Better Heroes through Fabulous Villains: 5 tips and tricks

Snidely Whiplash

Back when the Roman Empire was a somewhat smaller world-consuming juggernaut than was it before the zenith of its rise, its main rival was nation called Carthage. History teachers have been known speak of a Carthaginian named Hannibal who herded elephants over the Alps in a valiant effort to destroy as much of the Roman army as possible. These teachers tend to focus more on Hannibal’s elephants than the fact that, well, he lost! The Romans just sidestepped the large, lumbering elephants and shot the Carthaginians with missiles.


So if history is written by the winners, why did Rome immortalize Hannibal as a brilliant strategist rather than the resource-wasting, not-winner he was?

Smarter people than I am speculate the amended story made the history books because Rome understood the power of a well-told war story. There is little glory for the hero who defeats a lame-ass villain with one punch.

Give to Ceasar

So in order to make Rome look fierce in the eyes of posterity, they had to make Carthage look fierce as well.

While revisionist history is a sad, sad thing for lots of reasons, the storytelling principle employed by the Romans to make themselves look good is pretty solid. In order to get heroic deeds from our heroes, we need to give them truly villainous villains.

To that end, here are 5 things to bear in mind when conjuring your main character’s arch nemesis on the typewritten page:
1. Motivation – This is where authors get to humanize their villains via tragic backstory, good intentions gone twisted, or… no, I guess those are the 2 biggies. In farce, the villain need be nothing more than an obstacle for the hero to overcome. Comedies like Much Ado About Nothing and The Great Muppet Caper (I would totally go to see that double feature) go so far as to give the villain a chance to explain the motivation behind his dastardly deeds, and he proudly excuses them all in saying “I’m a villain!” While that might be how the hero sees it, a villain’s villainy is generally just a tool by which he aims to achieve a goal. For instance, Captain Hook not just a mean old man who kills small boys for fun. He seeks vengeance because a while back, a sadistic delinquent cut off his hand and fed it to a crocodile. Knowing why an antagonist is what he is doesn’t make him less antagonizing, but it makes his actions seem way more believable than a villain whose evil only exists to serve the plot.

2. Charm – For my money, the best villains do not bellow and do not lose control. They are smooth-talking con men or women with style, finesse, and all the best lines. Then, around 2/3 of the way through the adventure, they do something truly cruel to a character who is precious to you, and you hate them so very much. The betrayal feels far deeper because they made you love them in the first half of the story.

3. Good points – You don’t have give your villain a cornucopia of positive attributes, but a few here and there will make him seem way more real to your readers. Does the his evil have boundaries? Is he volunteer firefighter or an advocate against child prostitution when he’s not committing genocide? And how does he see himself? Cartoonishly villain-esque as he now seems to anyone but himself and his mama, Adolf Hitler did not see himself as Lex Luthor on crack. He saw himself as Superman fighting for truth, justice, and the Aryan Way.

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4. Intelligence – few things are more disappointing than if the villain is hopelessly out-classed by the hero. The best / worst example I can think of is King Stephan from the Maleficent movie a while back. There was a multitude of things wrong with that movie, but as far as characters were concerned, every one of them could be distilled down into a 2-word, “Adjective Noun” combo:

Stephan = Angry King
Aurora = Happy Princess
Phillip = Naive Prince
Flora / Fauna / Merryweather = Ditsy Nanny

Maleficent was an “Adjective Noun” combo as well, but it was one that left lots of room for expansion. As a writer or an actor, you can do a lot within the bounds of “Scorned Fairy.” Not so much with “Angry King.” To keep your characters from coming down with “Adjective Noun-itis,” it pays to make your villains smart and amazing, or it’s not satisfying when the hero defeats them.

*Pro tip: As much as it pains us cram the complicated characters we love into “Adjective Noun” combos (like “Confused Runaway = Huckleberry Finn” or “Brooding heir = Hamlet”), its actually awesome practice for when the time comes to condense our own characters for elevator pitches, agent inquiries, or book cover summaries.

5.  Depth – Is your villain interesting enough that he / she / it / they could have their own book? While you need never explore a world where up is down, good is bad, and your hero switches places with his dreaded adversary Freaky Friday style, it’s nice to have well-developed enough adversaries that you could. In Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, the first half of the book is whiny narration rife with self-pity on the part of the title character. It’s a long, damn time before we get to hear the monster’s perspective on why he’s stalking his creator and killing the folks Frankenstein loves. When the monster explains the hell he’s been through since his creator abandon him, it gets real hard to see Dr. Frankenstein as less monstrous than his tormentor. If we’d seen the plot unfold from the moment the monster awakes as a confused newborn in a 9 foot body, whose father runs screaming at the sight of him, Dr. Frankenstein starts to look suspiciously like the real villain, here.

