “hippie/free-spirited girl.”

Authors, we can all do so much better than that. Tattoos are so often used as shorthand to make a character fall into a certain stereotype, but in reality, many people get tattoos for personal reasons that have nothing to do with fitting into one of those types. If you’re going to give a character tattoos, why not make them mean something? Why not use them to add depth to their character instead of pigeonholing them?

Now, in modern times, a tattoo is a completely voluntary thing that someone pays to have added permanently to their body. (If it’s not, none of my advice applies, and you’ll have a different sort of explaining to do–I’m not touching it here.) So the first question is:

  1. Would your character have a tattoo, and why or why not? “Why not” might not be relevant to the story if nobody’s going to have tattoos at all, but “why” definitely is, because somebody’s probably going to ask them, at some point, what the story is behind their art.
  2. Where is the tattoo? Generally visible to the public, partially hidden, completely hidden? How did they choose where it went? Does their line of work require no visible tattoos? Does their family have strong opinions? Or does the character simply consider it private?
  3. How willing are they to share the story behind the tattoo with other people? Do they tell one story to strangers and another to friends or lovers?
  4. Are any of their tattoos, if they have more than one, mistakes? Do they regret any of them? Have they had any removed, or wish they could?
  5. At this point in their life, would they get another one, and why or why not? What would it be, and how would that decision interact with the story?