Left Behind Fridays Writing Seminar: Research, The Danger of Superlative Characters, and Basic Goddamn Human Characterization

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In my last post, I assured you that my health program was not some doomed New Year’s resolution.  And it’s not.  This does not mean, however, that I don’t have any such resolutions.

For example, when I started this blog, I fully intended for discussions about writing theory to be part of it.  Part of my plan for this was to include link post to Fred Clark’s Left Behind Fridays, which, as I’ve mentioned before, may be the Internet’s greatest guide on what not to do for writers.  And yet, I’ve only made one such post.

Still, I have made the possibly-doomed resolution to rectify this, beginning today, with the following link:

NRA: Don’t Smile For The Camera

(“NRA” is short for “Nicolae: Rise of the Antichrist”, the third book in the Left Behind series.)

This post actually talks about some of the greatest pitfalls awaiting the writer.

First is the danger of the superlative character: the one who’s the greatest in the world at this, the worst at that, the most charismatic, the most beautiful.  The problem with creating a character like this is that sooner or later, you’re expected to produce an example of their greatness.  If their greatness is in something physical – dancing, fighting, sheer appearance – that problem is kicked down the road until such time, if ever, that you’re fortunate enough to have your work brought to the screen.  But if your character is, say, a great speaker or a great investigative reporter, sooner or later your audience is going to want their words, and you are going to have to come up with them.

This is one of the many cases where show, don’t tell, is your friend.  Drizzt do’Urden spins around so fast that you can barely see him and eighteen orcs just fall down.  Do you need the text to tell you that he’s a great fighter?  Do you need the other characters to gush about how awesome he is with his swords?  No, you do not.  Of course, this being R.A. Salvatore, you probably get those things anyway.  But I digress.

The real problem with the scene Fred is discussing is that the superlative trap is compounded by a lack of research.  If you have a character who is the Greatest Ever at something, it’s best to at least do a bit of research so that you have some idea what the greatest looks like.  Or at least what the activity that they are great at looks like!

For example, after writing this post (and, more importantly, seeing the clips within it), do you think I’m ever going to write a scene where someone spins around in the middle of a sword fight, or falls down wearing plate armor and can’t get up?  No, I will not!  And the fact that most of my audience wouldn’t know any better doesn’t change that.  Real knowledge allows you to include, almost unconsciously, details that will make a scene feel real to an audience.  Relying on best-guess and decades-old memory to cover your ignorance allows you to include things like the Global Potentate and his second-in-command arranging the flight crew on their plane for a photo-op while a nuclear war is going on.

Which brings us to Fred’s title: while personally arranging the stewardesses for the photo-op taken during a nuclear war, the Global Potentate tells them not to smile for the camera.  Yes.  Not to smile.  During a nuclear war.  That brings us to the real biggest problem with the Left Behind series, one that you’ll run into over and over if you read through Fred’s archive: simple goddamn human characterization.  I’ll let Fred give you the details.

(Well, the biggest problem other than the writers honestly believing that the protagonists are bright, shining heroes and likeable to boot, despite the most atrocious behavior.  If you read the archive, you’ll see plenty of both.  I’ll just be bringing you the most vivid examples.)

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1 Comment

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One response to “Left Behind Fridays Writing Seminar: Research, The Danger of Superlative Characters, and Basic Goddamn Human Characterization

  1. Pingback: Left Behind Fridays Writing Seminar: If You Want Your Characters To Be Skeptical, Don’t Give Them A Front-Row Seat To A Miracle That Would Convert Richard Dawkins | Dreams of the Shining Horizon

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