In summary, a hero is only as good as his or her villain, and the most interesting villains are the ones are the ones who bear traits that make them relatable to us or the hero in some way.

Also, Alps and Elephants don’t get along (someone write that children’s book, please. I will twelve kinds of buy a copy).



Why we (still) love Superman: 5 Tips for Writing Relatable Heroes

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My high school lit teacher was pretty laid-back, but one thing that seriously tightened his sphincter was when misinformed students referred to their main character as “the hero.” He much preferred the word “protagonist” to “hero” because in the classical sense, heroes are a highly specialized brand of protagonist who are, well, not that interesting.

Starting all the way back in the B.C. days of literature, a hero was a larger-than-life, practically perfect guy, who is permitted one epic flaw –  his fatal flaw – which 9 times out of 5 was what his nemesis used to exploit and destroy him.

And he died.


If the paragon didn’t die at the end of his story, he could be a legend, a myth, or a force of nature, but he was not, by the classical rules, considered a hero (for examples of this, think of your Lancelots, your Othellos and your Achilles-s-s).

The long suffering teacher who bemoaned our incorrect usage of the word “hero” also gave us the best writing advice we ever got in our lives:

In order to have a believable characters, they cannot be wholly good or evil.

Even though this advice ruined, like, all the Disney movies forever and ever, it was still tremendous writing advice, and I’ve never met anyone who could prove it wrong.

Yet, even within the boundaries of semi-classical heroism, there are several ways to make your nigh perfect paragon more interesting to the reader or at least understand the challenges you face in trying to make him or her less boring. The list that follows is my own top 5 tips on how to write an awesomer, more lovable superhuman.

Superman ii

Since here in America, the best known fictional possesser of all these attributes might very well be DC Comics’ own Superman, I aim to use him as a reference point more than once.

  1. Weakness – Superman was the first comic book hero DC ever produced (way back in 1938, says the internet), so his creators understandably had to work out some kinks with him before he *e-hem* took off. One huge problem they cited with the early comics was that Superman was perfect. Since perfect people always win, there are no stakes, and it’s hard to get readers invested in what happens to your gallant hero’s story. To make Superman’s adventures less boring for the readers, Jerry Siegel and his team of writers introduced a modicum of weakness for the bad guys to exploit in Superman, such as kryptonite, the inability to see through lead, and the charms of Lois Lane. After nearly a century of busting Metropolis bad guys, Superman is still unlikely to fail long-term, but when he struggles to do what needs to be done, we can totally relate to him because we all know what it’s like to struggle.
  2. Motivation – True heroes like Superman or Captain America have reasons for fighting that don’t actually make sense to mortal man on a personal level. Sometimes, the only thing that drives them to do good in the world is that they were born to do it. Of course, if I’m honest, I’ve met folks who felt strongly they were born to do what they’re doing (preachers, doctors, and mommies come most readily to mind), and their approach to life might very well be reflected by the adventures of Superman / Captain America. For everyone else, there’s the more practical, less idealistic protagonist like Batman or Iron man who is motivated to do the right thing for lots of reason. Vengeance, insecurity, fear, money, love, spite, and friendship all play a part in their decision-making from moment to moment. The fact that their motives are complicated seems more real to us as an audience, because part of being human means waking up now and then and thinking ” ‘Because it’s the right thing to do’ is not a good enough reason for me to go to work, today. What else ya got?” Superman iii
  3. Growth – Here’s where protagonist like Batman have Superman beat pretty completely. See, Superman is the most human when he / Clark Kent is a misfit kid who hasn’t hit his stride in heroics. We have to suffer through a lot of endless space chases and Russell Crowe to get any humanity out of The Man of Steel, but when we find it, poor Clark is in the embarrassing throws of a nigh unto autism-style breakdown because he can hear everything, and the sensory overload is freaking him out. And that’s awesome storytelling! It’s heartbreaking and visceral and shows Clark as a kid who does not see the nonsense he’s enduring as a positive attribute. He just needs all the voices he hears to shut up so he can think, already. By the time The Justice League rolls around, he’s grown all the way into his hubris, and  he thinks what he’s doing is right all the time because he’s the one who’s doing it. Batman, on the other hand, adapts in nearly every issue. He’s moody, he’s driven, he lays the smack-down on Gotham’s most wanted, he watches movies with his adopted child, he sees the child grow into a young man,  he starts getting old and has to either build a better batsuit or train his replacement… Because he’s a human who has to adapt to circumstances that arise on his life journey, he the by no means same Batman he was in the first comic. Superman hit a plateau of awesome  early on and  pretty  much stayed there. Perhaps that’s the real reason why ancient storytellers killed off their classical heroes. Once they hit the character growth ceiling, they weren’t any fun to write anymore.
  4. A Foe Worth Fighting – I aim to cover this more completely in a whole, other article about villains, but in essence, if your villain is lame, your hero is lame. The point of the villain is to provide a challenge the hero must rise to meet. When your villain is badass, so is the hero.
  5. A World Worth Saving – This plays into motivation, but differs slightly in that a classical hero isn’t actually fighting for this world. If he’s Greek, he’s killing time as a hero until he can enter the Elysian Fields in valorous death. If he’s Norse, he’s berserk-ing ass off until the Valkyries show up and escort him to Valhalla. Not so with Superman. Smallville and Metropolis are special to him because they’re home. Home is a universal theme that stirs up all the emotions, and while it doesn’t always make us beat up bad guys in order to protect it on the regular, there’s usually something that matters to us at home that would make us want to defend it, if we had to. Also, I know plenty of cops, fire-fighters, and soldiers who identify strongly with Superman and really do beat up bad guys to protect home on the regular. So there’s that.

