But how will the reader know that they are really evil? Or, maybe shortcuts have no place in your writing
I had no trouble believing this anecdote, because I have gotten into more than one argument over the years with people (almost always cisheterosexual men) insisting that just because a character in a particular movie or television series or book raped someone, it doesn’t mean that he’s bad.
What’s most appalling about the anecdote is that a really large number of men think that kicking a puppy is ten-thousand times more evil than sexually assaulting a woman.
But on a less intense level, it’s also pathetic that a number of movies and stories without any rape at all have chosen to show the villain kicking or shooting or otherwise attacking a dog/puppy just to drive home the point that this character is really, really evil. It isn’t just dogs. In the original Terminator, for example, one of the ways the director hammers home that the titular character is a heartless killer is to show a close up of the robot callously stepping on a child’s toy, destroying it.
Puppies and toys aren’t the only kind of shorthand which lazy writers have used to indicator a character is not just a bad person, but despicably, unredeemably bad. One of the other ways that has been used a lot is queer-coding of villains. Queer-coding is where certain behaviors, mannerisms, or means of talking that hint that the character isn’t heterosexual (or possibly not cisgender). It frequently has been used with villains. People often point to villainous characters in Disney films (Jafar, Ursula, Scar) but it’s been around longer than that. Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, Rope is a frequently cited example.
And some works don’t even bother with coding. For instance, Frank Herbert’s novel, Dune, (and the sequels) explicitly depicts the most depraved and evil characters as gay. There is one character who slowly develops bisexual curiosity as she is corrupted, and then goes full queer as her moral corruption reaches its pinnacle.
Full disclosure: I didn’t even notice the correlation between queerness and evil in the Dune books (which I have loved since my early teens), until someone pointed out to me in my mid-to-late-twenties that I, a queer writer, was doing the same thing in stories I was writing at the time. It’s a pervasive culture notion, coming out of the homophobic belief that simply being non-heterosexual is a deep moral failing.
Queer-coding and overt queer-villaining still happen, but more people (and not just queer people) in the audience are willing to speak up and object when it happens. But the sort of writers/directors/et al who feel they need to hammer the depravity of their characters home seem to have switched to a new shorthand: incest.
In my review of a recent episode of Star Trek: Picard I blamed Game of Thrones for this problem. I stand by my explicit statement (as well as the implicit one) that the series (television and books) commits a huge number of literary and ethical sins, but I do have to admit that the encroachment of the incest meme as shorthand for very evil goes back further than that. In Cora Buhlert’s review of the same episode of Picard she points out the incest=villain trope goes back at least to 1974’s movie, Chinatown.
And obviously incest has been mentioned in fiction and folklore for a long time, including the Greek story of Oedipus, Arthurian legend (Mordred sometimes being depicted as the product of an incestuous tryst between Arthur and his sister or half—sister), and more than a few times in the Old Testatment. Though it is worth mentioning that one of the times it happens in the Old Testament the narrative is less than condemning of it.
But in most of those tales the incest plays out as a tragedy. Real life incest is also almost always tragic (since most often it is part of an abusive relationship). So, I’m not saying that incest should be off-limits in narrative fiction, because real human failings are fair game for your fictional works. I’m just annoyed that it seems recently that it’s being thrown in as a lazy way to show that a character is particularly twistedly evil. And it’s not necessary.
You can show the character doing evil things. Physically choking her subordinate tells me plenty about the character of the evil sister of the Hot Romulan, for instance. Sending death squads after people shows us that the character is evil. The narrative didn’t have to make them siblings for any part of the story to work. There are millions of ways you can have your villain behaving cruelly or coldly or viciously to demonstrate that they are a despicable, vile, dastardly, abominable, loathsome person.
Don’t use shorthand to indicate a character is evil. Write the story in such a way to show us the character is evil. But keep it in character, make sure that everything you show the reader also moves the plot along, and so forth. And if a reader is the sort of person who doesn’t recognize that coldly ordering someone’s death (or whatever things that happen in your story that are in character for your villain) is a bad person, maybe your story isn’t for them.
