Guest Post: Lines of Departure by James Young

Note from Cedar: James said to warn you all that this is a dark post, with deep underlying violence and adult themes. I said oh, goody! and laughed… I think you all can handle it. If you haven’t already, you should check his work out, he writes action-packed space opera (and not everyone survives, if I can deliver a spoiler) and alternate history novels.

Lines of Departure

This blog post actually got started in a conversation about wasp spray. Yes, that’s right, my expressing dissatisfaction with the fact that the nerve foam was taking twelve hours to kill some of the wasps somehow led to my friend (and fellow blogger) Lisa (henceforth Prolific Trek) asking on FB “Hey James, weren’t you just talking about torturing characters?” Cedar, ever the opportunist, immediately asked for more explanation…which led to me revealing the illustrious Holly Messinger (author of The Curse of Jacob Tracy) had been asked the following question in her Writing 101 panel:

“Y’all talk about torturing your characters… are there any lines you won’t cross?”

Well…you’d have thought I’d been handing out briefcases of cash with complimentary free passes to Big Bob’s Gigolo Shack (“Big, Small, Bob Screws Them All”) from the way Cedar lit up (well, heck, I just wanted the wasp story, but this is better!). After a little back and forth, here I am…and I have a confession to make:

I am among the worst people to ask about this subject there is.

I’m not saying I go out of my way to torture my characters. But ever since Holly told me about that question getting asked, I have been quietly cataloguing things that I have done to main POV characters since I first started writing. In no particular order:

*A main character received a posthumous note from his fiancée…that he had basically sent to her death.

*In my first post-apocalyptic novel, the protagonist returned from a six month journey to find his hometown burned mostly to the ground and almost all the inhabitants murdered. The sole “survivors”? His tortured best friend and brutally raped significant other, both of whom he subsequently shoots in the head as they are beyond medical help.

*Said rather perturbed protagonist goes on what The Bride called “a roaring rampage of revenge.” First stop? Executing another POV character’s wife and twin kindergarteners in front of him, then dropping a thermite grenade in the man’s crotch ala The Crow.

*In my alternate history universe, there is a POV character that readers may get attached to. He gets shot down over the Pacific, but manages to bail out. Oh the ocean. I mean, it’s so full of life, so bright with sunlight, so utterly expansive that a single pilot can get lost in its rea…oh, sorry, I forgot myself there for a second.

The list could go on, but I think you get the point. Asking me “Is there anything you won’t do to your characters?” is like Simon de Montfort asking Genghis Khan if the sack of Beziers was a bit excessive. Is there any doubt what that response is going to be?

Dearest Simon,
I received your letter with great humor and admiration for your pithy guidance. While a godless barbarian myself, I can acknowledge ‘Kill them all, for the Lord will know his own…’ is a pretty succinct set of instructions. The chroniclers tell me that you did not have many problems with towns after that. I’ll have to remember this when I go on my “From the Steppes to the Wall” tour of Jin next year. Please ask the minstrels accompanying my messenger to play our latest hit, “Your Son Ran Like Your Mother and Screams Like Your Wife”
I won’t keep you, but to quell any misgivings you might have: Were the townsfolk buried in accordance with your religious rites in consecrated ground? Putting them to the sword? Cool. Having them roam this plain as disembodied spirits wailing in the agony they died? A little harsh. I don’t know how this whole Christianity thing works, but I figure as long as your guys didn’t pack the women and children like cordwood, build a dance hall over them, then kill them by moshing the night away their souls still went to haven, hoven, heaven, whatever, right? (BTW, have you heard of this new minstrel, John Davis?) Ergo, you followed your instructions and it’s all good in the hood my friend.
Your Obedient Servant,
G. Khan.

P.S. I’m having a bit of trouble with some guy named Sultan Muhammed. Do you have any tips?

All that being said, from beta readers and observation of issues other authors wrestle with, I can give ten general tips an author may want to consider with regards to character distress. Why ten? Because Clemenceau’s response to Wilson’s Fourteen Points (“The Lord God only expected us to remember ten!”) is a pretty good standard for everything. These aren’t so much “Don’t venture beyond these lines…” but “Before you cross the streams, erm, lines, have these things in the back of your head.” So…:

#1—Demand Satisfaction
Whoops! Wrong list!

#1–No puppies, no kids
In the movie The Professional, Leon the Hitman observes the rule “No Women, No Kids” with regards to people he won’t kill. Well, given we are in the 21st Century, the first half of that rule is only followed by chauvinists and idiots. However, I can tell you first hand that people tend to get mad as hell when you kill an animal. This anger is followed closely by the rage you’ll get to suffer after putting Little Timmy to the sword. Pull the equivalent of having little Timmy and Lassie walking on the Aioi bridge around 8:13 on August 6, 1945? (“Look Lassie, a four-engined symbol of America’s massive industrial might! Oh, hey, a parachute! Man, I’m so glad that weird wizard neighbor sent us back in time…”) Well, let’s just say that people are going to have words with you. Four letter words, many of them involving unnatural acts of copulation and questions about your parentage.
Trust me when I speak of this. Not even the bonds of matrimony will redeem you if you cross this line. Indeed, the better half stopped reading my novel An Unproven Concept when I didn’t even downshift driving over it. She was totally okay with the fact I’d splattered, battered, and stirred a couple thousand innocent passengers. But the following passage?:
A great hound the size of a small adult whining piteously as it furiously licked its master’s face, the animal’s back as clearly broken as the dead human’s.
Yep, that was it, I was officially Satan incarnate and out my First Reader for that book. Similarly, one of my beta readers for the aforementioned post-apocalyptic novel basically bowed out after my protagonist went on his revenge spree. “I can see no purpose in shooting a 6-year old. Can’t tell the difference between the good and the bad guys at this point, I’m done.” Which leads to my next point…