Anyway, those are my top 5 iotas of insight about how to better understand / write relatable heroes. If I missed any glaring ones, feel free to tell me about them in the comments. I concede heroes aren’t actually my best things (something I imagine will make itself plain in the villain article, coming soon to a computer screen near you).

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Happily Ever After? The Storybook Cliche vs. The Well-told Story

Back in 630 (or so) B. C. when the ancient Greeks were, in fact, contemporary Greeks, there lived a man named Aesop who became the go-to guy for cautionary tales.

From that day to this, wee children have grown up learning life lessons on morality, like “slow and steady wins the race” and “it is easier to bend than to break,” in conjunction with the fables to which Mr. Aesop paired them.


While Aesop’s fables are useful teaching tools, they are less entertaining than the tales told by unscrupulous story tellers whose primary concern is to entertain, not to educate.

There are exceptions to be sure, but when we start with a moral and work backward, the narrative generally feels forced. Our characters stop being friends with whom we go on adventures to unexplored lands, and they become tools with which we frame our preconceived moral and the tale we’ve written to solely to highlight it.

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This past week, in mulling over the differences between cautionary tales and the tales told purely for entertainment’s sake, I came to an astonishing conclusion:

Here in America, “Happily ever after” has replaced the Aesop-style moral as the obligatory end of our stories, especially in genres like romance, kids,’ and action adventure.

A sociologist could better unpack the cultural impact of excluding endings other than “happy” from our narratives, but here are my main gripes with this course of action:

It hurts the reader / listener of the story, when it sets up unrealistic expectations in art and life, if that’s the only kind of story he or she ever hears.

It hurts the teller of the story, when his characters become limited in their ability to wander around and end up somewhere interesting, because “happily ever after” is a foregone conclusion. On top of that, whatever stakes the storyteller hoped to establish early on in order to make the audience care about his characters automatically go down, if there’s no chance the hero can fail in his quest.

Now, I’m not a nihilist (at least not when it comes to storytelling). If I was, I’d go all hyperbole on this topic as a metaphor for life, like that kid from high school with the Anarchy T and the dog collars.

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(I can say this thing in self-mockery. I too am something of a goth kid)

And yes, it’s true that all stories end just like all lives end, but there’s no consistent way in which we die / end our story. If we could see it coming a mile away, wouldn’t most if us view it as a corny, awful cliche and take steps either to hasten or avoid it?

On entertainment platforms elsewhere on the web, they grieve the tendency of Marvel movies to deny the audience closure by faithfully ending each movie with a teaser for the next movie.

But that might be the most realistic thing about the whole damn Avengers franchise! How often in our lives do we get our wrongs righted, questions answered, and much-needed assurance that we will make it? Generally, we can get 2-3 of our biggest looming disasters under control just as another, bigger one pops up on the horizon.

