For those registered U.S. voters, today is the day for mid-term elections. That means our media (mainstream, social, alternative, etc) is filled with all things politics. If you wade through it all, sifting through the piles of excrement, you might find a glimmer of truth somewhere. “Might” being the operative word. For those who dislike politics or who grew tired of political ads long ago, today can’t get over soon enough. But for those who love observing human nature–or who write about politics, the media, twisted characters–today is a day to sit back, observe and take notes.
No, I’m not going to get into a political discussion here. That’s for other blogs I write for. This is all about writing and about how, as writers, we need to not only do research but we need to observe what is going on around us. It doesn’t matter whether you write political thrillers, courtroom dramas or military fiction. You need to know how people will react, what motivates them and why in the situations you put them in. And then there’s the research.
As writers, we are much more fortunate than those even 50 years ago because of the improvements in technology. If we want to see how people react in almost any given situation, all we have to do is go to our favorite search engine or check Youtube. Somewhere on the vastness of the internet, there will be a video of it. Better yet, the videos won’t all be “official” because of the prevalence of smart phones with their video capabilities. How often to you see shots of something happening in public where the media is there but so are all the looky-loos, phones out and video streaming straight to Facebook?
So why am I going on about this on this Election Day?
It’s really pretty simple. I might be a writer but I am also an avid reader. One of the best ways to kick me out of a book is to have one of your characters, especially a main character, do something that would be so far out of the norm for someone as to be ridiculous.
I’m not talking about running into the woods in the dead of night–in high heels–when you know the mass murderer is out there waiting for you. That’s simply Darwin’s law in practice.
No, I’m talking about all those legal thrillers where the attorney main character not only does all the investigating himself but also sleeps with opposing counsel and committing numerous ethical violations along the way–without ever having a twinge of conscience about it (and he is the one we’re supposed to see as the good guy). And don’t get me started on DNA tests and complete toxicology screens that come back within minutes or hours of the sample first being taken. Let’s forget there are certain procedures to be taken just to get the samples to the lab. Let’s forget about the fact there are other cases, possibly hundreds, ahead of your sample.
No, let’s forget about doing sloppy research for the expediency of not having to find a better way to write the scene.
And that is my biggest gripe. Too many books right now are being written like those one hour TV shows. Everything has to happen NOW. There isn’t time for character development or for real plot development. What is really sad about all this? It isn’t out of the indie books I’m reading that are guilty of this. It’s the books coming from traditional publishers that are being planted against the wall more often than not.
I’ll admit right here that John Grisham’s legal thrillers drive me up a wall. In fact, I quit reading them after the fourth(?) book. The only one I did read that came close to reality in not only the way the system worked but in how characters would respond was A Time to Kill. It was difficult to read at times because I did side with the defendant. I could identify with him for having killed the men who attacked his daughter. The attorney main character was flawed but doing his best to see justice done. The Southern legal system rang true, especially to the location and time. And yet, this was the book publishers kept passing on over and over again. When it was finally published, it was with a limited run and then basically forgotten until The Firm took off.
OMG, don’t get me started on all that was wrong with that book. It ranks right down there, imo, with many other so-called best sellers, books most of us never would have picked up had it not been for the major push publishers put behind them. What makes that really bad is it tells authors they don’t need to write realistic character reactions or realistic-seeming scenes/plots as long as publishers are giving you push. Those authors tend to get sloppy. Readers will only put up with so much before they start walking away. Then publishers wonder why they aren’t making the money they used to.
Anyway, this has all been a longwinded way of saying to do your homework. Go out and people watch. Listen to conversations to see how real people sound when they talk. We don’t always speak in complete sentences. We mix up words. We mix. up languages. We make mistakes, often to our own embarrassment. Conversation isn’t stilted between friends unless the topic is uncomfortable. So it shouldn’t be in our writing.
Observe how people dress. What sort of impression do you have about that person when you first see them? Does that impression change as you watch them interact with others? Why? Now how do you put that into a story or novel?
Yes, when we write fiction, we can bend the rules. But we can’t bend them to the point we break them. That includes how someone will react in any given situation. If you have an attorney who has been walking the straight and narrow in his professional life, he is going to at least have a moral twitch or twinge before falling in bed with opposing counsel. He will agonize over doing things he know are unethical and we, as the reader, need to see this. After all, it is part of his motivation to act (or not to act) and part of his “growth”.
If you have a parent facing the death of a child unless they do something they wouldn’t normally, let us see the way this weighs on them. Most parents will do almost anything to save their own child. But would they kill another child? Or how about their spouse? Let us see the emotional toll such a decision takes on them. Also, when the other person finds out what has to be done to save the kid, how do they react?
I guess this is all a way of saying not to Mary Sue your main characters and not to rely too much on hand-wavium. You can get away with a little but when you find yourself relying on it to make a book work, you need to go back and look at what you have with a very critical eye.
And now it is time for me to do just that with the current WIP. Until later.
Featured Image courtesy of Pixabay.
the movie version of A Time To Kill was worse, the gunnie in my is going “Why the HECK does (defendant) have a machine gun in his home???”
Oh, I know. I had the same reaction when I saw the movie. The film was several steps below the book, imo. But then, I rarely like a movie more than the book it is based on.
Great reminder that we must be observers of the human condition. (As a Canadian, I just want to say I hope today’s outcomes are what your country needs.)
Being an observer is essential, imo, to being a good writer.
