Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Random Thoughts on Writing

Just finished reading a crime novel that I enjoyed, but made me think about how easy it is to read a book, internalize it, and then duplicate elements in it without realizing it.  Or at least I'm assuming that's what happened with this author.  It was really the most bizarre thing.

Background:  I'm a huge fan of Charles Todd's Inspector Ian Rutledge mysteries.  I actually like the books more for the development of the main character than the mysteries (which are rather thin).  Rutledge suffered severe post-traumatic stress during WWI and is fighting to be normal, hold down a job, and basically live a life within post-war British society.  The glimpses of society during this period--when everyone is trying to adjust--and the difficulties Rutledge faces just getting along (much less investigating murders) is fascinating.  I just can't get enough of them.

And Rutledge's biggest challenge is to appear sane when he hears the voice of a dead Scotsman in his head.  It's done brilliantly and you feel so anxious for Rutledge in his efforts to control his fragile mental condition.  And part of the brilliance is the development of the voice into what amounts to a second character, a Scotsman who died during WWI, due to Rutledge.  It is heart-wrenching.

So.  Enough background.

I read this new book--well, I won't provide a lot of info about it because I really don't want to criticize the book or embarrass anyone.  In fact, other then what I'm going to describe below, the book was one of those "I can't put this down" stories and I doubt anyone else would notice or have this same issue with it.

Anyway, at the chapter 7 mark, all of a sudden, the main character is hearing a voice in his head.  Seems it is a reaction to WWII stress.  A reaction he never displayed up until that point.  And it's not like some horrible thing happened to trigger this, either, during the first 6 chapters.

Seems like the character should have displayed this issue from page one instead of waiting that far into the book and springing it on the reader after you think you know him.  Particularly something as important as schizophrenia (or whatever mental illness it is that makes you hear voices in your head).  That seems like a major thing that the character ought to be experiencing from the beginning.  He shouldn't seem normal and then half-way through the book suddenly become schizophrenic.  Unless he forgot his meds.

And he doesn't seem particularly disturbed by this sudden mental degeneration either.  Nor does he seem to struggle with it--and with the effort to appear normal--the way Rutledge does.  At least not for the next few chapters, anyway.

I'm okay, you're okay.  He certainly seems okay with the whole voice thing.

Here's the oddest part.  The voice in this guy's head is...yes, that's right.  Scottish.


I had not realized that if you suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome brought on by a wartime situation, and you hear a voice in your head, that voice will be Scottish.

Learn something new every day.

But what did I gain from this as far as writing goes?

It may not have been a mistake on the author's part.  Maybe she never read the stories by Charles Todd and it is just a coincidence.  Maybe no one else noticed that the main character didn't have this trait until chapter 7.  Maybe no other readers will find it at all odd, or peculiar, and I'm making a mountain out of a molehill.

All these things could very well be true.

But it did bug me.  So I concluded:

1)  Don't suddenly veer off into left field and inflict new personality traits on your characters half-way through the story.  If they are going to be weird, make them weird from the start.

2)  Don't use specific, peculiar character traits that are MAJOR traits of characters in series written by other authors.  (Note to myself:  No matter how much you like Adrian Monk, do NOT make a detective in any story you write an obsessive, anal-retentive, mental case.  Even if you want to.)

3)  Be careful about absorbing things from other writers and grafting them deliberately, or inadvertently, into your work.  It looks...peculiar.  (See above.)

I may be a little too hard on that author, but it is something that I want to watch out for in my own writing.  It's so seductive and easy to slip up.  And imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it's also a form of plagiarism in my eyes, even if it is technically--not.

But most of all, the most egregious part of this was that the author took a perfectly fine, sympathetic character and grafted something unnecessary and unnatural and just plain weird onto him.  I can only imagine she wanted the hero to be more vulnerable and therefore more sympathetic.  But the reader already liked and was rooting for the hero.  There was no need to "work up more sympathy" for him.

Leave well enough alone, already!


Samantha said...

That's an interesting post. Here's a website that is useful for those who wish to overcomepost traumatic stress. has plenty of tips and guides which you can use to improve yur condition. Hope this helps ya.

Amy said...

Umm, I don't have post-traumatic stress syndrome. I was commenting upon two fictional characters from two separate books, that coincidentally seem to share this condition. And seem to share the condition in an oddly, if not eerily, identical way.

Sorry for the confusion.