I realize this is not a universal problem people have with their stories. This is merely my struggle to embrace “happily ever after” as the way stories should, with out exception, end. So feel free to take anything I have to say on the subject with between 1 and 40 grains of salt. But it’s a problem with which I’ve wrestled for a fine, long time. In school, I was fascinated with biographies because there are so many absurd circumstances in which humans regularly find themselves, and they don’t always have sad or even satisfactory endings. We just wrap them up where ever we can.

Happily Ever After Psyche.png

I also I’d rather the pendulum did not swing the other way and bring us nought but writers who crank out tragedy after tragedy. I love my Hamlets and my Deaths of a Salesmen as much as the next guy, but a steady diet of that would turn us all into sulky poets with true-and-sincere death wishes. I just think we’re cheating ourselves out of some powerful storytelling, if we constrain ourselves as writers to happy endings and nothing else.

For amazing examples of stories that end on a note that is simultaneously happy, sad, and hopeful, here are some favorites of mine:

Casablanca, The Imaginerium of Doctor Parnassus, The Last Unicorn, The Blues Brothers, Hocus Pocus, The Accountant, Metropolis, Little Miss Sunshine, The Spirit, and Porco Rosso.

Yes, I know, it’s a movie list, not a book list, and some of these movies have been declared terrible by experts, but as a child, it was “happily ever after” movies that messed me way-the-hell up, not books. Novels and plays were – and still are – a pretty solid refuge for satisfying, if not happy endings (see To Kill A Mocking Bird, Great Expectations, The Hiding Place, Where the Red Fern Grows, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, Summer of the Swans, and The Great Gilly Hopkins for a bittersweet taste of my childhood reading experiences).

So to any authors out there who generate these kinds of satisfying, not-necessarily-happy endings in fiction, keep it up. I promise there’s an audience for it. If anyone has ever led you to believe differently, bear in mind, the editor who eventually took on Moby Dick unironically petitioned Melville to make Captain Ahab obsessed with a woman, not a whale.

I’m pretty sure that’s all I got for you today. Persevere, and write on, y’all!

Diversity as it relates to Peace, War, and Dumbledore


When well-intending authors want to include diversity in their fictional works, a variety of questions tend to go through their heads, like…

-Am I a poser, if I’m a pale person who wants to include Arabian knights in my fantasy story?

   -If I’m a person of color, non-cisgender, or ability impairment, do I have to write a book about pale, able-bodied, straight people in order to conform to genre norms?
  -Am I required to have diversity in my book, and if so, is there a minimum / maximum amount?
The answer to all these questions is a resounding “No” and maybe even a “Hell no!” in the case of minimums to meet.
*Hint: If you are only interested in writing diversity to meet an arbitrary quota for the selling of more books, please don’t bother.
Yet, the topic of diversity turns authors with hither-to healthy egos into nervous nuts for fear they might do it wrong and offend someone.

While the unfortunate plight of the timid diversity writer is not J. K. Rowling’s fault, she did give us a glaring example of how to do it wrong. Behold, the handling of her hitherto beloved character, Albus Dumbledore:

He's Gay.png

After Rowling revealed this informational tidbit that was in no way backed up by her books, Albus Dumbledore became to diversity in fiction what the Vietnam Conflict was to America’s reputation abroad: a years-long quagmire with no satisfying end that serves as naught but a cautionary tale to future generations.

“Are are sure you want to write diversity, Nervous Writer Person? We don’t want another Dumbledore on our hands” sounds suspiciously like what congress says every time shit goes down overseas:

“Are we sure we want to take a stand on this? We don’t want another Vietnam on our hands.”

At this point, I think most of us agree diversity in fiction is a good thing. What’s a little less clear is how to achieve it without pandering, stereotyping, or making our book an object of outrage.

There’s no one set of rules to keep from upsetting folks with our books, but here are some guidelines on which most book-lovers seem to agree:

