How to Break Bad Habits

Stop doing that or I’ll bury you alive in a box doesn’t work markedly well. Cleaning your room does. But this is not about that kind of habit.

Now that fanfic is a money-making thing — well, probably not for anything still under copyright, but take it from someone who reads a lot of Jane Austen fanfic on KULL, someone is making money off it — it occurs to me a lot of people are at risk of acquiring what I used to call “Write for hire bad habits.”  (Because it’s more or less the same process.  At least if you do media tie-ins.

And then it occurred to me the habits aren’t so different from Mary Sue or from what makes message fic obviously message fic and bad. And since no one really objects to political fiction, only to bad political fiction (No, really, trust me. I love Clifford Simak even if — partly because of where he lived — I disagree with 90% of his ideas on the world.) perhaps a post on what those habits are and how to overcome them is in order.

I think the reason I’m aware of “bad habits from fanfic” is twofold.  First, while I never wrote fanfic as such until my mid thirties, when I thought no one would ever publish me, and at least fanfic (in got read, I did a lot of “fanfic” and/or Mary Sue fic, of a sort.

No, there is no contradiction. It wasn’t written, see.  When I was a kid, I … well, I supposed I invented RPGs. It was in self defense. I was totally uncoordinated, unable to jump rope or do what we called “the elastic game” (imagine an elastic loop, held at each end around the ankles of girls standing about five feet apart. A third girl executes a series of jumps, depending on the level either avoiding or being required to touch/pull the elastic in certain ways.) If I wanted to have any friends I would have to create fascinating games. Well, I read a lot. So taking a part, we played Robin Hood, or Three Musketeers, or WWI spies, or…  Whatever fascinated me at the moment.  What happened was I’d give the story line at the beginning of recess, with some things to be decided, like whether the “enemy” won the swordfight, or whatever.  But mostly, I came up with the story lines, based on someone else’s world, and fell into a lot of the fanfic tropes.

Later on my friends and I made up stories we told each other. Also often based on TV or books. Same thing.

Second, when I came into fanfic I had been writing for12 years, and had several novels written, including Darkship Thieves (in the drawer.)

So I saw clearly what some of those habits were, and that they were not, in fact, good storytelling.  All this to say I’m not special — truly — it’s just that most people start in fanfic, while I entered with some modicum of experience in writing already.  So, it was easy to go “Oh, yeah, I used to do that” and “it doesn’t work/make sense.”

Of course, recently I’ve worked in other people’s worlds (and had to make sure not to do this stuff) and I’ve read a ton of Jane Austen fanfic and saw these things on display.

1- most common mistake ever.  Your character/main character of fanfic/whatever is the center of EVERYONE’s universe.

This was brought to mind by reading a JA fanfic in which a maid is “transported” by seeing Darcy and Elizabeth share a secret kiss, and has to close her eyes and catch her breath and go “how much that man loved. How deeply.”

Okay, while it is certainly possible for servants in the regency to be turned on by their betters carrying on, (though probably not most of the time) and while servants certainly gossip, why would the girl be so moved that this man and this woman “loved so deeply”?  Does she know they’re the main characters?  no. Seriously, no. Let’s talk, okay? This is NOT how any of this works.

The maid — or the third ensign in the academy, or the guy two years after Harry Potter at Hogwarts would mostly  be interested in her own life.  She might smirk when she caught these people (who are not her siblings, her mom, her dad, and certainly not herself) kissing and hope some day she found a guy like that. BUT HER INTEREST WOULD BE FROM HER POV.  She wouldn’t react to them as though they were celebrities into whose story she’s projecting herself.

Which brings us to how this carries on to other fiction: If people are moved to tears by your character’s misfortunes, and they’re not closely related to him/in love with him/otherwise closely connected? You’re committing what I call “And the whole city rejoiced.”  (From a fan fic in which actually ALL OF LONDON rejoices that Darcy proposed to Elizabeth.

This is not remotely believable, and robs your entire world of verisimilitude. Even kings and queens aren’t that loved. Sure, all of London celebrated the birth of son(s) (two, if I’m remembering correctly, died in infancy) to Henry VIII it was only because there was free wine and food distributed, and because an heir meant they wouldn’t go back to the mess that was the War of the Roses. Not because they were so thrilled this guy had a son.  People really only get “transported” by the events in the lives of people they care deeply about.  And minor characters don’t know they’re minor.

