For those of you who do not know me, I am an editor. Traditionally, I am that person who reads your manuscript and then complains about the number of times you use the word, “look,” when you could have used a stronger verb. For a while, I thought policing vocabulary was enough. Sure, some parts of some manuscripts disturbed me, some characters seemed really dumb but I didn’t think much of it.
Then I began to see a sinister pattern of abuse emerging within the great flood of fiction.
Time after time I saw Cruel Authors perpetrating heinous acts upon their characters, giving them Career Amnesia, making them Plot Zombies, and forcing them to perform actions that would render them Too Stupid to Live.
After that I could not remain silent. I became an advocate for lame characters who wished for better, more substantial lives. I championed every slutty paramedic who yearned to be good at his job, but was being prevented by some Cruel Author deciding he should get a boner for a traffic cop at the scene of a fatal five-car collision.
Today I address another insidious menace to the citizens of Romancelandia: becoming trapped in a Someone Else’s Plot.
Readers, it’s true. Everywhere, everyday, original characters are jammed into plots in which they do not belong and cannot thrive. There are pacifist librarians being forced to wield machine guns in political thrillers that sound a lot like the world of “24” and street-wise orphans pressured into irrationally caring about manners in thinly-disguised versions of “Pride and Prejudice.”
It’s a one-two punch from authors who are basically Too Lazy to Invent Their Own Plots or TLTITOP, for short.
To some extent I understand TLTITOP. Every writer has read somebody else’s story and thought, “Damn, I wish I had written that.” It’s natural. The danger comes when Cruel Author decides, “I should just go ahead and take that plot-structure and put my own spin on it with my own characters.”
Because if we understand that the events of any story are driven by the actions and motivations of the characters, then it follows that when you change the characters you must also change the plot.
Lets say you do have that pacifist librarian take over the role of Jack Bauer in a “24”-type story. First of all: why? Why in world would anyone kidnap a librarian’s family to force him to help with a presidential assassination?
Make no mistake; I’m not saying you couldn’t somehow have a story where a librarian is tapped to help kill the POTUS, I’m just saying it wouldn’t have the same scenes as a story where a seasoned tactical ops guy was the protagonist.
If the librarian were called it would have to be by mistake, or as a very last resort—some explanation would have to be provided for this weird decision. Otherwise the villains themselves would seem Too Stupid to Live.
And then there would be numerous scenes of our intrepid librarian defeating bad guys in hand-to-hand combat. Those too would need to be modified to show the character using his library science skills, rather than secret assassin training.
In other words, every scene and virtually every supporting character must change.
But the author suffering from TLTITOP doesn’t do that. Rather than modifying the plot this Cruel Author just comes up with a Dumb Reason to keep the same order of scenes and the same supporting characters.
Here to help show how sad this can get is our old pal, Binky—this time dressed up in a nerdy glasses so he can seem like a Smart Hipster Librarian.
The phone call came at 12:04 a.m.—while Binky was in the shower.
Why? Why did people always call when he was soaped up, slippery and nude?
Binky pawed his way out from behind the rainbow-colored shower curtain. He groped for the towel, half-blind from the soap stinging his eyes. Finally he reached the luxurious 700 gsm pure, long-staple Turkish cotton towel and wiped the soap away from his big blue eyes.
Who was calling him at midnight anyway?
Finally he answered his phone, “Hello?”
“Is this Binky?”
“Yes who is this?”
“We have your wife and child. If you ever want to see them again, you’ll do what we say,” a gravelly voice whispered from the phone.
“But I don’t have a wife and child,” Binky said.
“Don’t lie to me! Or they’re DEAD!!!” In the background, Binky thought he could hear the sound of a couple of women crying and then the sound of a hard slap.
At that moment, Binky realized that this man must have called the wrong number, but that didn’t matter. Just because those poor women were strangers to him, that didn’t mean that he could just let them die.
“Okay!” Binky’s beautiful resort towel fell to the floor and he straightened up to his full height. “Tell me what I have to do.”
In the course of this story, Binky goes on to save a couple of random women who he’s never even met for: Reasons. And each scene more or less mirrors the original scenes in 24 with Binky shooting guns and outwitting terrorists.
All this can leave Readers with some serious questions for Cruel Author.
Readers: How can a librarian defeat a trained terrorist?
CA: By having read a book, of course! Just like how any one of us who has glanced over a driver’s manual has no need to practice or be licensed before hitting the road on a high-speed chase.
Readers: But why was Binky called in the first place?
CA: By mistake! Hey, it can happen, right?
Readers: But why don’t the terrorists notice that they’ve got the wrong guy?