#2—When you leave that way you can never go back

Confederate Railroad for the win. (“Um, James, we don’t talk about Confed…” “Shut it.”) Understand that if you want your main character to be sympathetic, you must take care not to have him or her do something that is beyond the pale. It will not matter if this is a reasonable response to their tribulations, readers will be pissed. To think of one example, I’m always struck of the people who are sympathetic to Jaime Lannister either as his toned down HBO version or the unrepentant asshat in the Game of Thrones books. I’m sorry, but even I lack sympathy for a man who shoves a 10-year-old out a window because the child saw him giving the business to his sister. Add in the fact that this set in motion a chain of events that results in half of a kingdom getting turned to wasteland, and I’m thinking the wrong POV character got his “pillar and stones” turned into a SNL skit.

I’m not being hypocritical on this one. In response to the negative feedback, I rewrote the post-apocalyptic revenge sequence. Instead of my MC wiping out the other POV character, he will instead have a serious crisis of conscience but not kill the family. I’ll admit, the adjustment was very grudging, but I stopped to consider that my MC was not a lone wolf. Indeed, he was surrounded by several other professionals…and it was very unlikely they were going to be down with the sweet genocidal cleansing called for. Which segues nicely into my next point…

#3—Secondary characters have a breaking point
Even if your MC is stoically taking the kicks to the groin and chairs to the back of the head, other characters won’t. The following is not intended to pick on David Weber, but I got to wonder at what point do people stop being friends with Honor Harrington? Seriously—ever notice “The Salamander” neglects to sprinkle some of her good luck fairy dust on those around her? Being one of her guards is deadlier than being Mack Bolan’s girlfriend (RIP April Rose). Yet, despite this, you never see anyone say “Eff this shit, I’m out…”. Unfortunately, if your secondary characters have their own desires, goals, plans that require them to still be breathing, they’re not going to keep hanging around a MC whose associates drop like flies. Or at least, not without very good reason. Just remember that your hero is called a hero for a reason. Short of Imperial Japanese Army or Waffen-SS levels of conditioning, secondary characters should start having to make morale checks when the fecal matter starts to hit the air circulator.

#4—Gratuitous evil is gratuitous
“The villain is the protagonist in his own version of the story.” I have heard various versions of this advice, and I try to take it to heart. Basically, unless your antagonist is a psychopath (which, there’s a place for that—see Heath Ledger’s Joker or Ramsay Bolton), they should be torturing the main character for a reason, not because they’re evil. Contrary to his caricature, Darth Vader doesn’t just run around choking people because that’s how Palpatine programmed the suit to stimulate his pleasure centers. No, generally if Darth Vader is doing the Trachea Tango with an unwitting partner, it’s either because they got mouthy or had it coming. (“What part of ‘don’t bring the fleet out of hyperspace so close the rebels have time to crap themselves’ was in Swahili?” = dialogue selections that should be available in all Lucasarts games.) Don’t cheapen your otherwise logical antagonists by having them drop Willie Pete all over that orphanage because they want to make some s’mores. (“But, but I like the way the singed formula gives a sweet aftertaste to the marshmallows.”<-Bad example, as even this is logical. Twisted, but logical.)

Note that this also applies to extraterrestrial antagonists. While viewers don’t necessarily like the Queen in Aliens, in general Ripley Scott does a good job of explaining she’s in it for the procreation. Similarly, Timothy Zahn’s Conquerors and Cobra-series also explain why sentient beings might decide to go oops upside Humanity’s head.

(“Hey, wait a second, we’ve read your books! You’re a jerk who never explains the aliens’ motivations!” “Yeah, well, wait for the sequel.” “You mean the damn sequel you’ve been promising us for like 3 years, then told us is going to go backwards?!!” “Excuse me, writing a blog post here!”)

#5—Psychological trauma needs to be addressed
Ever had someone tie you up and beat the bejeebus out of you? Been helpless as your family was made to suffer before your very eyes? I know I haven’t (thank goodness), but I’ve talked to folks who have suffered through both. Despite what Hollywood would like you to believe, this is not something most people get over. PTSD is not trivial, and it is the kind of thing that can build with time. Before you decide to put a character through the wringer, might want to figure out the plan to make them functional on the far side. People don’t just watch their loved ones’ throats get slit, narrowly escape themselves, then make breakfast the next morning. No, your character doesn’t need to be a psychological wreck who is crying every other chapter. However, they should be sort of like Daniel Craig’s James Bond, i.e. you’re starting to see the accumulated toll of losing Vesper, friends, getting shot at M’s orders, etc. by the middle of Skyfall.