2- He was mean to main character/Mary Sue, therefore he’s capable of all crimes.  Let’s call this the Gaucheness Equals Pedophilia. This is from a Jane Austen fanfic in which Mr. Collins, who is a bit of a prick in the books, and terribly unattractive in the A & E mini-series is therefore evilbad and ends up being revealed as a pedophile who goes around killing people or something.

You find this A LOT in fanfic. For instance, Lady Catherine, who is stuck up is made into a horrible person who kills people or whatever.

You find this in the fiction of people who are transitioning away from fanfic/are raw beginners/haven’t thought through their story very well.

People who disagree with the character, or have minor issues with the character are slowly, by degrees, made into “the worst person ever.”

3 – What you want the character to do might not make any sense. The characgters have to make internal sense.
So, when Darcy falls in love with Elizabeth because the story calls for it, even though in the author’s retelling, Elizabeth is a bitch on wheels, it’s a bad fanfic.

When everyone loves Mary Sue even though she acts like an idiot and is always getting in trouble, that’s bad fiction.

When a character is “morally right” because he’s in a designated victim class, even though he’s a little sh*t in revealed actions, that’s bad fiction.

I want to call this error the “let’s bang on my deathbed” because I just ran into that in a fan fic.

Because… coff… for people who write romance, be it fanfic or not.

In my experience of life, both lived and heard about in the last half a century: men are always interested in sex, unless near death.  Women OTOH if sick lose all interest in sex.  This is the origin of “not tonight honey, I have a headache.”

Now these things are a spectrum, so I’m sure some men are not interested in sex if they have a paper cut, and some women are hot to trot with terminal cancer. MAYBE.  (Evolutionary reasons dictate the men trying to pass genes on, while women try to conserve their strength and bad time to be pregnant.)

BUT there is a level of injury where neither men nor women are going to be interested in doing the beast with two backs.

So… a Regency virgin with a broken arm, so ill she has to be carried to her room and was unconscious only a day ago, is not going to be thinking lascivious thoughts about her fiance, and wishing they could have sex right then.
That is Mary Sue and author insertion.  The author thinks it would be fun if the characters had sex, but has forgotten that people who are very seriously injured can’t or won’t engage in woopeeh!

It’s bad fiction, just as stopping in a dangerous situation to preach the uprising of the working class (except as a distraction) or conferring virtues on your characters but not showing them is bad fiction.

4- Victimhood = Virtue.

This is to be fair not only habitual to fanfic, but habitual to millenials.

Guys, I have news. You can be the most mistreated person in the world, and still be an actual ass.  In fact, in real life, it’s not unusual to find that someone everyone hates and treats horribly has… issues.  The issues might be minor, and not “they deserve to be mistreated”. For instance, perhaps they have hygiene issues. Or they have truly really bad social manners. Or whatever.  This isn’t a reason for someone to be badly treated, but it is an explanation.

On the other hand, there are people who are horribly mistreated and who earned it, and if you come in from outside a group you might think “everyone is horrible to this person” and not see the person is a serial leech or worse.

I have a tendency to try to defend the underdog, and TRUST ME I learned that there are reasons “Everyone hates Joe” usually after I jump in to defend Joe.

Of course, yes, sure, if you’re writing of someone in the past and women are oppressed, or people of color are oppressed or whatever they might be the salt of the Earth. Maybe.

Look, making your character the underdog is a good way to get him or her sympathy. It’s just good fiction to give him or her something to overcome that’s internal, though.  It’s neither unusual nor unlikely that someone mistreated by everyone else is bitter or learns to treat other people badly.  And revenge is not a really GOOD behavior.

Look, make your characters real people. Real people have flaws.  And even in a broadly discriminating society, some people swim with the current, or take advantage of the circumstances.  No one expects the kick from beneath, if you know what I mean.

And then there’s losing all sense of proportion, and having your “victim” kill the “oppressors” defined as broad classes, or do horrible things to them, even though these individual people have DONE NOTHING WRONG.
At that point any reader who isn’t as deluded as the writer is not going to just stop reading.  He or she is going to be really worried about the mind of the writer.

If you paint in “Oppressors-bad” and “victims-good” you create very boring books. If you follow that logic, you often create horrifying books and not in a way you meant to.  Of course, if your goal is not to be read by anyone who might not already agree with you (Seems to be the goal of a bunch of people) carry on.

