TSTL: Stupid Is Not Character Development

Too Stupid To Live (TSTL) is that moment when the heroine decides to go down that darkened alley, even knowing the bad guys might be there. It’s when the heroine is home all alone on the phone with a confessed killer and she goes to answer the doorbell. You get the idea. It’s when normal logic is thrown out the window and a character does something utterly stupid. This often results in a book being chucked at a wall.

I’ve been trying to think of examples of heroes having TSTL moments, and I’m having a hard time coming up with any. TSTL doesn’t seem to be as rampant among male characters as it is among female. I think this is because there is something going on with these moments that’s just not being wholly conveyed by the author.

Why TSTL Happens

One reason I think TSTL moments happen is a little something that’s hard to define: intuition. Culturally, I think we’ve come to accept that men are more logical and women are more intuitive. So we tend to see male characters thinking through their options before choosing a course of action, whereas in female characters women’s intuition might be happening but it is not being explained. Perhaps because it involves a discussion of feelings (something writers are told to show not tell), perhaps because intuition is difficult to define when it’s different for everyone, or perhaps it’s because it seems intuition has no logic, no explanation at all. It seems like it just is what it is.

Another reason I think TSTL moments happen is the author wants the character to go through a particular experience to push the plot forward, but s/he has forgotten to set it up. Much like not explaining intuition as the reason for a character’s choices, the author has forgotten to lead the story through all the steps leading up to a particular decision, leaving other avenues of choice obvious to the reader because they’ve not been eliminated by the author.

I also think sometimes an author wants to show a character who is inexperienced, growing up, and learning to navigate life. I think perhaps the author sees these TSTL moments as learning experiences, but the result is just trial-and-error experiments gone wrong. You want your characters to learn from their mistakes, but not by making them stupid.

What To Do About TSTL

Authors, you can still have your heroine go down that alley or open that door, or even have your professional assassin leave a body lying out in the open for the detective to find. Characters can act out of character, and it can still work. Here are a few suggestions:

1) Distractions – Show us your character planning to act logically, but then gets distracted. You just have to make the distraction bigger and more important than the dumb moment about to happen. That girl on the phone can go out the front door, if she’s distracted by a screaming baby.

2) Interruptions – Show us your character planning to act logically, but then gets interrupted. Again, the interruption has to be life or death– the utmost of importance, or it’s not going to be believable. (Two TSTL moments don’t make it smart!) Your assassin can leave that body in the open if she’s interrupted by someone shooting at her.

3) A Really Bad Day – Show us how it should go, then put the character through a bad day and show us the stupid moment. Use the stupid moment to show the character’s stress level. Maybe your assassin leaves the body in the open because she was robbed earlier and no longer has her shovel and can’t find a substitute.

4) Women’s Intuition – You can use women’s intuition effectively without getting too “woo-woo”. Just describe the intuition as a feeling. “Despite what my friend said about his reputation, I still felt Jake was a nice guy.” You don’t have to get all Star Wars about it (“I have a bad feeling about this.”) but something along those lines doesn’t hurt, either. In this instance, it’s okay to “tell”. If you try to “show” a character navigating through her life on intuition you will lose the reader.

I’m thinking sometimes “feelings” are eliminated because of bad writing advice. I’ve seen some writing groups absolutely adamant that you can’t have the word “feel” in your manuscript. They say the writing “lazy” whenever the word “feel” or its variations are used. I disagree. I think there are times when we the readers need to know what a character is feeling or sensing. Especially in urban fantasy and other speculative fiction, where characters can have psychic powers or use magic. Clear and concise writing can go a long way, even when it seems to go against “the rules”.

5) Roadblocks – This is when a character considers all the options, and tries the smart options only to be roadblocked, thus coming around to having no choice but to do that thing we all know is not going to go well. This has the added advantage of building tension. The girl on the phone runs to the back door, but sees a shadow there, so she has no choice but to open the front door. And of course let the killer inside.

