Monday, September 12, 2011

Writing craft - Padding, misery porn, and “The Mr. Wonderful Syndrome”

I’m a firm believer that, when it comes to writing, you can often learn more from a bad example than a good one. It can be much easier to understand why something doesn’t work than why it does.

I’ve read some books and seen movies lately that illustrate storytelling flaws. These aren’t the most egregious problems out there, and I can overlook them to some degree if there are compensating factors, but they should still be avoided.


Funnily enough, padding has nothing to do with the overall length of a book. I’m partial to big, fat books – I’m one of those people who thought The Crimson Petal and the White wasn’t too long (in fact, it could have gone on for another few hundred pages and I’d have been happy).

Where padding is a problem is when it detracts from the story. You can put in as much detail as you want – as long as it serves the story. That is, as long as it contributes toward the plot, the setting, the characters, or the themes. But if it’s just the writer showing off how much research went into the book, or taking side trips that may be well-written (and even enjoyable on their own) but derail the momentum of the story, you’ve got padding.

Ask yourself (or get a Constant Reader to ask you) “what is this doing here?” And remember that “Um, because it’s cool?” or anything beginning with “Yeah, but…” are not acceptable answers.

Misery porn

All right, I can already hear giggling from the peanut gallery. “Kelly, I can’t believe you are calling other books out for being misery porn!” Well, hear me out first.

I recently read a book in which the protagonist, who’d recently been through a big tragic event, joined a club devoted to a certain art-and-craft to take her mind off things. (I’m being cagey because I don’t want to reveal the name of the book.) It turned out that every member of the art-and-craft club had a big tragic backstory as well, and of course we had to hear all about it! (Didn’t exactly make me want to take up that particular art-and-craft.) What made this misery porn was watching a steady parade of characters we didn’t know much about come in, introduce themselves, and then give their big tragic backstories (barely 100 pages into the book there had already been three, count ‘em, three dead kids). And yet none of it was all that enlightening - the reader knew so little about the characters that the backstories had no resonance.

It was rather like a certain type of film, in which a bunch of characters we barely know show up, take off their clothes, and hijinks ensue – yet because we don’t know much about the characters, there’s little beyond surface entertainment. (I’m being cagey because, hey, my Mom reads this blog.) Misery in books is like sex in the real world – a lot more rewarding with someone you care about.

The Mr. Wonderful Syndrome

So how do you create a character your readers will care about?

What you don’t do is make a character perfect.

We’re all flawed, and even your awesome characters – the ones you wish existed in real life so you could hang around with them – must have flaws.

When characters are too good to be true, you the Mr. Wonderful Syndrome. The problem with Mr. Wonderful is that while he is supposed to gain the reader’s favor because he’s so awesome, he never does because his perfection makes him unbelievable. Nobody likes a goody-two-shoes, and readers won’t care much about your perfect character. For a stellar example of the Mr. Wonderful Syndrome, see Tommy Wiseau’s movie The Room: the protagonist is so wonderful that he showers his shrewish fiancée with gifts (he even declares that he treats her like a princess), puts a creepy man-child through college, and even the lady at the flower shop says for all to hear that he’s her favorite customer. And the audience doesn’t buy it for a minute.

A true Mr. Wonderful needs flaws. Not huge ones – he shouldn’t beat his wife, she shouldn’t embezzle from her parents – but flaws that are just enough to make them human, and therefore deserving of interest and sympathy. If the characterization is done right, readers will understand and forgive those flaws.

The most crucial point is that a true Mr. Wonderful would never believe that he is Mr. Wonderful. If you told him that he’s Mr. Wonderful, he’d laugh and thank you for the compliment, but would never really believe it. When a Mr. Wonderful believes his own hype, he ceases to be Mr. Wonderful.

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