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.