This particular storytelling problem isn’t just limited to television shows or similar serialized stories—but it is prevalent in such narratives because of a perceived need to use up screen time and prolong the suspense so that the viewer will keep coming back.
I say perceived because that time could be used showing the characters having the conversation, reacting to what they learn, and so forth. The counter argument is that viewers/readers don’t want to watch that sort of thing. Yet, as alluded to in the screencap of the blog post above, tens of thousands of readers and viewers create and read tens of thousands of fanfic stories that do precisely that. One of my favorite fanfics is 45,000 words of two characters processing some shared trauma and learning to trust each other. They aren’t just talking, things happen and other characters are involved, but at its heart the story is about these two getting to know each other and decide whether they are going to be friends or something more.
I totally understand the need to create suspense and keep the reader interested. But you don’t have to do it my creating these contrived circumstances where the characters who normally interact all the time just keep not speaking about something that both of them are very upset about. Because if the issue causes suspense, that means any revelation about it will have consequences. And you know what? Whatever those consequences are, they will also be new things to create suspense about!
Instead of finding ever less believable reasons that the characters don’t talk, let them talk. Then let the chips fall and see what happens next.
He had submitted a set of lyrics to the committee for a song that he hoped the chorus might sing in an upcoming Pride concert. In order for us to have performed the song, the chorus would have had to hire a composer to come up with music to accompany the lyrics, and an arranger to convert that melody into four-part harmony and some sort of accompaniment. As it happened, two years previously when those lyrics had been submitted, I had also been on the committee, serving as the secretary of the committee, and I remembered the meeting where we had evaluated music suggestions that had been submitted for consideration. And I remember reading the lyrics and being underwhelmed—it wasn’t just that it was rather trite poetry of the kind you might expect someone’s grandparent to stick up on the wall somewhere, but it had ended on a defeatist note about staying in the closet rather than being out.
So it had been one of the pieces eliminated early by the committee. We had a very limited budget to hire composers/arrangers, and we all agreed this thing wasn’t worth it.
I was a bit stunned to be sitting there, listening to this guy who had decided to use my recent bereavement as an excuse to bring out this ax to grind, and was trying to figure out how I could possibly respond, when he made the comment that crystalized the real problem. He said, “I don’t know if you know what it’s like when you just really, deeply, sincerely wish to have had your music published, but you never got to go to school to learn music theory or how to arrange music because your family couldn’t afford it. I don’t know if you know how much it hurts that someone who knows how to do that won’t turn the words you’ve written into a song for you.”
He didn’t say that he sincerely wished to make music. No, what he said was that he sincerely wished to have music that someone else made but that he could take credit for produced.
I understand the frustration of not being able to do the whole package. I’m not very good at the art side of things, so if I go the indy publishing route, I’m going to have a difficult (and expensive) time getting good cover art for my books. While arranging is a different skill set than writing music or creating lyrics, it’s something you can learn without having majored in music in university. And particularly when one is in their fifties (as this guy was) and had supposedly been trying to become a songwriter for decades, how can he think it’s okay not to have ever even learned how to read music (yes, he was the kind of chorus member who could only learn the part if someone who could read music sang the melody in his ear).
Some would say I don’t have proper sympathy because I took band and orchestra and various vocal classes in high school, and for one year my major in college was music education (I changed majors a lot: math ed, music ed, communications, journalism, then back to math without the ed part…). But the reason I was in so many different musical groups playing so many different instruments back in the day wasn’t because my family paid for lessons for each of those instruments. Public school teachers taught me to read music and how to almost play the viola and later to play the trumpet. But I taught myself how to play bassoon, ephonium, trombone, french horn, flute, bass clarinet and a bunch of others. And while I’ve only finished full arrangements of a few songs over the years, no one taught me arranging, I taught myself.
I’m not saying that finding teachers isn’t worth it, but I am saying that if you want to be good at something, you have to be willing to work for it. Yes, it is harder for those of us who come from working class families. There are many social, financial, and other systemic barriers to many opportunities in this world.