And if your goal is victim porn, feel free to make Mary or whoever the victimiest victim in your Austen fanfic. Just count me out, because that’s bad fiction.

In other words, step back, okay. Think of this story if it weren’t based on someone else’s and/or remember it’s not based on someone else’s.

Make yourself conscious that the reader might not share your interests/prejudices. Woo them to your side with excellent story telling.

Otherwise you’re just boring everyone not inside your head at the moment. And the person inside your head won’t pay you for the story.


14 thoughts on “How to Break Bad Habits

  1. Very good advice. I have been very turned off by some writers because the characters just did not make sense. Evil monsters and valiant heroes should have understandable motivations.

    1. I have two categories of this:

      “Peeking at the GMs Notes” for when a character does something that only makes sense if they have information that they could not possibly have, and

      “Not Part of His Thinly-Sketched Character” for when the actions make no sense for the character even if you assume omniscience. (HT to SFDebris for that one, from a Voyager episode where everyone had to tie themselves in knots to avoid giving away the stupid twist ending.)

  2. “Victimhood = Virtue”.

    Thinking of a possible plot for a murder mystery story.

    The Amateur Detective decides that the authorities are wrong to suspect a certain servant of being the murderer and decides to find the real murderer (because the police are always wrong).

    Of course, the servant is black, gay, former slave and walks with a bad limp thus “his a victim” thus can’t be the murderer.

    So the Amateur goes hunting wild geese in all the blind alleys even as more murders happen.

    Finally at the end, the Amateur is attacked by the murderer and as the Amateur dies the greatest shock is when the face of the murderer is seen.

    The victimized servant is the Murderer. 😈

    1. “She Woke Up”, 1992 movie starring Lindsay Wagner. A wealthy socialite wakes up from a coma induced by an attempted murder. Everyone suspects her husband. She defends him. At the end, he traps and again attempts to kill her, saying “Just because people think I’m a villain, doesn’t mean I’m not one”.

  3. I look at these things in isolation, and think “Okay, I know that.”

    Thing is, my memory works none too well. I remember hearing Correia say that writing has to be comprehensible before I wrote an incomprehensible mess.

    I don’t know what I’m doing, how to organize my notes so that I have the important details in front of me when making the decisions, or how I’m going to manage the testing and rework.

    So, bookmarked.

    1. Bob, have you ever worked with a mind-mapper? FreeMind is one I’ve used. You put info in a bubble, and attach more bubbles to your bubbles to track what goes where and who does what. You can do it with software or on a big whiteboard, or on a big sheet of paper. The whiteboard or paper can be beneficial because you can have them up on the wall where you can glance at them without going out of your document. The mind-mapping software can be beneficial because there’s no real limit to the amount of information you can put into it. Try one out and see if it is helpful for you.

      1. I looked at FreeMind, but I prefer not to install the Java runtime environment for security reasons. That issue, not being able to get a working installation, and a software package that turned out to be more a trial version than a crippled version that goes forever.

        I may simply need to purchase something. Or at least try it out on a different machine. I have one someone else does the security for, and I think it has the JRE.

        Yeah, I have a couple things I need to do on the other machine, now that I think about it. And I need to work on cleaning up at least my daily living notes.

  4. “If you paint in “Oppressors-bad” and “victims-good” you create very boring books. If you follow that logic, you often create horrifying books and not in a way you meant to.”


  5. There’s a fanfic I’ve been doing as a practice project, and part of it is that a male character finds himself surrounded by a number of attractive female characters. Part of his early arc whether there’s any point in trying to pursue the woman that he’s most interested in (he is not, in the beginning, even remotely suitable for her in terms of social status), and related to that is his need to set aside physical attraction to other women while he’s doing that.

    (The canon story is a tedious harem ‘romantic’ ‘comedy’ set in a less tedious Japanese fantasy pastiche of Early Modern Era Europe, so quite a few readers dislike the characters while enjoying the setting.)

    Anyway, one of the criticisms I’ve gotten is that ‘but in real life, guys aren’t _that_ much hornier than girls!’ Personally, I find myself suspecting that those making that complaint are likely to be most of the few female readers of the fic, and those who are male have bought into the lie that there are no major differences between the sexes.


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