#6—Physical trauma also needs to be addressed
Raise your hand if you’ve ever had surgery, broken a bone, or had a concussion. Have that trick knee that decides to kick out at the most inopportune time. Can usually tell the weather is going to change thanks to that broken pelvis you got when the mechanical bull malfunctioned at your favorite watering hole. The point here is simple—if you’re going to have your characters get tortured physically, you better either have a doctor on site (yes, that’s another Hamilton reference), a magical way of healing, or budget recovery time into your larger story arc. If your environment is in any way austere, i.e. post-apocalyptic, you better not have someone getting willy nilly beat about the head and shoulders yet just shrugging things off. Lastly, the Joy of Beating is not a bestseller for a reason. Most people don’t enjoy seeing a major secondary character, nevermind a MC, slowly and laboriously pummeled. There better be a reason you subject your reader to the crunch, crunch, pop! of a favorite character’s skull getting beat in with a barbwire-wrapped baseball bat (some of you know what I’m talking about and are nodding sagely, some of you will find out soon enough). Oh, hey, look…speaking of which:

#7—Dead characters = angry fans
Who here remembers Jadzia Dax from Deep Space Nine? How about Andrea Harrison from The Walking Dead? Arthur Fonzarelli from Happy Days? *muttered whispering from off stage* “Well, yeah, but think how much better things would have been if Fonzie had gotten whacked by the shark?” See, the point of this is, both of the first two characters are usually remembered for their cheap deaths. Unlike producer actor feuds, the #1 killers of TV stars, often times authors go to whack a significant others to “shake things up” or in a cheap bid to cause emotion. This is a bad idea. Consider how mad everyone was after “The Red Wedding.” Now think about the fact that those deaths served a purpose. As I can tell you from dealing with Prolific Trek on a regular basis, kill a strong character like Jadzia for no good reason, you will earn your fans’ enmity for all eternity. Similarly, having a character like Andrea go out because you apparently don’t know what to do with her will similarly get your pilloried by reviewers.

“But wait, I totally had a reason for that character death, so my fans will forgive me, right?” Wrong. To go back to “The Red Wedding,” George R.R. Martin set it up beautifully and whacked Robb Stark for a good reason. I can tell you that there are people (First Reader included) who basically decided they were done with that franchise after that point. So, if you’re going to spend two or three books in a series doing character development, especially with major POV characters, understand you’re going to take a hit when said individual catches the Last Train West.

#8—Rape is not a gimmick
One of the standby things that would happen in old ‘70s and ‘80s men’s action adventure novels would be either someone close to the MC or the “damsel of the week” getting viciously violated by the main villain. Said woman would then be magically healed within the next 100 or so pages, and hop right in bed with the MC prior to said villain getting his just desserts.
The real world does not work this way. Let me quote from FM 22-102, the “official manual for wall-to-wall counseling”:

No offense is as damaging to the victim as rape. Murder does not come close, since the victim is dead and knows nothing. A raped soldier will have psychological scars for the rest of his or her life. A male soldier who is the victim of a homosexual rape is especially damaged, and many commit suicide rather than live with this burden.
Fake manual, real shit. Reach towards this line with caution, as the reason every freakin’ hair on your body is standing up is this is like playing Russian roulette with five rounds in the chamber and twenty million dollars on the table. In other words, this better be a “high risk, high reward” situation, not a “Oh, people will think this is edgy!” or “Hmm, I need to do something interesting to the main character’s significant other.” The character who was raped is going to be messed up, and before you open this can you better figure out how they’re going to react.

Also check out the above with regards to male rape. In most societies, this is a topic that is not dealt with. That’s not “dealt with well,” it’s not dealt with. If your society has high machismo coupled with patriarchy, there will likely be nowhere for a raped male character to turn for help. So, no, don’t go there unless you’re ready to do it right, lest you end up the “other guy” in a Rihanna song.

Bottom line: If you have someone getting raped, it should be written in a manner that’s going to make your skin crawl, as that’s what will be happening to your readers. One of the best rape scenes (*record skritches, bystanders gasp*), erm most well-written rape scenes I remember is from Laurell K. Hamilton’s Blue Moon. Suffice to say, Hamilton was sure to stress that the character who was raped needs, seeks, and gets therapy, along with his mother who was a near witness to the crime. It’s powerful, and some of the best writing in the series before Anita Blake became a…well, let’s just say the series sometimes ends up in the paranormal erotica section.

#9—The “Grandma Rule” is in effect
Remember that if you’re even semi-successful, you will have no control over who sees your work. The most chilling words an author can hear from someone important to them are, “So, I read your book.” I call this “The Grandma Rule,” i.e. always remember that your grandmother just might find your novel no matter how well you try to hide it. Say you tuckerized a good friend, and she’s the person you had the MC have to mercy kill? You’ll hear about it for decades. No really, decades. If you are in a community that frowns upon certain activities like a MC lovingly spending ten hours flaying the villain with a knife? Express ticket to social pariah status. I mean, sure this well-deserved comeuppance will have your readers needing the rhetorical cigarette and change of clothes, but is that payoff worth having to drive two hours for milk? Similarly, if your grandmother is going to have a heart attack when she reads what her favorite grandchild has written about a MC trading two innocent bystanders to a pack of cannibals in exchange for a couple crates of ammo, Thanksgiving is going to be a little awkward. (But hey, you’ll be able to afford one hell of a turkey with your chunk of the inheritance.) Last but not least, if your employer will look dimly on you raining nuclear hellfire down on certain nations, cities, or regions, don’t do it. Why yes, your helpful narrator can tell you exactly what a JAG looks like as his mental intel processor is trying to process the hypothetical of “So, say I published a story where ______________________ happens. Would that be a terminating offense?” While his answer wasn’t “FOR F___K’S SAKE, YES!”, it was close enough that story has only seen limited release to a few friends. I’m all about pressing the envelope for my art, but I’ve got a mortgage.