Finally, I think you can have a character who is inexperienced and learning to make choices. She’s going to make mistakes, of course. But the thing about young people who make obviously wrong choices is that they are adamant they’re making the right choice. Anyone who’s ever parented a stubborn child knows this. Sometimes lessons have to be learned the hard way. But remember to show a character who is absolutely convinced they’ve made the right decision. It’s unwise to go for a run down dark streets at 9:30pm, and we would counsel our teenagers to never do such a thing. But a teen might still insist on that run– why? Maybe to help a friend? Maybe to prevent a situation from happening? She has to have a really good reason to be out alone at night. She can’t just run for her health or because she’s on the soccer team and missed practice or because the parents aren’t home so there’s no one to stop her. There’s inexperienced and then there’s stupid.

How do you feel about TSTL moments?

Is Western Fiction Poised to Rise from the Dead?

Trends seem to happen in twenty year cycles, and looking back on it, this is some of what was big two decades ago:

Young Guns went on to inspire a sequel a few years later.

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The western theme also influenced a lot of music. This is just a sample of what was playing by 1991:

U2 – Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses
Metallica – The Unforgiven
Aerosmith – Janie’s Got a Gun

In 2002 Joss Whedon tried for a resurrection of the Old West when he made Firefly, mashing the western with science fiction, but audiences just weren’t ready. The ratings weren’t there and the series was cancelled after just one season.

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But Firefly has gained many, many fans in the years following the cancellation. And this may be a reason for a recent increase in cowboy romance.

But I don’t think audiences are looking for the same old Old West. I think they’re finally ready for new takes on the final frontier. If Joss Whedon’s Firefly was to come back to the big or small screen today, the audience would be there.

Now the Old West serves as back-drop for urban fantasy. (I love it!) Check out these titles:

THE DEAD OF WINTER
Lee Collins

Cora and her husband hunt things – things that shouldn’t exist.

When the marshal of Leadville, Colorado, comes across a pair of mysterious deaths, he turns to Cora to find the creature responsible. But if Cora is to overcome the unnatural tide threatening to consume the small town, she must first confront her own tragic past as well as her present.

A stunning supernatural novel that will be quickly joined by a very welcome sequel, She Returns From War, in February 2013.
Coming in OctoberAmazon CA| Amazon US | Chapters

The Signs of the Zodiac Series
Vicki Pettersson

Before you plan your next trip to Vegas, you might want to answer…

Are you Light? Or are you Shadow? Because there’s another world behind the bright lights and nonstop action of Sin city … one where Light and Shadow wage an immortal war for supremacy.

But the eternal battle has reached the tipping point, and only one person can change the future – casino heiress, photographer, and vigilante: Joanna Archer.

And no one knows the darkness within better than she does.

[The old west appears in the form of a hidden world called Midheaven in this series, and can be found in books 4-6, CITY OF SOULS, CHEAT THE GRAVE, and NEON GRAVEYARD.)
Get it – Amazon CA | Amazon US | Chapters

BLOOD RIDERS
Michael P. Spradlin

Civil War veteran Jonas R. Hollister is recruited by the U.S. government to hunt down and destroy an ancient tribe of vampires that is terrorizing the frontier territories of the Wild West in this action-packed new novel from New York Times bestselling author Michael P. Spradlin

See the UFL review of BLOOD RIDERS.

Get It: Amazon CA | Amazon US | Chapters 

What’s your favourite western? Tell us in the comments.

The Wall Between Authors and Reviewers

I was appalled last week to learn of self-published authors skyrocketing the bestseller lists after paying for reviews of their books. Not just a few reviews. They were paying for tens to hundreds of reviews via the same person or a service. As the saying goes, it takes ten years to become an overnight success, so if you see an “instant bestseller” you should proceed with caution. These self-published authors should be no exception.

I work very hard for the reviews I write. I read the books. I form opinions– both good and bad– and I frame my opinions so the book hits its target audience. Aside from the love of reading, the joy of interacting with authors, and the occasional review copy, I don’t get paid for  this work. Sometimes I don’t even get acknowledgement from the authors.

