Brownies are usually pretty tasty. I doubt if you, an American living in the twenty-first century, have ever tried a brownie outside of the confectionary brownie mix you buy at Walmart. If not, it was probably served to you by your loving yet rotund grandma who cares so much about your health and well-being that she insists on cooking a mountain of food for you. If you don’t have a grandma like that, you’ve missed out on the most important parts of life. (well, arguably)
You’re probably also questioning how I’m able to pull off a semi-original insane-sounding off topic one-paragraph introduction at the speed of an industrial conveyer belt, and if you aren’t you’re probably not paying attention. But the trick is just to ignore the question of whether or not we’re ever going to get to the content so I can have it jumpscare you in later paragraphs.
Anyway, after all of that needless (yet humorous, I hope) introduction, I’m back with a vengeance. This time, we’re burning more barns and challenging misconceptions of good and bad writing armed with the undefeatable forces of Fax and Logic. If you couldn’t tell, I enjoy doing that.
If you’re a frequenter of movie review articles/gaming articles, you might have spotted a few…phrases, if you will. Things a certain story is praised for. Phrases like “great handling of morally gray characters” have snuck into our criteria of quality, but that is an exceedingly nebulous term, as is “diverse casting”, “unseen plot twists”, “excellent cinematography/quality of writing” and a plethora of others.
I’m going to be addressing a few of the most common that people will universally give a story brownie points for. Please note that I am (unless otherwise specified) not condemning the maneuver itself, just criticizing the need for praise of incomplete things. Because, as you’ll soon see, I don’t have explicit problems with the “compliments” thus put forth, I have a problem with what’s not there.
First point: morally gray characters. While morally gray characters are fine in storytelling, this does not give you brownie points in and of itself. A lot of people will praise a story for its presence of morally gray characters, but when I actually examine the story for its characters, the morally gray ones (while being sufficiently antiheroish) are nothing to write home about. Yet people act like making morally gray characters is worthy of brownie points.
I think part of this springs from the interest factor. We are interested in a lot of morally gray characters like Han Solo and Batman, and partly for that reason specifically. But the ugly truth is that all characters must be well-written as a first priority, not interesting. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s really not: if you try to make a character interesting without giving them sufficient motive, backstory, and reason for the reader to care first, you’ll end up with a really lame mockery of a character. Focus on the writing first, and the character will become interesting with the smallest tweak.
Another reason why people are apt to praise a story for its morally gray characters is because a lot of readers judge a character first by their outward appearance. Before we stop and consider Darth Vader as a well-written villain, we first see the dark-cloaked and armored Sith Lord, standing seven feet tall and capable of strangling people in air with his bare hands. That’s enough to impress most people, but in the end we agree that it takes more than that to make a well-written villain (which is why Vader’s character is a main point of development throughout the Prequels and Originals). Just like that, a morally gray character is not enough, yet people act like it is.
Second point: willingness to tackle mature themes. Again, like the last one, mature themes interest us. We stop to consider what moral dilemmas are being discussed–but at what cost? In consequence, people often cover up an awful plot and mediocre characters with “oH, bUT it HaS MAtuRe ThEmEs”. I don’t buy it, but a lot of other people will.
Themes are all very good and well, but a writer should always remember that themes forever lie in servitude to strength of plot and reasonability of characters. In addition, themes do not universally elevate your story. They can provide interest for certain readers, but they do not objectively increase the quality of your story. Only strength of writing will do that.
Third point: diversity in any way, shape, or form. Regardless of what you think about diversity, its merits, its flaws, it in no way increases the quality of your story. Maybe, just maybe, it can help you touch a certain audience, but changing the gender of the main character from male to a female lead literally does zip for your story.
In fact, I’d advise keeping diversity out of your stories. The reason for this is because it causes characters to do irrational things: the female protagonist is never challenged in the name of feminism, characters who aren’t diverse are forced to take a backseat, and white males are embarrassed and humiliated for no discernible reason.
Whether or not you believe in these tenants, they don’t belong in stories. The fact of the matter is that stories are not like real life with respect to diversity. Want to know why there aren’t many black people in Lord of the Rings? Because that’s how Tolkien created his world. Why aren’t there any trans folks in The Wheel of Time? Because the characters have never even heard of transgenderism. What about gays? What about them? That’s like asking characters from Cosmere what a television is.
Again, no matter what you believe about diversity, it all too often distracts from the main point of the story and causes characters within a story to suffer consequences that they’d normally be exempt to without. Want to know why so many progressive movies are garbage? It’s for this very reason. Diversity is just another distraction, just like mature themes and morally gray characters. Interesting enough, I suppose, to distract from a narrative and characters that need serious work.
As you can see, these three elements that I’ve mentioned often serve as misdirection to distract the reader or watcher with irrelevancies. Similar to how ten-minute sequences of explosions and uncovered skin are treated, if we take these things by themselves they are pure vanity. In other words, taken by themselves, diversity, heart-pounding action, morally gray characters, themes, and a multitude of other things do literally nothing for a story.
So if you were under the impression that making your hero a criminal/gay was inherently increasing the quality of your story, you’re gravely mistaken. The most important thing, which all too many moviemakers and storywriters ignore, is the strength of writing and verisimilitude of our world.
Good luck, and happy writing!
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!