#10—Editors are interested in selling, not your “art”
Speaking of people with mortgages, editors are notoriously risk averse. I know, there’s probably a couple hundred examples of stuff that got greenlit where all manner of bad things happened. I’d go to Vegas with the odds for every example you can name, if we got an experienced editor drunk enough they could give me another dozen that got stamped “NO! GET THERAPY!” It is hard enough to break through with a major publishing house. No need to make things more difficult by opening the book with the main villain saying, “This youngling is dry. Pass the Worcestshire sauce…”. Save the crazy stuff for book two if you’re going traditional publishing, as your editor will almost always be thinking “Do I want to explain this on a special news segment?” Think of it like a relationship: If you just met someone off a dating service, you wouldn’t let them know “I crush civilizations beneath my heel and make people scream in anguish…” right off the bat, would you? No, of course not—that’s for after they’ve already moved in with you and signed a two year lease. (“Wait…wait…you’re that guy?!”Filed under “I’ll take conversations that are about to go horribly right or wrong in the next 30 seconds for $1000, Alex.”)

*takes deep breath* Okay then, that about covers it. I think Cedar has now officially taken me off the guest bloggers list, but dammit it was worth it.

Nope. Not even close. I always enjoy James’s insight and sense of humor. Why yes, I may be a little twisted too… 


  1. I would add “Beware Of Escalation”. Escalation is an issue that can show up in a lot of ways, particularly in an on-going series. There’s what I call “Ultimater Weapon Syndrome”, where the bad guys devise an “Ultimate Weapon” and then, after the good guys defeat them, the next set of bad guys has to devise an “Ultimater Weapon” to keep the tension.

    So in Movie A the villain has a bomb that will destroy a city, in Movie B the villains have a bomb that will destroy a continent, and by Movie F anything that doesn’t have the potential to eradicate all of space-time will just make the audience yawn.

    I’ve seen writers get caught up in the same trap in terms of character trauma. “In the last book the bad guys killed my MC’s kitten–how am I going to top that?”

    1. Quote MishaBurnett “I’ve seen writers get caught up in the same trap in terms of character trauma. “In the last book the bad guys killed my MC’s kitten–how am I going to top that?”

      I’ve read that novel, and no I won’t be reading the sequel. Killing the kitten just crossed a line.

    2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer managed to just barely dodge that by deciding to go sideways. First season, the Big Bad is a powerful vampire. Second season, his prophesied successor is set up as the next big villain, and then he’s fried in the very first episode. Or how they had a literal small-g god as a villain, and the next season villains are either about the residual trauma or comparatively mundane evil humans.

      Doing the escalation is bad without an exit strategy. Avoid it by trying something new.

    3. Possibly the grossest example of this over the longest period of time was White Wolf’s World of Darkness RPG products….. where the first book let player and non-player vampire characters get so powerful with no effective opposition that the only way to explain why vampires weren’t openly ruling the world was to come up with something even more powerful to keep them in check. Hey. Werewolves! Of course we allow Werewolf PCs…. and the cycle repeated again. Ad infinitum, ad nauseam, and back.

      1. A very long time ago there used to be an RPG system called ‘Chivalry and Sorcery’ (I may have the name backwards, it predates D&D). They used to put out source articles in a magazine they published. They had a very interesting one on game balance, that every author and every game designer should read (especially the folks at WOW and similar games).
        It goes in to quite a bit of examples on designing monsters and such, the biggest point being, don’t make your monsters / animals so powerful that they should be the only thing left.
        Everything must have it’s blind spot, or the thing that can lay it low.
        Another point (that is just as sorely missed) is that don’t make all of your monsters (or whatever) such that they have an equal and opposite number that keeps them in check, because that’s just not how real life and nature work.
        Monster A might be weak to monster B, which is weak to monster C, which is weak to monster D, which is weak to monster A. Or maybe A can kill anything in a one on one. However D travels in packs of 20 or more. But B flies so it snipes on D, or is poisonous to D, etc.
        You will rarely find that A regulates B, which regulates A. Equal and opposite are just not common, or expected.

        1. Of course, the big one is “monster gotta eat.” If it’s the only thing left except for what’s hiding in the corners, it will die, and the hiders will inherit the earth.

          1. Passenger pigeons are a really good example of a problem species. The flocks so huge that they blocked out the sky were because their dominant predator—indigenous humans who ate them in quantity—died off due to waves of disease preceding immigration. Add in decades between the die-off and the new settlers deciding these birds might be tasty, and you’ve got a bird that’s basically filling the role of locusts. The correction to that went overboard, but there were too many of them.

      1. Rule: You only get to die twice. See Buffy and Supernatural. I’m willing to give a character one resurrection, but after that… Nope.

  2. Way back when in West Berlin, I was one of the editors for the officially unofficial FM22-102. (Mostly because I can spell and understand grammar, not because I had anything to add to it.) The author did in fact lose rank after the officers found a copy. I’m really not sure how it survived all these years, but I still occasionally run across PDF copies.

    As a reader, you’re absolutely right about there being things the MC should not do. I’m not a huge fan of horror or snuff novels, and I want my main characters to be the good guys.

