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Agent Nephele Tempest posted about what makes a book "unputdownable" for readers (and agents).




As with all writing advice, you can't take it as Infallible Gospel Truth. Doesn't mean the advice isn't good, but you have to digest it, pull out the bad bits from the good and keep what is helpful while discarding that which isn't useful.

No matter how simple or right sounding a piece of advice sounds, there's always a situation in which it is the absolute worst thing to do. Even something as simple as "there's always room for improvement" can get you into trouble. Yes, you can technically always improve a manuscript by going back after a while and revising and editing. As well you should. But there comes a point when you have to be done with it and go on to the next work, otherwise you'll only ever write one thing.

Same with the advice that's being handed out here, or the advice I may hand out from time to time, or anything you read or hear anywhere. Keep your grains of salt handy at all times.

The best piece of advice from the entry is think (IMHO):

4. Strong conflict. Is this real? If I get a hint that everything hangs on a misunderstanding that could be solved with a phone call or a simple conversation, I'm done. So make sure there's some real meat here.



Yes, yes, and a side of hell yes.

Conflict isn't the same necessarily as disagreement or misunderstanding. There's nothing that makes me pull away from a book, movie, or TV show faster than a plot that hinges on characters failing to do a few simple, common sense things. Like picking up a telephone and asking a question of someone, or planning ahead for something, or continuing to hide something when it's obvious that just coming out with it would be better for everyone.

I think we writers need to be extra careful that we explore all the possible solutions to the problems we're creating for our characters and that we're picking the best ones (and by "best", I mean the one that creates the best story). I know there are times when the Boy and I will be watching something and we'll go, "Uh, why don't they just do [insert simple, obvious thing that would solve everyone's problem]" and that phrase usually precedes us deciding not to ever watch that movie or show again, or even stopping what we're watching and channel surfing or just turning off the TV and reading a book.

If your audience sees a clear, simple, plain solution that your characters aren't even considering, you're going to lose their trust and their interest.

So, heed those words well. Make sure that your conflicts have a good reason for being conflicts.

However, I don't think all the advice in the entry was as good. This bit I sort of took issue with:

Real characters. I mentioned this above. Watch out for protagonists who are too perfect, as well as villains who are all evil. These are stereotypes, and they're BORING. Flawed characters are much more real and interesting, and they also get themselves into much more entertaining situations, often without you trying very hard.



It's not that I think she is wrong, but woefully incomplete in defining terms in this bit. Yes, she's right. Too-perfect characters and too-evil villains are a bad thing. But I think even the most amateur writer gets that by instinct.

The problem with saying this is that she's not really defining "flaws" very well, or what it means to have a flawed character, or a sympathetic villain.

I think one of the most educational examples of a deeply flawed but fascinating hero is in the movie Patton, which was my favorite movie when I was a kid. Yeah, I know, I was one freaking weird kid, shut the hell up. Point being, I identified deeply with a long dead World War II general not because we had anything in common, but because I identified with the idea that you can be really good at something and still be really bad at other aspects of it. That you can be brilliant and an idiot at the same moment. In the movie, Patton is one hell of a general and even, probably, a good man. But he just cannot keep his mouth closed and play nice, he just cannot stop himself from being so...Patton. Yet never in that movie am I meant to feel that Patton is just beleaguered by small minded people who don't understand him. Never am I meant to feel, as the audience, that Patton's downfalls weren't his own damn fault. They were.

That's what you have to aim for. Not just having tiny scratches or imperfections in a character, but ones that count. You can't give a character some flaws and then spend an entire novel putting concealer over them. You have to be able to show that sometimes they make their own problems, that things are their fault, and that they have to face the consequences of their actions. Because the rest of us in the Real World certainly do.

This is the problem with telling writers to have flaws in their character. That's like teaching someone to swim by telling them to move their arms around a bit in the water. It's more complicated than that.

There are a lot of Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance novels out there which seem to think that if a character has flaws, that instead of showing those flaws openly and admitting that yes, their heroines are sometimes shallow, self-absorbed, leather-clad airheads they use the novel as a means to show that well, it's not their fault. These other people weren't understanding enough, or it wasn't really the heroine's fault that something happened. If a plan went bad, it was just bad luck, not stupidity and arrogance.

