Friday, May 30, 2014

No Shortcuts

Today begins the blog tour for Indie Writers Monthly, which you should be following if you're reading this blog.  Anyway, today the blog is at Heather's Sizzling Hot YA Books

 Look for more stops in the future
There have been a couple of books I've read in the last year that brought me to the same conclusion:  a medical condition is not a substitute for characterization.

The first book I remember that made me think this was Thrilled to Death by LJ Sellers.  It was a pretty cookie cutter police procedural.  I forget what exactly Detective Jackson's problem was, something to do with his heart or liver.  Anyway, other than that ailment there was nothing notable about him.  And the fact I can't remember the ailment shows that wasn't very memorable either.

Then recently I read this book called The Universe Versus Alex Woods.  It sounded like a quirky book of self-discovery.  Instead it was "Tuesdays With Morrie--UK Version."  Anyway, to substitute for a personality Alex has epilepsy thanks to getting bonked by a meteor.  He ends up meeting this old guy named Mr. Peterson who it ends up has some long-named neurological ailment.

I think authors (especially crappy authors) do this because they think it makes their character interesting.  It's something neat to put in the blurb:  Bob, suffering from rectal cancer, has to find the killer before it's too late!  But the fact Bob has rectal cancer doesn't make him interesting.  Just like Detective Jackson's ailment didn't make him memorable and Alex Woods's epilepsy didn't make him interesting.

You can use a disease effectively.  Like Breaking Bad for instance, where Walter White has cancer.  But that's because they didn't use the cancer as a crutch for the character's personality.  Really the cancer was more of a catalyst, the thing that allowed Walter to begin his dark odyssey of self-destruction.  I like to think that's what I do with Chance of a Lifetime where at the start Steve Fischer is a fairly cliche hard-nosed, hard-drinking detective.  Then he becomes a young woman, which I like to think is the catalyst for her journey, not the sole defining point.  And the same with the heroes/heroines of the Girl Power series.

So using an affliction isn't always bad.  The problem is when your character is otherwise a cliche, like the typical police detective--only he has a bad heart and/or liver!  Or the precocious kid--only he has epilepsy!  That's the kind of stuff that makes me go, "Yeah, so?"  It's a shortcut I advise authors not to take.  Because as I said in my Alex Woods review, if medical conditions made someone interesting, I'd be as popular as Oprah.  Since I'm not a billionaire with my own cable network, clearly that's not the case.  So try harder, authors.


  1. That's a great analysis on using a disease as a crutch. Of course, I agree with everything you say with regard to Breaking Bad. Although it may not be a disease (I don't know for sure), the fact that Tyrion Lannister in A Game of Thrones is a "dwarf" really affects his character. The whole world reacts negatively toward it and you can see him trying to overcome it with his mind. It makes for fascinating reading and watching.

  2. What a great post Pat. How true that disease can be an affective character trait if it's used right. I'm so sick of asthma being used to make a character weak. Here's hoping you have a thought-provoking Friday!

  3. I never heard of this trend. Now I want to try it. But Breaking Bad is a good example of a disease done well. White's cancer is more of a catalyst than a defining trait. Another lazy character trend is the clumsy female heroine, most often seen in romance and romantic comedies. Clumsiness is not a character trait

  4. Dude, you made a lot of sense in this post. Cliches, I avoid them like the plague. Writing with sensitivity and avoiding the boring stereotypical perceptions is the way forward.

    Good post and relax this weekend.




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