    I’ve noticed before that you humans, er, I mean we have this weird psychological quirk that makes impersonal death better than personal murder. You can drop bombs that wipe out cities, and that’s OK because you don’t have to watch them die, but you can’t personally cut a woman’s head off. (How do we know James Earl Jones’s character in Conan is evil? Besides turning into a snake, I mean.)

    Take, for example, the wonderful farce, “The Adventures of Barn Munchausen”. Vulcan gives the sales speech to the Baron for his latest invention, the nuclear missile. It kills all your enemies, and you don’t have to see them die. You just press a button from the comfort of your own home. Thus baffles the Baron, as what is the point of war and killing without heroism and honor? Vulcan replies with a frown, “Oh, we cater to all sorts here.”

    1. Wen Spencer’s latest _Project Elfhome_ has

      Bare Snow added what she’d found out. “The gunfire was Tinker domi’s troops clearing the oni invaders out of her cousin’s enclave. I arrived too late to help, beyond saving a puppy. It was so sad;

      Which corrects or retcons the missing in action puppy from _Elfhome_

      The elfhound puppy, Repeat, wasn’t accounted for, either. She could guess its fate—elfhounds were prized because of their courage and selfless loyalty. They were just as bad as sekasha in regard to dying for the ones they loved.

  3. The grandma rule has me stumped. My inclination is to take characters from people local to me. Everyone who knows where I live is going to know who I’m talking about, disguised or not.
    I’m leaning toward, “Hardly any of them read anyway,” caution to the winds thinking, but you’re not helping. ;o)

    1. I’m very cautious about taking people and putting them into the story without their permission. That being said, some folks do appear, albeit with a different physical description and name. Especially with my post-apocalyptic universe (given it is partially based on my home town), the serial numbers are filed off but the weapon is still quite recognizable. 😉 That being said–if you have your boss being consumed by a ravenous werewolf, odds are that’s going to lead to some consternation. Sure none of them read, but maybe his first cousin (who also thinks he’s an a**hat) does…and tells him about this character that sounds “just like him.”

      1. There is a very funny, very quirky novel from the 1930’s called Miss Buncle’s Book. You can get it as an ebook or on Overdrive at a lot of libraries.

        Anyway, it is a worst and best case scenario of writing your town into a book, and having people suddenly think the fictional psrts are also real.

        And since it was a fantasy novel… that makes some problems.

        1. I love Miss Buncle’s Book! I managed to get our book club to read it a couple of months ago. We so often read deep meaningful books, it was good to read one that was just fun.

          1. The sequels, Miss Buncle Married and The Two Mrs Abbotts (Miss Buncle Book 3) are also available in ebook, if expensively.

            I have a fairly complete set of D E Stevenson pbooks (‘light novels’ please, rather than the ill-fitting ‘fantasies’.) from library sales.

            If you can find _Kate Hardy_ that’s a different exploration of the ‘heroine is a professional author’ trope

      2. A question of how disguised is disguised, I guess. I was thinking they would be recognizable by their character traits, or rather, my interpretation/ exaggeration of their character traits. Maybe it’s not so bad. Thanks.

  4. “Lastly, the Joy of Beating is not a bestseller for a reason.”

    I thought that’s what Fifty Shades was? 😉

    1. Sometimes a thing written for a niche market will somehow rise to best seller status. Problem is that phenomenon is not something one can predict or control.

    2. But it is a filk song! Google up Leslie Fish Dominatrix song.

      “I beat bottoms for a living….” 😎

  5. Hah! I never before heard of “FM22-102,” and had to go look it up. Hilarious. OTOH, it’s probably a good thing for me that a couple of crusty sergeants I served under back in the day also apparently never heard of it . Not that they really *needed* such a manual. . . 😛

    . . . But when it comes to “torturing” your main characters . . . My problem with Game of Thrones, book and TV version alike, is that’s ALL THAT HAPPENS. The whole damn series is just one long wallow in horror, shit and misery for almost all involved, in a land where the main pastimes are profanity, torture and rape. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here, and that includes the fans, whom GRRM enjoys torturing most of all. Like the late Robert Jordan and his Wheel of Time series, GRRM will spend entire pages describing the scenery and the setting, right down to the wall hangings, and more pages and pages detailing his characters’ innermost thoughts to the point of raised eyebrows eye-rolling and irritated braid tugging. On the part of fictional characters and readers alike.

    Except that in Jordan’s case, the world of Wheel of Time was a place worth spending time in, and was worth saving. As were most of the people. Jordan, unlike GRRM, grasped that no matter how dark things get, there has to be a light at the end of the tunnel. There has to be HOPE, and the promise of a better future, or at least a happy ending, for the protagonists and the reader.

    Westeros, on the other hand, and even by the standards of grimdark fantasy, is a moral sewer desperately in need of an Aivars Aleksovitch Terekhov to come in and nuke the whole thing from orbit (and then bring in Monster Hunter Intergalactic to polish off any surviving White Walkers). If “winter is coming,” let it be a *nuclear* winter.

    1. I don’t know: I think Martin and Jordan were both victims of their own success to some point, and their stories both dragged on for so long that the best qualities of each world became caricatures of themselves.

      Jordan’s WoT world became a soap opera universe populated with soap opera characters by the end, so that Sanderson had to resolve his plots using some pretty heavy handed Gordian-knot cutting.