   1. Don’t award your characters posthumous attributes. Once your work is published, it is too late to change them, and they are dead in the sense that Latin is dead. For those who once wrote it every day, the ink is dry, and the pen is lifted. It’s real hard to go back in time and change it to something the author likes better now.
   2. Be respectful. Some stories, particularly very old ones written in an age with no internet and fewer fact-checking resources, show lack of cultural understanding but not in ways that are – as they say – “problematic.” For instance,  “The Nightingale” by Hans Christian Andersen prominently features the emperors of China and Japan interacting in ways they would not have in those days. Yet, Andersen’s handling of the subject matter is less like that of a flagrant culture appropriator and more like one who is spellbound by a far-off, exotic land. In contrast, H. P. Lovecraft used diversity in his fiction only to highlight his own bigoted, classist feelings that color / poverty / mixing of race = bad. Today, few diversity fans want to pick up Call of Cthulhu except to throw it at somebody, but “The Nightingale” is still a great little fairy tale illustrating the power of friendship and the danger peer pressure. This leads me to believe if we write of a culture as one looking at it through loving eyes, readers will be more inclined to give us the benefit of the doubt if we make a mistake somewhere.
   3. You can write anything you want. All people have their preferences, and they might not like your take on cultural themes, but that doesn’t mean you cannot write them. Which brings us to…
   4. You can’t please everyone. Let’s face it, you were never going to please everyone with any one book. There are, believe it or not, folks out there who don’t like Harry Potter, The Hate You Give, The Little Prince, Alice in Wonderland, to Kill a Mockingbird, The Sword in the Stone, Flowers for Algernon, and Huckleberry Finn. You don’t have to agree with those people. You don’t have to marry those people. But they have a right to their opinions, and if they hate your book as well… I mean, at least you evoked some strong feelings, right?
   5. Don’t half-heartedly embrace diversity in order to sell more books. Each of your characters should add to your story, or they don’t belong there. If you stick one or two persons of color, disability, or what-have-you into the mix, and they don’t make your story better for their presence, that is pandering, and your readers will know it.
   6. Research / Think things through as you write. We do not live in an era of isolation. Contrary to what some might think, the internet is at our disposal for more than games, porn, and the wasting of time. If you’re in love with a culture that’s different from your own, snoop around on Google for a while, and see what all you can learn about it. Failing that, read books. Watch documentaries. Figure out how to write a believable character from that marginalized culture you revere. Or if you’re writing fantasy, flesh out the culture of that different-looking character and how his culture has shaped him. How does he interact with the locals in lands where-in he’s a stranger? What makes his perspective unique among your cast of characters? Is his race that of proud, fierce warriors or sneaky, smooth-talking manipulators?

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(there might be better examples out there than the Clingon and the Ferengi from Star Trek, but it would take some concentration and a better attention span than I possess to think of them)

So that’s my glancing blow at how to navigate the pitfalls of writing diverse characters. If you disagree, good deal! I’m overjoyed me seriously enough to read and take issue with my stuff.

Until next time, happy-and-prosperous writing, y’all. May the Lord smite us with money 😉

Effective Cover Art: Q and A with artist Thomas Lamkin, Jr.