CA: Because Keifer Southerland plays Binky.
Readers: What’s up with Binky thinking so much about towels?
CA: …dunno, maybe because I took a break while writing the scene to shop for towels? But that’s realistic, right?
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Authors, even Cruel ones, need not succumb to TLTITOP.
Let’s take a good hard look at our Binky. What resources does he have as a librarian? Well, the whole Internet, many obscure books. And rather than the team at a counter-terrorist unit, our librarian would have only the dozens of street people who hang around in the library all day.
Yet the initial question lingers: why would anyone call a librarian to help kill the POTUS?
So let’s try again. Only this time we’ll try and give everyone plausible motivation: Binky, the mysterious villain, the love interest. Everybody.
In this scenario, Our Binky is still phoned by a terrorist who wants him to help him kill the POTUS but we’ve given the story a different angle.
Binky stood at his station at the reference desk trembling. The caller repeated himself, “Did you hear me Binky? We have your mother and we will kill her unless you do exactly as we say.”
“I’m listening,” Binky whispered.
All around him library patrons walked through the bright morning sunshine that streamed in through the large plate-glass windows. Their most regular patrons—the homeless men with their shabby belongings camped in each of their usual spaces.
“We want you to get in touch with your father.”
Binky’s heart hammered—he had always feared this day would come—that someone would find out the truth about his connection to the man who had become president of the United States.
“What do you want me to tell him?”
“You’re not going to tell him anything. You’re going to kill him,” the distorted voice said. “In three days time at the G8 Summit in Seattle.”
“What? I can’t—”
“Go to the seventh floor bathroom. You’ll find further instructions. Don’t attempt to contact anyone. We’ll know.”
The caller disconnected. Binky put down the phone receiver and walked to the elevator. Waiting there was one of the homeless men: Brutus was his name. He wore a thick wool pea coat and black stocking cap pulled over his long, wild hair. Brutus was unusual among the street people in that he didn’t come to the library to sleep, but to genuinely read, though he seemed to have a difficult time of it. Brutus glanced over at Binky but said nothing. When the car arrived, they both stepped into the elevator and the doors closed.
Alone with Brutus in the elevator, Binky began to shake in earnest, what if Brutus was the one watching him? What if they’d paid him off? He turned his head to find Brutus looking straight at him as the elevator quickly ascended.
“Are you okay?” Brutus asked. His breath smelled of coffee and cigarettes.
Binky nodded, unable, at first to speak.
Brutus cocked his head slightly and said, “Are you sure? Do you want me to call somebody?”
The elevator display read 7. As the doors began to open, Binky reached out and hit the “door close” button. Keeping it pressed down he whispered, “Some of the other patrons say you used to be in the special forces. Is that true?”
Brutus nodded. He edged slightly away from Binky, head drawn up in suspicion.
“I need your help,” Binky went on in a panicked rush. “Will you come with me to the men’s room? Follow me in?”
Brutus’s brows furrowed. Then he said, “That is the weirdest come-on line I have ever heard. But okay. We can fuck if you want. Not here, though. I don’t want them to take away my library card.”
“It’s not a come-on! There is someone who is after me. They’re watching me right now. They want me to go to the men’s room. I have to go now,” Binky’s voice came out in a strained hiss. “It’s okay if you don’t want to get involved but if I don’t come out of the bathroom, or if I end up dead in there, please call the police and tell them that the president is in danger.”
“The president of the library?”
“Of the United States!” Binky released the door and they parted like a theater curtain drawing aside for the final act. He walked with his head held high, but inside consumed with fear. It had been stupid to ask a bum for help. The man couldn’t even help himself.
Now we not only have a reason that a nobody like Binky has become involved in a plot to assassinate the leader of the free world, but we’ve also acquired an unusual love interest who brings a whole new set of circumstances that will further personalize the plot of our political thriller. I mean, from Brutus’s point of view Binky now appears to be possibly insane. But he follows Binky into the bathroom anyway because he’s worried that that hot little nerd might be having some kind of mental breakdown.
Once there, Brutus realizes the veracity of Binky’s claim and away we go!
And how did we do it? By looking at our characters against the background of the plot and coming up with creative reasons and good motivation for the characters to behave the way they do. Rather than being Dummies in a Dumb Story, fighting a TSTL villain, they’ve become completely new.
So authors, I urge you: do not allow your characters to become locked into Someone Else’s Plot. Let them make their own, much more interesting way into the world. You’ll be glad you did.
Over and out.
Please note: all opinions and statements expressed are those of the author and not of Open Ink Press LLC or its affiliates.