      I pretty much quit reading at Book Eight and just read the plot summaries, and gave up on Sanderson’s continuation when (SEMI-SPOILER – characters on the bad guys’ side had to sit Rand and Egwene down respectively and TELL them the Dark One’s whole plan and the identities of his agents)

      As for whether WoT is a ‘better’ place, I’ll give you that it’s less explicit, but the followers of the ‘Light’ routinely lie to each other, betray each other, keep secrets for their own group’s advantage, engage in torture and murder, and if their side wins, all the prophecies become writ in stone, and peoples’ lives will be every bit as predestined as L’Engle’s Camazotz. Jordan had to make his villains ridiculously, cartoonishly evil just to make their side worse.

      As for Martin: I’d been forgiving because the story wasn’t done yet, and for all his reputation for grimdark there were a number of hopeful points and quite a few characters worth rooting for in the first three books, and Storm of Swords ended on a note of hope that the surviving good guys might turn things around.

      Then those next installments came out.

      1. Me, I gave it up after reading a book where the first half advanced nothing, and realizing when I saw the next in the library — that I did not care.

    2. Gotham is another prime example: honestly, there wasn’t anybody (except possibly Bruce Wayne) that you wanted to live, and Bruce only so he could arrange the nuclear strike. Gaahhh!

  6. Dick Francis. Jockey turned mystery writer. Broken bones and bruises were by his account a routine occupational hazard. So, drawing on some experience, I suppose, his heroes get thrown, tromped on, and beaten up, not always by the bad guys, and by gum they limp around in casts and on crutches, sporting bandages, and wincing and taking painkillers for days and weeks afterwards. It’s part of what made his characters real and not plastic.

    1. I noticed after a while that Steven Swiniarski/S. Andrew Swann would often injure his protagonist early in the story and keep hurting that same spot over and over again during the action. (like, he might injure his left hand, and then have to hang by it later, and fall because it’s injured.)

  7. Well! I bought your book in the Labor Day sale, and now I’m going to move it up into the to-read-next queue — I’m jonesin’ for space operas and I’m in the middle of the last book in the Rihannsu trilogy.

    These are great rules, all in a handy place if I should need to pass them along to my writing group. I have a Grandma Rule* as well, but I call mine the “Sensible Grandma Rule,” and it’s what keeps me from buying most dystopian novels: “Would Grandma fall for this crap?”

    A lot of dystopian novels have a premise of a society that’s over-the-top, cartoonishly evil, and posits that everyone except the hero has fallen for it. Excuse me, but *why*? There’s never anything *seductive* enough about the foundation of these societies that would account for why people would buy into the evil en masse, without even so much as newspeak propaganda campaigns to smooth the way. The regime’s value systems don’t even appeal to base desires.

    Rule 1 has always fascinated me. I’m not a pet person and I always look askance at people who would get more upset about a dead dog than a dead child. I’ll have to keep them in mind if I have a heroine toss her dog to a monster to distract it from her child …

    Again, great list, and I look forward to reading your book.

    *My grandma does not “do” fiction, so I’m safe …

    1. I’ll have to keep them in mind if I have a heroine toss her dog to a monster to distract it from her child …

      That situation may be the exception to the rule. 😉

        1. But better to have the brave hound rush out and attack the Bad Guys while Mom escapes with the kid. Get the readers sniffling and blowing their noses. Two chapters later the half starved, scarred hound limps into camp and you’ve got them crying all over again. See how that works?

          1. Yesss! Actually, I was thinking just that a short while ago. Especially if the bad guy is an alien and his comrades learn to fear humans because we have the strange and terrible power of getting other life forms to fight on our behalf 🙂

      1. The dog is bigger than a polar bear, armored, and eats monsters as snacks. Problem solved. Give the dog a turret mounted machine-gun for extra goodness.

        ‘Don’t mess with the dog’ is pretty much a rule, I think. If I’m reading along and they kill the dog, or Timmie dies in the well, I’m out.

        That’s the stuff that happens off-stage and you come across the wreckage later. You should be hearing about poor little Timmie and Lassie from his bereaved grandmother years later, and the old lady is still not over it. That’s how to handle making Timmie the reason Old Mrs. X keeps the Hellacious Nucleonic Blaster (TM) under the kitchen counter.

    2. Part of it is the idea of desert–as in “deserving it.” Bad enough to torture someone/something that doesn’t deserve it–to torture something that isn’t *capable* of deserving it…

      In general, the closer it comes to pure nihilism, the riskier it is.

    3. A lot of dystopia writers, were, also, historically, utopian writers, and even more tended to belong to political parties that wanted to make radical changes. This is because all three turn on the same central premise: the malleability of human nature. People, they assume, can be molded like that if you try hard enough (and send enough to the gulag).

  8. Regarding the shooting of innocent loved ones out of revenge and other such horrors, just keep to the tone of the story as was established.

    It wouldn’t have worked if Sicario had ended with Alejendro using the Power of Love and Friendship on Alarcon.

    Likewise, having My Little Pony end with a massacre of killing torture of grumps wouldn’t go over well.

  9. Hmmm, I’ve killed the family pet, killed off a favorite (of some readers) female character, and later killed her husband too… So I haven’t screwed up the other 8 yet, I’m all good, right??? 🙂

    Seriously, excellent points, and one DOES have to think through where one is going and why with the story line and character’s responses…

    1. Like almost everything else in writing and life it seems, I’m thinking the “it depends” clause of the rules are in force. In writing on crime drama and such, sometimes it is good to see the “I’m three fries short of a happy meal” criminal vs just another societal victim who would otherwise be running an orphanage. The thinking thru I think is the critical aspect in believability and acceptance.

