Tuesday, September 20, 2011

On Taking Advantage of the Misfortunes of Others

I'm sure you've heard the "learn from your mistakes" thing. Everyone has. In fact, the actual definition of learning probably includes the ability to prevent yourself from making mistakes you've made before, but I digress (already a digression! oh, today is a good day, I can tell).


In any case - it would be silly to contradict this advice. You should always learn from your mistakes. But here's a fun bit of advice: The whole learning process will go about 29387 times faster if you learn from OTHER PEOPLE'S MISTAKES as well.

Yep. Exploit the crap out of other people's shortcomings and failures. (I feel like there should be evil laughter here.) Seriously, though - have you ever quit reading a book halfway through out of disgust, boredom, or outrage? Or - possibly worse - have you ever finished a book and felt like your time was just totally wasted?

Ask yourself WHY you felt disgusted or bored or outraged or irritated or time-wasted-y, and then write it down somewhere. "Note to self: Do not leave side characters so painfully undeveloped that they don't have a life outside of the MC. Note to self: Do not have only one minority character. Note to self: Do not make characters so perfect their only flaw is perfection; also, do not make characters so flawed that it is outside the realm of possibility that ANYONE will like them ever."

I mean, think about it. For every piece of information we've garnered from introspection, we probably gain twice as much from other people's actions, because it's easier to be objective. If I'm running and I'm all, "Oh no, I suck at running, I need to get better," then I not only have my past mistakes to learn from - I can draw from that girl on my team who ate nothing but celery the day of the race and passed out, or that girl whose stride is so short she has to take two steps for every one of a normal person's. I can tell myself, "Hey, don't be that girl."

We can't use what people do right. I can't adopt the magic from Harry Potter. I can't steal the concept from The Hunger Games or take the protagonist out of the Chaos Walking trilogy and put him into my books. That's not how it works.

Er, well, it's how fanfiction works, but that's another story.

So we can't steal what people do right. What do we do instead? We steal what they do wrong. We take all those flaws, file them away, and mark them 'DO NOT DO THIS.'

And then we promise ourselves that we will Not Do This.

Have you read anything in recent times (or heck, any time) that has a glaring flaw? Care to share? (The flaw, not the book! :P)

I'll go first - a book I finished a few days ago, a sequel, didn't add anything new to the table in relation to its characters. My note to self: If I ever write a sequel, I must add new layers to the characters, not just copy-paste how they were before. A series has to have characters that are dynamic over an entire series arc, not only book 1 or book 2.

I've never written a sequel, but someday! Someday that will be useful!

All the best,


cherie said...

Excellent post, Riley! You are a wise one, yodant. Learn from the mistakes of others is applicable to all aspects of life. Using it to improve your own writing is a smart move. ;)

tamarapaulin said...

It confuses others in my house when I read books and complain bitterly the whole time, but I'm doing just what you say--studying!

The best part is logging on to review sites and reading all the reviews, good and bad.

It's funny (and humbling) to see that some folks love a character I find flat, and are enthralled by suspense I find false. I see things happening because they are convenient for the author, not because they are organic. Not that, as an author, I would ever do such things. ((whistles))

greenwoman said...

Great post! And I have an example.

Cracking your knuckles does not a multi-layered personality make. A character has to have a personality. One repetitive habit isn't enough to make them seem alive.

It seems like a no-brainer but an awful lot of books get written with characters that just don't have any personality to speak of.