On Not Writing Like You’re Twelve

I’ve been reading a lot of urban fantasy (also called mythopoetic or mythic literature). When done well (Emma Bull, Margaret Ronald, Terri Windling, Neil Gaiman), it’s a contemporary take on the Greek myths or other tales where gods mix with average people. Oftentimes it is a feminist genre with women kicking ass and running the show. When done badly ([names redacted]), it’s an overheated mix of cliche and derivative plots.

Bad fantasy novels often sound like they are written by smart twelve-year-olds. I was a smart twelve-year-old writer, but I have learned something about writing since then, such as the following:

1. Eyes should never be described as emerald, sapphire, or, god forbid, amethyst. In fact, adjectives stemming from gemstones are never an acceptable way to describe anything but jewelry.

2. All men aren’t handsome and honorable and all women aren’t beautiful and red-headed. They don’t even always love each other. Everyone has flaws, complications, even. Let the men fall in love with men, sometimes, and the women fall in love with the women. That’s how it happens in real life. Don’t fall in (idealized twelve-year-old) love with your romantic lead. Give them some flaws, maybe even some warts.

You know how you fall in love with someone and then when the new wears off you have to decide if you love him/her enough to overlook a few too many dishes in the sink? That’s true in fiction as well. Not that you should necessarily write about domestic disputes, but for god’s sake if there is a romantic plot line, the love story should be real enough that you can imagine that at some point the characters might have domestic disputes. Jane Bennett and Mr. Bingley are never going to fight, which is why Elizabeth and Darcy are the better romantic leads. You know they are going to fight about Georgiana, going  to balls, and who gets to read the new books first.

3. Don’t overexplain. That’s part of what makes Emma Bull’s work strong. She employs intelligence and subtlety and leaves a few connections for the readers to get. She shows you the action and the reactions of the characters, but sometimes you get to figure out why character b said what he did. With Bull, you will never find yourself on the porch on a beautiful Memorial Day weekend rolling your eyes, muttering “I get it already!” until your young man checks on you to make sure you’re not having a seizure.

4. And yet, your characters should have an inner life that consists of more than extended held glances with the sapphire-eyed half-elf/half-human prince that Lady Elf-hater should not fall into bed with, but of course does. Don’t forget Mo’s law. It works in books too.

In addition, here is The Rejectionist’s take on characterization.


5 responses to “On Not Writing Like You’re Twelve

  1. Great list — I haven’t read any Emma Bull but based on this I will have to look up her books! Here’s one of my pet peeves in this genre:

    5. If you are writing a series of multiple books, try to avoid having every single new character fall in love with your protagonist, especially if you never permit any of them to fall *out* of love with him/her. We get it, the protagonist is awesome. It’s still annoying when everyone within a 15-mile radius keeps throwing themselves at him/her and mooning over him/her long after the relationship is dead.

  2. @Petite Chablis,

    So true. And I’d like to add:

    6. If there is acknowledged or unacknowledged sexual tension between two characters, every other character in the story does not need to comment on it. We get it. They’ll end up together at some point.

    “The Finder” and “Freedom and Necessity” are my favorite Emma Bull books; they might be out of print, but you should be able to find them at the library. Let me know if you like them!

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