        1. Lol. Actually wasn’t even my thought at all. The issue, as I read it, (With rule 8 for example) Is that it should not be used solely as a callous method of one upping or shocking the reader. It has after and side effects. If you are writing say historical fiction set in the Era of the conquest of Khan (The Mongol, not Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaa(^500)n!) there will be rape of the conquered. In modern world, it will affect the ones that survive it, and will have effects on the one committing it. It is societally forbidden so there are taboos against it that will hurt both parties. Psychologically you have to treat it at least near to the realm of reality or else it simply will not ring true to most people. An individual’s personal sanctity has been violated and that can do more harm than any wound, an may not show up for a while as the mind tries to wall it away.

          1. Like how a police procedural that hopes to pass for here and now doesn’t have a cop shoot two criminals before breakfast and a dozen before lunch without an inquiry.

            There is a time and place for Judge Dredd, Sledge Hammer!, and so forth. Anyone who hasn’t come across Dominion Tank Police and Kerberos Panzer Cop and then wondered about Artillery Police has no joy in them.

            There’s also a time for verisimilitude.

    2. In book six of my most popular series the hero goes on a reprisal against the bad guy. In the process he murders hundreds of people, many of whom are probably innocent, but he just doesn’t care.
      He even sets up quite a few to be murdered by terrorists. Again, he doesn’t care, he’s completely wrapped up in his revenge until he gets it. And will do absolutely anything to get it.
      He puts off dealing with the consequences until afterwards.

      1. In 1944, I’m sure the RAF crews were bombing cities. They were not letting themselves feel that they were bombing other people (Dehumanization of the enemy, revenge for the bombings on cities in Britain, etc).

        Revenge will blind people.

  10. …opening the book with the main villain saying, “This youngling is dry. Pass the Worcestshire sauce…”

    I would totally buy that book.

  11. #9 is why we have pen names 🙂

    I had a POV character in one book beaten and while not exactly raped (she was a prostitute and her pimp set it up – so technically it wasn’t rape and she was used to sex with strangers) before the first chapter, I then had her nearly tortured to death in the 3rd chapter.

    Of course the rest of the book is dealing with her being saved from this, and mentally rehabilitating until in the end she gets revenge on her tormentor. But I still put it out under an alias as I’m sure there are people who would find it a nasty piece of work. But it writing it was an educating experience. Writing bad guys isn’t always that difficult, but writing sociopaths really is.

  12. RE: Killing puppies.
    I’m surprised no one brought up the movie ‘John Wick’, wherein the bad guys kill his puppy, and the rest of the movie is all about him performing over the top revenge to avenge his dead dog.

    So yeah, don’t kill the puppies.

    1. I’m terrified of dogs. (Earlier today…)

      I have a lot of emotional resonance when writing a scene of being menaced by a dog.

      If I were a better writer, and had put in more effort, I would have ruined many stories by doing that.

      For one of my current projects, I brainstormed the creatures that might be scavenging the offal heap that my protagonist might have to face. Feral dogs would be realistic, but I ruled them out early.

    2. To put it in context, the puppy was a gift from his -very- recently deceased wife, she wanted him to have something to love and care for to help cope with the grief of losing her.

      So the bad guys didn’t just kill his dog…they killed a LIVING SYMBOL of his lost love.

      Hence why the bad guys’ father realizes there is going to be no end to the amount of hell unleashed upon them. o_o;

  13. Great post, James, though I tend to think there’s something missing in this discussion whenever I see it pop up: There’s an audience for everything.

    In webcomics I’ve seen some really out there strips, strips that shouldn’t work, that don’t seem funny, seem to glory in the anarchy and evil of the main characters, basically that break a lot of the suggestions set above. The key to it seems to be that the internet is so broad that you can find a sizable audience for anything as long as you do it well according to that audience. Find your niche and then exploit it.

    As for Dick Francis, he had one book where he deliberately broke the rule against killing the kid (Banker) and for me it destroyed what up until then was a great book. It seemed like he was writing a long drawn out love story as a fifteen year old girl had a crush on a young banker and when the story fastforwarded to when she was of age then they’d get together. But then he killed her and I looked at the book and I didn’t care anymore. Didn’t care who killed her, except academically, didn’t care if the stud farm loan worked out for the banker and the girl’s father. Didn’t give a crap. I’ve reread all of Mr. Francis’s books except for that one. So, sometimes rules are rules for a damn good reason.

    I do think sometimes writers are myopic in that we think that what is sympathetic to writers is sympathetic to the culture at large. I’ve read so many little whiny college boys coming of age stories (in all kinds of genre, even fantasy, SF, mystery, whatever) that just don’t work for me at all. Partly because the fit is wrong (that character existing in Fantasy? The superior nose sniffer who looks down upon the plebes? He’d be dead within minutes) and partly because the writer actually thinks the character is sympathetic. Not one who needs to learn and grow, but someone who needs the world to see and appreciate their brilliance. I’ve seen and met writers who believe this of themselves. Oddly enough they are not well liked by most people but they’ve found their niche (connecting this back up with the webcomics example) and live within it. Their safe space. But since most editors are readers who’ve had similar experiences and gone to similar places and lived similar lives (ahhhh, diversity, ain’t it grand?) they too believe those whiny little college boys are inherently sympathetic. For me? Not being that? They make my fist itch.