TLJ samples
Now a days, it is the rare writer who finds success exclusively by writing. Most of us are DYI wizards on a budget who have gotten pretty good at things like social media, graphic design, and writing copy for the better selling of our books.
Yet, killer cover design is a skill most of us have not mastered, and experts say we shouldn’t try.
This is a writing tip that cannot be overstated.
Like all disobedient children, we book-lovers tend to ignore our grammar school teachers’ advice and – horror of horrors – judge books by their covers. So unless the covers are eye-catching and evocative, most of us aren’t that tempted to peek beneath the covers regardless of how good the book itself might be.
I have long been fascinated by good cover design, but usually, I won’t know what it is I love about a cover that gives me love-at-first-sight feelings about it. I just know that I love the design or I don’t.
Then, for reasons that would take time to explain, I went to the hospital this past week and had the unusual honor of killing time in a waiting room next to Thomas Lamkin Jr, a dear friend and a kick-ass cover designer (see above for as smattering of his work or check out for more samples curated by the artist himself).
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Naturally, I struck up a conversation and picked Lamkin’s brain in attempt to unravel some long-standing mysteries of how the professional artist achieves effective cover design.
The resulting Q and A went (approximately) as follows:
Q: Do you read each book for which you design the cover?
A: No. Often, this is a result of time constraints. Sometimes, the book isn’t finished, and the author asks for cover art in advance so she or he can use it for inspiration while writing the rest of the book.
Q: Did you go to school to be an artist?
A: I started out in school to be an artist and ended up changing majors. Most of what I know about cover art I learned from studying other artists and what they’re doing right or wrong.
Q: Is there a difference between what you do [as a graphic designer] and fine art?
A: As a rule, if you make money with your art in your life time, it isn’t fine art. There are exceptions (like Michael Whelan, a perpetual favorite of Lamkin’s, who is both a phenomenal artist and a commercial success).
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Q: Would you consider any of your covers standalone art, if they were not attached to a book title?
A: Not usually. Book covers tend to have specific story cues that make their pictures look weird outside the context of the book.
Q: Is there ever a circumstance in which it’s okay to use Comic Sans font on your cover?
A: Never. More specifically, I try to steer away from any immediately recognizable fonts in my work. If readers can look at the cover and go, ‘that’s Old Bookman style font’ or ‘Times New Roman? Seriously?’ We can go ahead and call their disbelief indefinitely unsuspended, and that will likely factor into their appraisal of the rest of the book.
Q: Do you prefer to collaborate with the author on cover designs or do your own thing?
A: That depends on the author. Covers for authors with no idea what they want tend to end up being solo projects for me. For authors with a nebulous concept and a “whatever you’re trying to do is wrong” mentality, I’ve sometimes had a sympathetic publisher to whom I could appeal for a clearer idea of what to do (me interjecting *helps to be married to one. I’m sure that’s just a coincidence 😉 *). Authors worth having a conversation with are the ones who have their own ideas and a willingness to talk things out back and forth to figure out what works well for everybody’s vision.
Q: Are there any genres for which you don’t feel like you could design the covers?
A: Erotica. I’ve got nothing against the genre. I just don’t feel confident that I could produce an erotica cover that did not look either like an obscenity or a parody.
Q: What are some things you consistently try to incorporate in your cover design?
A: In no particular order…
-readable font
-sharp contrast
-variety without getting too busy (although I have seen some covers that were both busy and well done)
-hints of what happens in the book without getting spoiler-y
Q: What are some things to religiously avoid?
A: Again, in no particular order…
-theft, either from a fellow artist or via images we sometimes assume are free because they’re online.
-orange. Not sure what the science is, but it’s hard to get the thumbnail photo to look good if the graphic has a lot of orange in it.
-poor image integration (think picture people who look like a paper doll stuck on a random background, objects that throw shadows the wrong way, or clipart-style tattoos that don’t follow the curves of the body part they occupy).
Q: Not long ago, I heard an author with a louder platform than mine recommend choosing cover art for one’s books that does not stand out from our genre. He believes to sell more books, we should make them look a lot like other well-loved books, and if they do, more readers will be more inclined to pick them up. What are your thoughts on this?
A: I disagree strongly. If a reader is describing your novel to a bewildered clerk at the bookstore, and the only hint they can give is, “It’s the red one,” the cover artist has done something wrong.
So those are some thoughts on cover design from a gracious pro who took some time to answer a bunch of my nosy questions (in a hospital waiting room, no less).
Many thanks to Thomas Lamkin Jr. for inspiring this week’s article, and until next time, keep writing that kinky stuff that’ll make your readers glad they peeked beneath your covers 😉

In defense of The Love Triangle and Other hated Tropes: Why they’re still a thing

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Like other unrepentant addicts whose substance of choice is BookTube, I recently perused some vloggers who spoke with varying degrees of passion about tropes they’re sick of seeing in fiction. No two lists of top 5 literary pet peeves was exactly the same, but almost all of them kicked off with a phenomenon known as “The Love Triangle.”

They hate it. Hate everything about it. Wanna kick it in its shins and insult its mother.

I respect that. I have my own fiction tropes I’d cheerfully boil in oil, if I could.

What I understood less completely were the vloggers who both hated tropes of this kind and asked, “Why? Why do authors keep doing this? It’s immature. It’s the lazy persons way of adding tension to the story. Why must authors so relentlessly beat this, of all dead horses?”

I believe I know why the love triangle and 4 other maligned tropes are still in consistent use by writers in a multitude of genres. I would therefore like to share my own top 5 list of awful tropes, the underlying problems that keep those tropes alive, and 2 potential solutions to those problems, starting with – wonder of wonders –