But there is a point where you need to realize that before you can be a star, you have to learn how to make music (or how to write a story, or how to draw a picture…).
Some people never get that.
And some of them are people who seem to have successful careers in the arena which they aren’t really very good at. These folks have enough privilege to fail their way into middling success. Because of connections and so forth, these guys (it is most often a white guy from an upper middle-class or better background) get jobs where they have some responsibility to create (or direct the creation of) something, and they screw up in various ways, they make promises they can’t keep, but they have an assistant (almost always a woman) who cleans up for them. Anyone who has worked in a large office knows this woman: she may have a title like Executive Assistant or even rarely Office Manager, but the upper management people she reports to clearly think of her as a secretary; but she’s the one that actually makes everything happen. She knows how to work projects through finance. She “cleans up” the boss’s presentations. She smooths things over when morale is down or people are angered by things the boss said or did. She finds solutions to the contradictory instructions.
It doesn’t just happen in boring corporate locations. Lots of people in creative positions are just like those bosses. They make decisions that contradict other things they’ve said. They order people to do things that won’t actually work. They write scripts full of clunky dialog, if that’s part of their project. And other people “clean things up.”
That’s how you get someone who can’t direct an interesting movie to save his life being paid to make one loser after another. It’s how you get best-selling authors who throw temper tantrums when someone writes a critique of their work who are flabbergasted when someone holds the page in front of them and shows them that yes, that passage did come out of their work. That’s how you get senior partners at law firms who had an extensive and impressive record as a prosecutor, when deprived of their phalanx of assistants making blatantly incorrect declarations of the law and actually further incriminating their client in television interviews.
And sometimes, apparently, it’s how you get someone clueless enough to use a supposed condolence call to whine about why other people won’t compose and arrange music to accompany their mediocre poetry.
If you really want to be a rock star, you have to learn to rock and roll. Otherwise, you’re no different than a lip-synching puppet.
There is a flip side to this concept of being bounced out of the story. It is implicit in the relationship between a reader and a story that when one first opens a book (or opens a reading app, et cetera) the reader is ready to give the story the benefit of the doubt. Which isn’t to say that a reader is obligated to keep reading if they don’t enjoy the story or it becomes confusing or whatever. It just means that for the first sentence or so the reader will accept what is being offered.
Different readers have different definitions of that initial willingness to accept the story. I once had an English teacher insist that a good story shouldn’t begin with a compound, complex sentence. An arrogant smart aleck student in the class1 pointed out that the classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities, opens with a single very long sentence:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
One reason that opening works is because it doesn’t sound, in one’s head, like a run-on sentence. It has almost a musicality to it that builds and builds as it goes along. My favorite bit is the “we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”
Somedays when I read the news, I find myself convinced that we’re all going that other way and in a handbasket of colossal proportions.
But occasionally that handbasket induces a few giggles. Such as #CockyGate: This Romance Novelist Trademarked the Word ‘Cocky’: And now she’s threatening other writers with legal action if they don’t change their book titles and The #CockyGate Trademark Kerfuffle. The article gives more details. An intellectual property lawyer working with the Romance Writers of America has filed a petition with the Trademark office to invalidate the trademark on the word (and it is possible this will work; but the system has been inconsistent).
The notion that someone could trademark an adjective and forbid other people using that word in their stories (or even just the titles of stories) is a chilling one. I hope that, like the “space marine” trademark issue from five years ago, that this trademark bully will be stopped.
Because that’s what this is: bullying. The cocky author has been sending cease and desist messages to any other romance author who has used the word in a book title, including books that were first published long before she started writing herself. She’s been threatening to issue takedown notices to Amazon (just like the space marine trademark bully did years ago), which can result in lost sales as well as messing up their review and ratings histories, even when Amazon re-instates the listing. Also, some books were taken down when the cocky author contacted Amazon directly without first sending a letter to the author. The RWA and their lawyer has since contacted Amazon, to ask them to stop taking action on any cocky romance books until the legal matter is resolved. Fortunately, the books were restored.