I will say that as far as Time to Kill goes, I think it would have been better without the racial angle but simply been about the vigilante justice that Grisham originally envisioned: you sympathize with the defendant and not at all with his victims, but the fact remains that the killing was cold-blooded murder. Is sympathy enough to override that?
The whole, “He’s black and the town is white” thing seemed to get rid of most of that. The story eventually took for granted that a white man would be acquitted (something I don’t think is at all obvious) and was just about whether or not the jury would overcome their prejudice enough to do the same for a black man. The movie, of course, turned that up to 11.
Agreed, but the racial angle did play into so much in the South during that time and before. I guess that’s why it didn’t bother me quite so much. I’d seen it and knew what they were going for.
When I flew EMS, the on-call crews at [main base] had score cards for the police/fire/EMS shows they watched, and would gleefully give them a 2.0 or (in one case) -9.5 for breaking the bounds of stupidity. Self-healing gunshot wounds were “popular” for a while. Character would be shot in the chest or gut or head at the start of the episode, then walk out of the hospital two days later.
YES! I do that as well. Medical shows and legal shows are the two I pretty much refuse to watch. Mom loves “Bull”. I have learned to put on my headphones and listen to something else when she has it on. Even then, if I look up, I am tempted to toss my laptop through the TV screen.
Its’s either that or a single gunshot kills you instantly no matter what part of our body gets penetrated by the bullet.
Or, and I’m not sure which is worse, the fight where the hero is beat within an inch of his life and he doesn’t even limp or have anything more than a cut or two after the medics clean him up or the fight where two punch are landed and neither were solid hits or to areas of potential fatal damage but the victim is rushed into ICU and is lingering near death until they are suddenly, miraculously healed.
Or they’re shot in the shoulder, which heals up in minutes with no blood on their clothing…
The shoulder is a complex ball and socket joint. Getting shot there won’t be fatal if they mis the big artery, but without a good surgeon they’ll be crippled for life.
To be fair, most of the detective/adventure novels are just as bad. $PROTAGONIST gets severely beaten, thrown out of an airplane, whatever, but they never get the kind of soft tissue damage that makes a bucket by the bed a viable alternative to trying to get to the bathroom.
Side note on the shoulder injury thing: We had a friend of the family who knew a decent amount of martial arts and was also fairly short, so at one point he ended up being a sparring instructor for some pre-teen kids. He underestimated one’s skill level and she landed a blow that severely messed up his shoulder. That evening, he got a call from their lawyer asking for his lawyer’s information, and surprised said lawyer by admitting it was all his fault and he wasn’t going to sue the family of a twelve-year-old girl for messing up.
The happy ending to the story is that said girl’s father was a surgeon, and gave him a reference to a good joint surgeon, so his very screwed up shoulder became a mostly-healed shoulder instead of a frozen shoulder. (And the moral is that not being a jerk sometimes comes back as immediate good karma.)
Never read any of his books; never saw any of the movie(s?). Just never appealed to me.
Honestly, I’m not sure you’ve missed anything. As I said, the only one I really liked was A time to Kill and I quite even trying to read him after his fourth book.
I’ve been working my way through the seasons of a show on Netflix. I haven’t reached anywhere near the end yet, but last night there was a episode that had me so fummoxxed.
Big-bad that has been screwing the MC over since episode 1 of season 1 FINALLY reveals himself and promises even more… and the MC doesn’t shoot him.
I WOULD HAVE SHOT HIM IN THE HEAD! And I’m a genuinely nice(ish) person (don’t tell nobody… gotta keep my rep LOL!). MC does try not to kill people, but hes a heck of a lot more acclimated to it than I am, and he just lets big-bad go. REALLY?!?!? I wanted to throw my TV. (not really, but if I had one of those soft spongy “TV Bricks” from what, the late 70s? early 80s? can’t remember, but I totally would have chucked it at the screen.)
This is why you should read primary source if you want to write of other societies. It’s the only way you can observe the human scene of societies that are very different from ours.
Even for imaginary societies, it helps, because it helps you to not assume things.
Well if you are finding it too hard to distract yourself from Current Events with the productive writing (or drawing) work you ought to be doing, and are going to cheat, Cedar Sanderson’s Lab Gremlin’s book (and a glass of Chianti) is absolutely perfect.
I’m having problems trying to observe the last few years + for writing purposes. Mostly because if I tried to put this insanity down to paper, I’d have problems with the ‘people are THIS stupid, really?!’
“Truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to make sense.”
– Rod Machado, probably paraphrasing a lot of other people.
Exactly. That old yam about “Truth is stranger than Fiction” is sadly too true.
Take, for instance, the Zombie outbreak in Miami Florida a few years ago. Zombie outbreaks are relatively “normal” in fiction. But the way it happened in “real life” was just too bizarre. A guy decided to smoke bath salts. BATH SALTS. That stuff ladies put in their bath to smell nice? Yea, dumb-ass decided “Hey, if I catch that stuff on fire and breathe the fumes I might get high!” So he did it. The resulting “high” had him running down the freeway, STARK NAKED, attacking people, and literally trying to EAT THEM. (PSA: Don’t smoke weird stuff kids!)
I’m told that this sort of behavior isn’t all that odd when people are smoking bath salts. Knowing that, why would anyone do this to themselves? (and that’s on top of the question of why would anyone have done it in the first place?)
If it makes you feel better, those aren’t real bath salts. Those are drugs commonly called bath salts.
…okay, that, I had not heard of. 0_0