  1. The Love Triangle. Picture a teenager with few friends to her name and no positive attention from the gender she fancies (there’s no rule that the teenager has to be a “she,” not a “he,” but I have experienced teenage womanhood, so “she” is my default pronoun). In the movies, all awkward girls need is puberty and a makeover to turn them into prom queens. For the real life teen, the makeover does nothing, puberty brings bigger (perceived) pimples than boobs, and the boys she likes can’t even be troubled to give her meaningless sex. “No thank you,” they say. “We don’t want girls who want us. We have too much tunnel vision for the objects of our own affection who want nothing to do with us.” Now, send that girl to a new school, college, workplace, or vacation destination where the boys’ priorities are different, and she gets attention from 2 dudes at once. Is it immature to lead them both on? You bet it is. But the girl may to do it anyway, ’cause guess what: She’s immature! And if you spend your first couple decades with no positive male attention then suddenly get lots of it, you hate to turn any of it down. The dreaded love triangle is wish-fulfillment for persons who have never been in demand before and haven’t thought through the consequences of that particular brand of getting “too much of a good thing.”
  2. The asshole with the pretty abs and tendencies toward physical or psychological abuse. Loneliness is lonely, and love-starved humans measure attention on an absolute scale. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, it’s also good. Also, abusers make for nice, dramatic reads, and if your goal is to keep readers turning the pages, that kind of drama will often do the trick.
  3. The “maybe I can change him” girl. Often but not always found proximal to the asshole with the pretty abs, “I can change him” girl is fantasy fulfillment for the end of her tryst with with the bad boy. 20 chapters of torrid, awesome sex, and then what? We tolerate a certain amount of badness in bad boys. Once they become bad men, we send them to jail or marry the bastards and make our lives a living hell. If your romantic fantasies involve a bad boy, and romance must end happily (I hear from experts that to qualify as romance, it indeed must end happily), she either has to ditch the asshole with pretty abs and find someone better or marry the asshole whose fictional nature will allow him to be redeemed because… fiction. Mr Rochester.pngI’m looking at you, Mr. Rochester!
  4. World-rocking first time sex, especially for virgins. I personally despise this trope more than the love triangle and the asshole with the pretty abs because when I first started having sex, and my world remained 100% un-rocked, I thought there was something wrong with me. Some gentle hints that virgins are rubbish in bed and that I should not to expect miracles right away would have helped me a lot in my twenties, but I get why that message is not prevalent in most genres of fiction. Comical sex is for old pros and their partners who have a great sense of humor about their bodies. Unsatisfying sex is for people who don’t really like sex and can’t wait for the scene to be done. Neither falls into conventional categories of romantic fantasies, so world-rocking first time sex it is!
  5. The empty shell heroine who “isn’t like other girls,” either in her own estimation or that of the hunky male protagonist. Of all the items on this list, this one raises my blood pressure the most. Too frequently, when the author invites the reader to superimpose herself onto the empty shell heroine, the male protagonist proceeds to use the same tactics a sexual predator uses to lure in his victim to emotional ruin. No joke. A lot of predators seek out the victim who looks remarkably like Bella Swan from that first Twilight movie: few close friends, the posture of someone with zero confidence, and clothes that suggest she’s either ashamed of her body or does not know how to dress like a girl her age customarily dresses. The predator then looks closer to see if she checks off other boxes on his list, like feeling rejected by others or compulsion to self-sacrifice for / allow herself to be dominated by people she cares about. Bonus points if she has a past or a current unhappy relationship. Every time she compares new dude to that other nit-wit, he’ll look like Sir Galahad. Untitled.pngThen, all you have to do is pay her a little attention and make her feel special, and she’ll follow you anywhere until such time as you get bored with her and give her the brush off (one predator of mine unfriended me on Facebook to let us know we weren’t an item anymore). These awful tricks are used over and over again because everyone has felt rejected and everyone wants to feel special, so the predator-like romance persists in fiction. And in real life.

That’s the end of my list, but it’s not the end of the problem. All 5 of these unfortunate fiction happenings have their roots in one, basic marketing principle: Women with low self-esteem are good for the economy. We have whole industries dedicated to making our girls feel bad about themselves so they can buy products thereafter to make them feel better: make-up, jewelry, perfume, lingerie, hair removal, hair regrowth, diet pills, cosmetic surgery…say when.

Millions of people would have no jobs if women liked themselves, so we are programed from an early age to think we’re crap if we don’t have the right product to enhance the arbitrary attribute du jour without which we will never be accepted, included, or loved.

Isn’t capitalism fun?

Our fiction reflects a deeply-ingrained lack of self worth in our girls and women grown, and fiction will continue to reflect that unless 2 things happen:

1) We program our daughters to think glass ceilings are for other girls. Don’t get me wrong. Female empowerment has come a long way, and we as mamas and daughters have always done the best we could for each-other. But can you imagine the things they could read, write, invent, promote, and change if they weren’t told what they couldn’t do by fools who have a financial interest in making them feel small?