    Take number 5, Psychological abuse needs to be addressed. I hate that so much in a book. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Have I mentioned I hate that? The navel gazing, self pitying, dwelling on the past, wallowing tends to do the reverse of what’s intended and makes me less sympathetic to the character. On the other hand a character who goes through that kind of emotional trauma and moves on? A character I find sympathetic. This isn’t for everyone, this is just for me. There are lots of people who are different (probably even the majority) but I still exist as a reader.

    Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder novels are like that for me, for the first two books I read I was somewhat sympathetic to his alcoholism, by the third I was tired of it and by the fourth I never wanted to read it again. One of my favorite authors outside of that series but the series that sells the most for him is easily my least favorite.

    If you like dark humor, there’s an audience for that. If you like heroes, there’s a market for that. If you like whiny little college boys, there’s a market for that. I think the trick is how to connect with your audience.

    I’m not disputing anything written above, I thought it was a great post with lots of food for thought but I wanted to articulate why I, personally, disagree with some of that advice.

    1. There is actually three items I pull out of that. First is of course the “different strokes for different folks” argument. Fully valid and memorable. The acceptable tools for a romance are different from those of an epic which are different from an action story. Setting works the same way. What is acceptable in a post apocalyptic world (The bombs fall, man and dog survive but as the dog grows old, it may become the humane or required thing to make him dinner) is vastly different from a post scarcity or modern setting.

      The second is that if there is a glut of a certain story family (such as coming of age), they will get judged, often by the worst. And when the reader can automatically pick out how it will go by what signalling is done early on in the story, it becomes more stereotyped.

      The third is that it is simple to mix up sympathetic and pathetic. Someone attempting to pull together his life, occasionally misstepping and falling down is one thing. The guy who just gives up and dives into nihilism and floats along can be tough to identify with. Usually you want the character to at least move ahead on their goals, whether they be dark or not.

  14. “Y’all talk about torturing your characters… are there any lines you won’t cross?”

    I find that I like writing characters that are getting over something. Something Bad happened long ago, and so they have issues/injuries that make them twitchy. Or they’re perfectly fine, and Something Bad happens and they deal with it. The bad thing happens off screen, the dealing with it is the part I’m interested in.

    The other thing is of course that you’re taking a character with a set of attributes and turning loose a situation upon them. What’s this guy going to do when he finds the Hellmouth in his basement next to the cat box? It depends on who he is, doesn’t it? He might run, hide, try to make a deal, or toss a hand grenade in. How attached was he to that cat? Does he know what a hand grenade is, and might he have one handy?

    I kind of like the grizzled veteran guy who pulls the cat back out, stomps on the thing that grabbed it, then backs a mixer up to the basement window and starts pouring in concrete. That’s my kinda character. He’s a dick, and his neighbors hate his guts because of the booby-trapped TRUMP sign on the front lawn that sprayed their hipster kids with indelible purple dye, but he gets it done.

  15. In regards to the secondary characters seeing bad fallout, one of my favorite moments in Star Wars: The Force Awakens is when Kylo Ren has a tantrum and some stormtroopers walk by in time to see molten metal bits get thrown out a door by the force of his anger, and they simply turn around and decide to patrol elsewhere. So true.

  16. “Being one of her guards is deadlier than being Mack Bolan’s girlfriend (RIP April Rose). Yet, despite this, you never see anyone say “Eff this shit, I’m out…”. ”

    That’s because, as Weber makes clear, there is a very thorough vetting and training process and anyone who is not good with the idea that they are there as meat shields for someone whose life is more important than theirs doesn’t become a Grayson armsman… or remain one if he doesn’t keep that attitude.. And it’s also tied in to the Grayson church, as he also makes clear. Bottom line is that he’s already explained why this works the way it does.

    1. I’m familiar with Mr. Weber’s works, thanks. That being said, I stand by my (gentle) teasing, which is that unless you’re advocating they are religious fanatics (which I seem to recall he also explicitly also says), the pool has to be getting a bit shallow.

      Let me be abundantly clear–I’m a fan, and I’d say this in the same teasing tone at Libertycon in person. 😉

  17. Can you kill rabid guard dogs while breaking into a secret fortress?

    Had a situation where one character might have committed rape but didn’t know that the “Victim” actually wanted him to ravish her. He felt guilty and she was delighted (Well, not about his guilt, but getting her wish). That bit’s not going to make it through the re-write though.

  18. Reading over this thread has made me realize that I have a lot of tension in my books between characters who draw that line in different places, not just in terms of “how far” but in terms of what is acceptable and what isn’t.

    My narrator, James, will kill anybody or anything, but he kills cleanly and can’t abide torture. Samuel will do horrible things to people, often just to see if it is possible, but will not deliberately take a life or allow someone to die if he can prevent it. Exquisite will kill someone and bring him back as a kind of undead, but only if the victim consents to the process. Nancy can’t stand to see anyone in pain, but has no problem drugging someone and overriding their will or erasing memories chemically. Agony has no limits whatsoever, but has a very good grasp of who will do what and makes sure that she uses the right tool for the right job.

    So I have a number of characters who view the others as being both squeamish and ruthless, in different ways. I didn’t plan it that way, but looking back over my series I can see how it worked to keep the torture porn escalation to a minimum.

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