It’s also a likely case of the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is the notion that incompetent people aren’t able to recognize their incompetence. In this case, I say that in part because of how the cease and desist messages are worded. Rather than having an actual lawyer draft the letters (which would cost money), she is writing her own, and her messages include the statement, “my lawyers have advised me that I will win all the monies you have earned on this title, plus lawyer fees will be paid by you.” Which clearly is not a statement a competent lawyer would make. The lawyer might say that if she prevails in a lawsuit that she might be entitled to the money earned and so forth, but they would never say they were even guaranteed to prevail.
And someone has already posted a parody book called, Too Cocky for the Law: Cockier Than the Rest (Cocky Legal Book 1), and have included the word cocky and many synonyms in the description. I have heard that the proceeds of the book are going to help with the legal fees of the trademark challenge, but I wasn’t able to confirm that.
I have been very tempted to create a parody e-book with the title Cocky Space Marine, but since I have crazy deadlines at my day job and a couple of fiction writing deadlines also looming, I really shouldn’t… even if the story almost writes itself…
1. It was me, all right.
I posted a while ago about many of the ways that the cliched advice of ‘show don’t tell’ is actually bad advice. A lot of people take it to mean that all exposition is bad. The usual ways of implementing it creates fiction that is only accessible to people who—because of the culture of their upbringing or through study—are privy to a specific set of presuppositions. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a nugget of truth in the advice, rather that the advice itself is an oversimplification and many of its proponents are pushing (whether they mean to or not) an agenda that excludes many people and cultures. The nugget is worth digging into.
There is no clear consensus of who first used the specific phrase “show don’t tell,” but it is possible that it is a reduction of a longer piece of advice from Russian author Anton Chekov: “Don’t tell me the moon was shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Of course, in this longer form, it is a bit more obvious that the problem isn’t exposition of all sorts, but rather flat or boring exposition. If you merely tell the reader, “the moon was shining” and nothing else, that’s a pretty generic image, and doesn’t set much of a scene. But if instead you say something like, “moonlight glinted off the broken glass on the floor” that gives a more specific image—and raises some questions. Why is there broken glass on the floor? What happened?
You show the reader that the moon is shining by telling them that moonlight is glinting off broken glass. And you’re going to show the reader what happened by telling them more. As I said in the previous post, being a storyteller requires one to tell stories.
Anton Chekhov is more famous in English-speaking writer communities for another piece of advice: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” The idea is that when certain objects, events, or utterances occur in your story, you raise expectations in the audience that this thing is going to be important. Another way to look at it is, if you’ve shown your reader something that seems important, you should eventually tell the reader what happens to that thing.
Anton Chekhov knew a lot about writing. He’s best known now for a few significant plays, but he wrote an unbelievable number of short stories, short-shorts, vignettes, and other tales. When Chekhov was a young medical student, his father got severely into debt, and Chekhov started writing and selling short, comedic stories and sketches of Russian street life in order to pay for his own tuition and to assist his parents. Eventually, his writing output was so prodigious, that he paid off his parents’ debts, was supporting several of his adult siblings, his own wife, at least one kept mistress, and he was treating medical patients for free. He considered his important life work to be the medical care, and the writing was just to pay all of those bills.
To get back to his advice about showing the reader things: while it is important that your telling of your story paints vivid pictures in your reader’s mind, it is equally important that everything you show the reader serves a purpose within your story. It’s a balancing act.
Many years ago I was asked to give a critique of a draft story by someone in one of the writers’ groups. The story was set in the late 1800s in a “wild west” town, and it had a sex scene. The scene included several pages of beautifully worded and painstakingly specific description of the layers of cloths the woman was wearing and just how much work was involved. There were more than a dozen paragraphs dealing with the unfastening of a set of buttons on a single garment. It was excruciatingly clear that the author had spent many hours researching period fabrics and design and construction of women’s garments in the period. And the author was determined that the reams of information gathered in the hundreds of hours of research would all explained to the reader.