The world of online book reviews has changed a lot from when I started in 2008. Back then the biggest scandal was Mrs. Giggles. Now it seems there is a new scandal every week.

Now I hear a group of authors feel they need to band together and sign a petition vowing they will never pay for a review. Is this really necessary? Isn’t it just common sense that it’s unethical to pay for a good review?

The entire book community has changed from when I started. Is asking for a review considered soliciting? Is a review copy considered payment? Do book reviewers have to buy all their own books to be considered legit? I don’t have answers to any of these questions anymore. With more and more examples of reviewers and authors behaving badly it seems like no one else does, either.

But I have noticed a wall has been built between authors and reviewers, made up of the bad behaviour of a few. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Authors and publishers, when you find a good reviewer, please take a moment and thank the reviewer by linking to their site. It’s really all the payment a reviewer needs.


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Defining Urban Fantasy

Wikipedia defines urban fantasy as having to take place in a city. But as we ought to know by now, Wikipedia is often wrong. If we are to strictly define urban fantasy as having to take place in a city, then we would be leaving out so many great stories, including Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series or Maggie Stiefvater’s Wolves of Mercy Falls series. This strict definition has prompted some to coin the term “rural fantasy” to describe books like Harris’s. I don’t think the distinction is necessary.

It’s not about the city.

Good urban fantasy, like any genre, does incorporate the setting as an integral character. It will be flawed, it will change over the course of the novel, the weather will shift to reflect the mood of the story. But as with any genre the setting is not the overriding characteristic of urban fantasy.

Characteristics of urban fantasy include a flawed protagonist, a mystery to solve or a murderer to catch, fight scenes, love scenes (or at least the allusion to love scenes), and fantasy creatures or magic. The thing that urban fantasy does so well is it borrows from other genres, most notably crime/mystery, action, horror, romance and fantasy.

Urban fantasy may not be the best name for the genre, but there are worse problems with the other names some have tried in place of urban fantasy.
• Modern fantasy – doesn’t work because the stories are not always modern. There are great urban fantasies set in Victorian times. Check out Colleen Gleason or Kristen Callihan. These stories are most definitely not traditional fantasy, but more closely resemble urban fantasy.
• Dark fantasy – doesn’t work because the stories are not always dark. Urban fantasy can also be quite humorous and light. Check out Mark Henry, Michelle Rowen, Stacia Kane. Especially in the case of YA, urban fantasy can very light.

Some characteristics that were used to describe urban fantasy no longer apply. Protagonists are not always female. Stories are not always told from a first person point of view.

The “urban” in urban fantasy is a metaphor. “Urban” distinguishes these stories as being different from “epic” or “traditional” or “high” fantasy. Urban fantasy is “urban” in the sense that a city is thought to be forward-thinking, advanced and contained– a sociological microcosm. In the way that a city is a separate society with its own culture, so too in UF, fantasy creatures live a separate society or separate culture. These hidden worlds are there for the protagonist to discover. But even this is not a requirement as there are plenty of urban fantasy stories where the fantasy world is exposed, even incorporated into the rest of society.

Urban fantasy is urban in the same sense as urban legend or urban myth. In fact, if you go back to Wikipedia and look up urban legend, you’ll see a definition that’s better suited to urban fantasy. “A form of modern folklore”, “does not necessarily orginate in an urban area”. “The compelling appeal . . . is its elements of mystery, horror, fear or humor.”

Part of the appeal with urban legend lies in not knowing if the story is true, but the possibility for its truth exists. The fun is in the plausibility. But in urban fantasy we know the story isn’t true, we know these creatures don’t walk among us. The appeal here is not the plausibility; it’s the imagination: wouldn’t it be fun if it could be true?