There's this expression, "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was making people believe he doesn't exist". And I believe this expression to be both literal and metaphorical crap. Literally because I do not believe in a devil. Metaphorically, because I believe a truly clever devil would do you one better. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was making people believe that they'd know him when they saw him. The fast one that's been pulled on us is that good and evil, right and wrong, positive and negative are not always clear cut or readily apparent, especially when it comes to people.

A negative trait can sometimes be positive and vice versa. There is a time when being stubborn, for instance, is a good thing. Stubbornly refusing to quit in the face of adversity is a good thing. Stubbornly refuse to admit you were wrong and change your ways is a bad thing. And sometimes, it's not clear whether that stubbornness is good or bad. Sometimes opinions are split right down the middle, and the consequences are massive and terrible either way.

The problem with flaws is that you can't just put a few surface imperfections in there. A lot of writers do this. They think that having a heroine who occasionally indulges in a pint of chocolate ice cream in between donning leather and kicking ass is somehow a flaw and counts as a deep and complex character.

This is why I'm glad I have a fannish background when I come to write my stories, because I know all about The Mary Sue/Gary Stu character, and I know all about the ways that writers have been trying to dodge the label by giving their characters a few nominal imperfections. And it doesn't work. Your readers are much smarter than that.

If your character's biggest failing is "oh I've got this frizzy hair!" or "oh, I eat too much chocolate!" or "I just can't turn down a hot guy!" - then you're not really doing your job as a writer.

Flaws are not that simple and even calling them "flaws" is oversimplifying things. You have to study human nature. The thing that sometimes makes a person so good at, say, being a business person makes them a lousy spouse and parent. The thing that makes someone a great spouse may make them terrible at their jobs.

People aren't just good and evil. They're good and evil at the same time and sometimes in the same action. You have people who volunteer at homeless shelters and food banks but they're cheating on their spouses. You have people who embezzle from work, but they're loving, devoted parents who give everything for their family. You have people who are bosses who give bonuses out of their own pocket to employees or take a pay cut to save someone's job in their department, but they're selling and doing drugs on the side. You have people who save lives as firefighters, police, soldiers but they beat their spouses.

I mean, take that devoted parent. What if that embezzled money that is paying for her kid's costly medical needs is coming out of the pension fund for retirees who won't have anything else but that and some meager social security to live on when they're forced to retire? What if that money is coming out of the pockets of people who also need it really badly? What if she's quietly tanking the company and risking hundreds of people's jobs to pay for her only child's leukemia treatments? If you can find the clear cut bad guy in that, good for you. Because I sure can't.

Or that wonderful boss who gave bonuses and sacrificed his own salary for someone else's job but is doing business with the very people who are making the neighborhood some of his employees are living in completely horrible with drug violence? Or who is slowly causing his own family to go into meltdown with his addiction?

I think these are reasons why characters like House from House MD are so popular and fascinating. I think audiences respond to getting to see a character who really fucks up. Not just a little, "oops, maybe I made a typo somewhere" kind of messing up but royally screwing the pooch like Henry VIII would if Anne Boleyn was a sheepdog. To see someone who is as contradictory as we ourselves are, who saves lives but often does it against the rules or the wrong way, who messes up his own life with addiction, who is rude and often even cruel and manipulative, seemingly uncaring about even his best friend at times but also more brilliant and insightful than anyone else in the room, no matter what room he's in. I think people are attracted to finally getting to see something like that. To getting to see real failure live side by side with real brilliance.

You can have a character with as many flaws as you want and still have a two dimensional character. It isn't just about have the presence of those flaws, it's about making them credible to the audience. It's about melding them into the character so that they're not contrived imperfections like the way designer companies make jeans look aged and dirty and then sell them for a hundred bucks a pop. It's creating a character who actually is that dirty, aged, well used, comfortable pair of jeans because they've actually been used and put to work and have their short comings and their charms.


ETA: Stuff I thought of later and some grammar changes.
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