The author claimed, during discussion, that the plot was her protagonist needed to get a piece of information from this guy, so she seduced him. Unfortunately that was completely lost in the very elaborate description of the clearly frustrating undressing process. A case could be made for a humorous story answering the question “can the protagonist get herself undressed and have sex with this guy before they both die of old age?” but that wasn’t what the author was going for—and even then, there was too much detail to support such a punchline. As it was, neither the difficulty of the undressing process nor any of the details of the clothing had anything to do with the author’s intended plot.
It should also be noted, there was no description of the man’s process of undressing. He got his clothes off in less than a sentence at the beginning of the scene. Which is why more than one person in the group thought that the story was meant to be a humorous parody of a bodice-ripper.
I usually have the opposite problem—I don’t describe things enough. So an important part of my revision process (once I get the first draft done) is look for places where painting the picture will make the plot, character motivations, and so on more obvious to the reader.
If you tend toward the more elaborate form of description, than you will need to pay attention to the other side of things during your edit and revision passes: look for abandoned guns. If you’ve described someone’s clothing in detail, ask yourself why? Is the scalloping on the hem of his cloak important to the story? Sure, if you need to establish that this character is well off, and has a flare for fashion, give some details. But maybe that little digression about the type of stitching should be trimmed. If at a later point some property of the cloak is going to be important to a plot point, yeah, show us a detail that at least hints at that possibility.
Similarly with the way a character looks, or the visual details of her home, or the contents of her desk, or the design of any weapons she carries. Show enough for the reader to imagine the character. Show enough to get the reader an outline of the way the character does things. Show the reader things important to the plot without drawing a bullseye on things that will telegraph plot twists.
Paint the picture, but only the picture that is relevant to the story.
A while back I posted about why I dislike large expository dumps in fiction (Trust the reader to keep up). I still stand by what I wrote there, but thanks to a great essay by Cecilia Tan, Let Me Tell You, I realize that advice like that feeds into a misperception that all exposition is inherently bad. At best, it ignores the fact that there is a big difference between expository dumps and quality exposition. I’ve linked to Tan’s essay before, and it is well worth the read, but the crux of her argument is here:
Tan is hardly the first person to point out that the cliched advice to ‘show, don’t tell‘ is problematic: Why “Show, Don’t Tell” Is the Great Lie of Writing Workshops or 5 REASONS ‘SHOW DON’T TELL’ IS BAD ADVICE. But the easiest way to see that it is at best an oversimplification is simply to remember that writers are story tellers. You can’t tell a story without, well, telling some things.
These are the do’s and don’ts of MFA programs everywhere. They rely on a shared pool of knowledge and cultural assumptions so that the words left unsaid are powerfully communicated. I am not saying this is not a worthwhile experience as reader or writer, but I am saying anointing it the pinnacle of “craft” leaves out any voice, genre, or experience that falls outside the status quo. The inverse is also true, then: writing about any experience that is “foreign” to that body of shared knowledge is too often deemed less worthy because to make it understandable to the mainstream takes a lot of explanation. Which we’ve been taught is bad writing!
From the point of view of teaching people how to write, ‘show don’t tell’ is part of an entire tool kit which is used for gatekeeping. See, if you do not understand enough of the cultural touchstones being alluded to (but not actually told about) in the so-called literary novels, you can’t understand the novel. In other words, the less that your upbringing resembled a white, male, cis het, upper middle class childbood, the less likely that those novels will be understood by you, and therefore less likely they will appeal to you. And if you admit that you didn’t like them and didn’t understand them, that is used by some people to label you as unsophisticated, unintelligent, and tasteless. You can get past those gatekeepers if you don’t fall into all of those categories (there are a number of works by gay male authors, for instance, that are routinely accepted into the category because those authors understood the culture and learned all the tricks), but the entire toolkit of the literary elite created a situation where you must learn the secret codes in order to understand the stories.
Several science fiction and fantasy authors have pointed out that it is impossible to tell a good sf/f tale following the ‘show don’t tell’ stricture because in order to put the reader into a world that differs from ours, you have to at least occasionally tell the reader some things.