The fun lies in the wish. This is the “fantasy” part of “urban fantasy”. It’s “fantasy” for the creatures and magic, but also for the “daydream” or “make-believe” element. Take for example, the boss you’d love to confront in a dark alley but can’t because, well, it wouldn’t be legal. Wish fulfilled in urban fantasy, when that boss turns to be an actual vampire, and as the hero of the story you get to blow his head off. In a “straight” genre, this would be a tragic tale as your hero is carted off to jail, but in urban fantasy your hero might be part of a vampire extermination team. Wish fulfilled.

The definition of urban fantasy comes down to this: contemporary tales that borrow story-telling elements from mystery, horror, humour, romance, and fantasy, especially fantasy creatures and/or magic, with the setting often forming an integral part of the story, but not necessarily taking place in an urban area.

Urban fantasy is a growing, changing genre, and there’s lots of landscape still to be explored. With a few big names closing their series (Kelley Armstrong, Kim Harrison), I think we can expect to see the genre continue to reinvent itself. As Publisher’s Weekly noted about Vicki Pettersson forth-coming urban fantasy novel, THE TAKEN, “The resulting irresistibly good yarn proves that there’s still plenty of room for brilliant innovation in urban fantasy.”

If you’d rather call it “contemporary fantasy”, that’s okay, too. Just don’t look for urban fantasy to become a ghost town any time soon.

Same But Different: Twin Titles

What do you guys think of twin titles? Here are some examples. Post your thoughts in the comments.

Personal Demon vs Personal Demons
 

Bitten vs The Bitten
 

on the prowl vs on the prowl
 

Biting the Bullet vs Bite the Bullet
 

The Devil You Know vs The Devil You Know
 

Hotter Than Hell vs Hotter Than Hell
 

Blue Moon vs Blue Moon vs Blue Moon
  

Hunter’s Moon vs Hunter’s Moon
 

The Vampire’s Kiss vs The Vampire’s Kiss vs The Vampire’s Kiss
  

No homework required– the state of journalism today?

We’ve seen headline grabbing before. It seems to be the new wave in journalism. Forget doing your homework. Reporting is now all about making a headline. You don’t have to research your story; you just have to cash in on a trending topic.

Take this article by Jen Doll at The Atlantic Wire as the latest example. The title, “The Greatest Girl Characters of Young Adult Literature“, coupled with a picture from The Hunger Games movie, suggests an article examining a range of books up to an including Suzanne Collins’s THE HUNGER GAMES.

Then we get into the first paragraph:

This kicks off our new series, Y.A. for Grownups, in which we talk about Y.A. literature—from the now nostalgia-infused stories we devoured as kids to more contemporary tomes being read by young people today. Despite what Joel Stein wants, grownups are reading Y.A. Let’s embrace it.

Here we are further shown the article will include contemporary books. We are also told the article forms the first in a series that will look at ” Y.A. for Grownups”. This should mean crossover YA with older protagonists, but that’s not what’s featured in the article. No. The article, despite The Hunger Games mentions, lists among “The Greatest Girl Characters” mostly middle grade books. Protags of age 12 and younger.

(Do I even need to mention the Joel Stein link and reference as further proof of headline grabbing?)

Don’t get me wrong.  I love the books listed here, but they are not YA, definitely not crossover worthy, and not nearly contemporary enough. — Are “Grownups” even reading these books? Perhaps as bedtime stories to their kids. — The most recent book listed is THE BOOK THIEF, published in 2005. I wonder when the last time the author of the article actually read a book classified as a YA. Looks to be about the mid-80s with a few exceptions.

Reading through the comments, I see I am not alone in my thoughts. Many comments wonder if Jen Doll consulted with any librarians. I wonder if she even did an Internet search? How could she have missed YA book bloggers and on-line organizations, if she had?

Like I said, homework is no longer a requirement.

Maybe I’m being a little harsh, it is after all the first article in a series, but something tells me if this is the list of the “Greatest” girl characters, then the rest is going to be all downhill from here.

What are some of your favourite “Girl Characters”? Who should really be on this list?