Tumblr is a cesspit of bad advice and poorly constructed arguments, but thing that really gets my goat is the plethora of bad writing advice on there and, consequently, floating around on Pinterest. Why does this bother me so much, you ask? Well, for one, because I have a hard time passing up correcting people I know are blatantly wrong. But the real reason is this: in the era of self-publishing, there’s a plethora of really, really bad fiction. Like, really bad. Seriously. And do you know where most of it comes from? Dear little tumblr users taking this terrible advice because they know no better. So, in the name of bettering the fiction of the future (and a little for my own gratification), I am starting a column in which I correct some of the terrible advice I see on tumblr. Enjoy.
I ran across this gem a while back, and it’s been sitting in the back of my mind, quietly eating against what little faith I had left in the human race ever since.
If you’ve made it through all that, congratulations. I’m going to get the nitpicky stuff out of the way first, before I get into all the problems with this. First, all of the commenters have atrocious grammar and punctuation tendencies. Second, using the phrase “I’m sure most of us” after the phrase “I see some of you” doesn’t make it less abrasive. But whatever, it’s tumblr. It has its own grammar and etiquette rules, right?
The second commenter is just all kinds of ignorant, arguing that one word is preferable over another that means basically the same thing. Go buy a thesaurus. Or a sense of perspective. I’m ignoring that one.
Now, to the writing advice. I’m not saying all of this is wrong. Of course there are some racist undertones to having certain characteristics be common in villains, though I’d argue it’s more sociohistorically-based than race-based, but semantics. But, like tumblr does with everything, it has taken a kernel of truth and blown it up like some kind of corrosive, flaming, atypical popcorn.
What this… I’m assuming they’re a writer but sincerely hoping not, for the sake of the craft—what this person fails to understand is a) not everything is about race or their precious sensibilities, and b) any sort of concept of basic human physiognomy or nonverbal expression. Which, I mean, I get it. They have a big tumblr following, which means they probably don’t spend a lot of time communicating offline.
First rule of thumb, if you want to write humans, go talk to some and look at some.
But here’s the thing. None of the things the first or third commenter said really have anything to do with race. (Now, I see how they could, given a particularly ignorant and racist writer, but in general, to say that they are absolutely about race is, well, wrong.)
Do you know why babies and baby animals are so cute? Because they have big, wide, round eyes. Regardless of race. Regardless of species. Big eyes are one of the traits that encourage others to take care of them. So naturally, if you want your reader to care for a character, you’ll give them characteristics of something that needs to be taken care of. And since human babies are the picture of innocence, and since they’re born with full-size eyes in their little baby heads, your pure, innocent protagonist gets wide, round eyes. Science.
But I’m not done. Do you know what people do with their faces when they’re angry? When they’re scheming? When they’re disgusted? When they’re looking down on someone else? When they’re evaluating? When they’re doing any number of villainous things? That’s right: they narrow their eyes. Animals do it, too.
You know what else animals do when they narrow their eyes? They hunt. Picture a cat. Not only do its eyes narrow, its pupils narrow—until its eyes are nothing more than slits. Everyone has seen this, whether in person or on television. So how would you describe someone you want to come across as dangerous? With narrowed eyes. With pinched features. With eyebrows drawn together. And guess what that’s not? Racist! It’s playing off basic human instincts for survival.
And my dear anti-classist, anti-ableist, third commenting friend, you don’t read much, do you? Or, you know, think much? So let’s approach this logically. Why would a character have scars? Because he got cut. Why would a character be missing a limb? Because it was lost somehow. Why would a character be walking with a limp? Because she broke a bone that never healed correctly. Why would a character be missing teeth? Because they were knocked out. Do you know how all of those things would come about? Fighting. Losing. Getting better. Fighting again. Winning. You know, all those things that a villain needs to do for a half-decent backstory. And why would they all leave disabling marks? Because the character didn’t have the money or capability to fix them. You know what’s possibly the strongest motivation a villain can have? Desperation. You know what else is one of the strongest? Vengeance. Put those two together and you’ve got yourself a pretty great villain.
Pansy, motivation-less villains don’t last very long.
Characterization is the act of creating a fictional character and imbuing it with a distinctive nature and unique features. A lot of things go into this: background, choices, personality, motivations, socioeconomic status, family, friends, political climate, natural surroundings, etc. People aren’t born with scars. It’s how they got them that makes the character interesting. And yeah, a seasoned antagonist is going to have a hell of a lot more of them than a young, untested protagonist.
The problem comes in when your book ends the same way. If you’re not testing your characters, what’s the point of reading your book? (Hint: there’s not one.)
So yes, laurellyneleake is correct in one thing: know why you do what you do. But, actually educate yourselves, please. Don’t just turn to tumblr.