2) If if we as readers raise our standards, the authors will meet them. I say this to empower readers, not to blame them, because lots of authors love their readers and want badly to write books that make them happy. I don’t know if Penguin Random House hears the tortured pleas of a readership sick of the same old tropes, but the indie publishers do. So do the self-pub crowd. When I worked trade shows, more often than not, it was on behalf of a wee Kentucky publishing house whose proprietor’s kids did not eat if she was not sensitive to the tastes of her readers. If more than one customer complained we had no cookbook in our lineup, we had a cookbook in our lineup the following year. I don’t know if we ever found a historical fiction title that tickled our fancy, but when multiple customers asked for it, we made historical fiction part of our acquisitions list. If you’re a reader who’s sick to death of the tropes above, and you (constructively) let authors know what they could be doing better, some of them will listen and write better books for the world and you to enjoy.

That’s all I got for you, today. As always, if you think I got it right or wrong, leave a comment or ask me questions. They make me smarter.

Until next time, be kind to yourself and your home girls in the sisterhood, or by and by, future generations will forget how its done.

G’bye for now.


Art + Mental Illness = Myth?

A while back, PBS Digital Studio put their name on a YouTube video in which a slender, altogether sane woman posed an interesting question:

Can we please stop treating art and mental illness at though they are related?


And I went, “What?”

If they’d said something more like, “Can we please stop acting like spousal abuse is okay if it’s committed by a genius (Picasso)?” or “Can we stop excusing self-mutilation / cries for help as ‘the artistic temperament’ (Van Gogh)?” I would have been on board.


But that’s not what they said.

That slender, sane woman went on to say that according to a 2013 study released by Karolinski Institute of Stockholm, persons in creative professions are not more likely to suffer from mental illness than the rest of the populous. However, the study does suggest that people in creative professions were “very slightly” more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder (no number given to indicate how much “slightly” is).

So, bipolar doesn’t count as a mental illness?

I’m not sure how to phrase my questions politely to these folks, but I’d legitimately like to know…

a) Does “creative profession” exclusively mean “Persons who do art for a living”? Wide-eyed artistic types (in the USA, at least) are frequently told they can’t make a living with their art, so they bus tables, build computer chips, or learn to do something their societal counterparts consider “real jobs” in order to pay their bills. I don’t believe that makes them lesser artists.

b) What is mental illness? If we agree depression, bipolar, anxiety, and self-harm / suicide are mental illness, I believe the number of mental illness sufferers (the video never gives us) might go up.

c) What is art? If we agree Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway, and Robin Williams were makers of art, I believe the number of mental illness sufferers (the video, again, never gives us) might go up.

Seriously. Try to tell a writer he or she is not an artist sometime. Then, watch the supernova of indignity and shortly thereafter the black hole of self-doubt consume him / her and anything in a 5 foot radius. It’s a hoot.

What’s more worrisome to me is that most artists I know are anxious and depressive, if not suicidal. And I don’t believe I’m alone on this. After the death of  Robin Williams, the folks at released a poignant article about depression as they perceived it in the comic writer, and they stated, if pressed to guess how many of their writers suffered from depression, they’d have to say “…all of them.”

I feel like the folks who made the video for PBS were sane people who are annoyed at the misconception that…

Mental Illness = Artist.

On that, I quite agree with them. I believe that…

Mental Illness = Mental Illness

And in many cases, the art produced by a depressive, schizophrenic, autistic, bi-polar, anxious, or suicidal person comes from a phenomenon the psychologists call sublimation – the channeling negative and unacceptable impulses into behaviors that are positive and socially acceptable (says

In other words…

Art = Not Punching People = Not Going to Jail

In those cases, the mental illness does cause the art when the art is a coping mechanism the way it is for me. A boxer might work out, or a chef might make croissants in order to relieve their own symptoms of similar disorders. But for me, the rapid-swing bipolar and suicidal thoughts tend to be better dispelled by my doing something artistic.

mona lispa

I guess I got extra irritated with this video because mental illness is still highly stigmatized and often invisible. If an artist with anxiety, depression, or something else gets told by enough sane people “You’re not normal, and you’re not special. Get over yourself, and act right,” do you think that person is more or less likely to make art again? Do you think that person is more or less likely to open up and get help for his or her illness?

To any readers who believe I got it all wrong, please – oh please – tell me why in the comments. I’d love to be completely mistaken on this issue so I can quit being upset about it.

To any readers suffering from anxiety, depression, etc, I’m pullin’ for ya. Persevere and love yourself. With the right kind of help and support, it can get better.

If you’re happy and sane, awesome! Blaze a trail for others to follow.

But neither one of y’all are better or worse artists by default. Just sayin.’