But you don’t have to do that by placing large chunks of your world-building as a lecture or debate about history that goes on for pages and pages. You certainly don’t have to make your viewpoint character an outsider who doesn’t know anything about this world, so has to constantly have things explained to them by others. You can explain things without slowing down the plot. You can tell the reader about the setting in small sips. You can do that in context along the way.
Trust the reader to understand, yes, but trust the story, too. You’re a story teller, so tell your story.
I think the first time I ever read a story when the author described a character’s skin as “coffee colored” I was about 12 or 13 years old. And I remember pausing and thinking, “Is it plain coffee, or coffee with cream? And if it’s with cream, how much?” Because, for instance, I had one aunt who put almost a half a cup of milk or cream in her cup if she had it before pouring the coffee in, whereas one grandmother who made coffee only put a small dollop in hers, so the coffee was very dark. The description completely bounced me out of the story for several minutes while I puzzled over that. I eventually went back to reading the tale, but I had a difficult time visually the character, because I couldn’t decide how dark her skin was supposed to be.
I don’t remember the story, so I can’t go back and check, but don’t think any character other than her had their skin color described.
A few years later I was reading another story where the author described a character’s skin as coffee-colored, and also described another character’s skin as the color of cream. And I immediately imagined the second woman as albino, because I had a few classmates with that condition, and it was the only skin I had ever seen literally that color, right? I only thought that for a few minutes, then realized the author was being a bit metaphorical.
Anyway, a little later in the novel I noticed that most of the male characters had not had their skin described. One guy had been described at one point as “bronzed” and there was a reference to another man as being “red-faced” but their physical descriptions were not as detailed as the women. I was fifteen or sixteen years old at this time, and midway through the book I had started developing a crush on one of the male characters (though I didn’t quite realize it, since I was still deeply closeted and in denial about my own sexuality) and found myself being actively annoyed at the author for not giving my more of a description of him. Which I wanted to know purely for accuracy, and not at all for any lustful reasons, ahem.
Even with the frustration, it would be a few more years before I finally realized there was a pattern in lots of books, particularly when written by men: describe the women’s looks using various food metaphors, but virtually never describe the men in detail, unless those characters were supposed to be comical or villainous or otherwise disliked. Then, of course, the men would have various physical features that emphasized their inferiority to the blue-eyed hero.
And the hero was almost always blue-eyed, wasn’t he? Which should be another clue. Of course, I was a pasty-skinned blue-eyed cisgendered nerd myself, so it took me longer than it should have to notice just how skewed all these treatments, in the narrative, of characters of various genders and races were.
To answer the question in the title of this post: What does it mean when an author describes a character as having coffee-colored skin? Well, it means that the author is falling back on a cliche that is deeply steeped in racism. And since these descriptions are almost always reserved for women in those narratives, and the women’s characterizations all center on how attractive or unattractive the women appear to men in the story, it is also steeped in a whole lot of sexism and misogyny.
So you should avoid doing it.
And this isn’t about political correctness. It’s about bad and cliched writing. Seriously, I am not the only reader who will come across a description like that and stop to wonder what kind of coffee. Or if you use another food, no matter what it is, there will be some readers who are unfamiliar with it.
But it’s also pretty creepy to describe characters as food, as if they’re meant to be consumed—as if their appearance is the only thing they have to contribute to the narrative.
I know that I sometimes under-describe. I’m a more minimalist storyteller where my focus is on what the characters say and do; I only include description when I feel I have to. But, nothing should be in your story if it doesn’t advance the plot, develop or reveal a character’s personality, foreshadow events to come in the plot, and so forth. And 99.9% of the time, a character’s appearance has nothing to do with those things. Yeah, you need to set a scene, and you want the reader to imagine the character while reading about them. But how much detail does someone really need to follow your story?
Let the reader fill in the details that don’t matter to the plot.
And don’t perpetuate cliches, whether racist, misogynist, heteronormative or not.