Why secret identities make me see red

(Note: there are some vague spoilers for Daredevil and other titles in the MCU. I don’t get into too many specifics, but you have been warned.)

I was watching the most recent season of Daredevil, and something struck me as off. It was surprising– I really enjoyed the first season, and I thought it was well done. But by the second season finale, I was getting agitated. There were a couple of issues, but the biggest one was that it struck a personal pet peeve of mine: he still has a secret identity.

 

I’m picking on the super hero genre, but the unnecessary secret is a huge trope all over the place. Vampires are forbidden from breaking the masquerade, and wizards can’t expose magic to muggles. There’s inevitably a long, drawn out sequence where the mundane person is suddenly exposed to this secret world that they never knew existed, and is forced to re-evaluate their relationship with the ones they love.

But… why?

It wouldn’t bother me nearly so much if there was an actual solid reason for something to be kept secret, but that’s rarely the case. Often, it feels like a plot device to either create artificial drama, or as a plot coupon to explain why a hero/villain can go around killing masses of people without consequences, or to explain why only the designated hero could possibly stop the designated villain rather than the police or the army. (It has often been pointed out how quickly a gun could have taken out Voldemort, even if not all his horcruxes.)

The MCU has actually been pretty good about this for the most part, and it shows in the kind of plots that the characters are suddenly intertwined with. Being unmasked means that heroes suddenly have to face the consequences of their actions. Iron Man and Captain America have both been harangued by the US government about who owns their superpowered identities. Jessica Jones and Frank Castle have both been taken to court for, you know, killing people. These are new and interesting plots that you don’t see very often in the super hero movie/show genre (I won’t get into the comics, since there is literally a comic about the people who clean up after superheroes. Just because a thing isn’t mainstream doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist).

So this isn’t me calling out all secret worlds ever. Just the ones that don’t make sense. Particularly when they intersect with relationships.

Love in a time of secrets

You already know the old song and dance. “I can’t tell Aunt May that I’m Spiderman! Her heart can’t take it, and she will surely die!” “I can’t tell Lowis Lane that I’m Superman, because then she’ll be targeted by my enemies!”

Cue lots of lying and cover-ups, awkward misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Cue the loved ones of the super hero inevitably being kidnapped by all manner of villains anyway, and generally being put into more danger by their ignorance, often while trying to find out more about the hero or the secret identity. Cue them feeling lost and useless while the hero misses out on much-needed help that this person easily could have provided.

Perhaps most irritating to me, it almost always feels like rampant misogyny. Because even though platonic best friends sometimes get caught with the short side of the secret identity stick, that role usually falls on their wife or girlfriend (or in Peter Parker’s case, his aunt). Even if another man is kept out of the loop, they’re often clued in earlier and with a whole lot less drama than their female counterparts. (Because of this, I’ll be using ‘he’ for the hero and ‘she’ for the loved one from this point forward, even though either person can be any gender).

Hero knows best

Sometimes the hero’s loved one is told to just leave town, usually without explanation. She’s expected to obey without question, despite the hero’s erratic behavior. It doesn’t matter that she’s been shown to be reasonably intelligent before now; she doesn’t actually understand the situation, so she should just do as he says and trust that he knows better than she does.

It’s not just in isolated incidents of danger, though.

“She can’t know, or she’ll be in danger” assumes that it’s his right to decide whether or not she pursues danger or avoids it. If she doesn’t want to be involved in his life, it’s within her rights to leave. If she wants to risk the danger of associating with the hero, then it’s within her rights to stick around.

Consequently, the hero spends an irritating amount of the plot chasing after his loved one and saving her from obvious danger, as if she was a toddler playing blind man’s bluff in a knife factory. And there’s a reason for that: Taking away their right to know takes away their ability to make an informed decision. The entire premise of the secret identity reduces her agency to that of a child.

Good secrets

That isn’t to say that there can’t be secrets for good reasons. There are plenty of LGBT+ individuals who have to keep secret identities every day, because telling the other person could have grave consequences, especially in one of the many countries where those identities are criminalized. “If she finds out, she’ll be in danger” is very different from “If she finds out, she’ll try to kill me” or “she might not want to kill me, but she may tell someone who will.”

The biggest difference in this case is that the hero (the person keeping the secret) is trying to protect themselves, not the person they’re lying to. And consequently, they’re not infantilizing the other person by making decisions on their behalf. And that makes all the difference.

Characters: too many or too few?

A well-respected bit of writing advice says you should limit the characters you introduce to your reader. Some have argued that you shouldn’t introduce more than five in the first chapter; others say you shouldn’t introduce more than two or three at any given time.

It’s good advice. Having worked in the food industry, I’m all too familiar with the consequences of being loaded with dozens of names and faces in a short period of time. Pretty soon even the distinctive, memorable ones start disappearing into the vague masses.

Pretty simple, right?

But while I was working on a post-apocalyptic story a few years back, I learned you can have the opposite problem. In this story, I had too few characters, which meant I had way too many. Continue reading “Characters: too many or too few?”

When rules can be broken

Let’s start with an old grammar joke.

Two women are sitting next to each other on a train. The first turns to the second and asks “So where are you from?”

The second sniffs. “I’m from a place where we do not end a sentence with a preposition.”

Ever the courteous conversationalist, the first corrects herself: “So where are you from, asshole?” 

Grammar’s funny like that.

Almost nobody adheres to the joke’s preposition rule, because bending over backwards to avoid a preposition can make sentences ridiculously convoluted. Seriously, how could you possibly rephrase the opening question? “From whence do you hail?”

There’s nothing casual or friendly about that, unless you’re at a renfaire. So the first woman did the sensible thing and sacrificed the grammatical rule for the sake of her message.

Meaning can be more than clarity

When you understand a rule, you can break it in a way that leaves an impression on the reader.

If you spend much time on Tumblr, you’ll notice that text will randomly go into all caps and jumbled letters whEN THE WRITERS GET SUPER EXCITED AFKLSDJLKFDSL. The point is that the writer is so incredibly excited and/or angry that their emotion becomes more important than the subject they’re talking about, conveying that the thing they’re talking about is either too amazing or too awful for words.

It works just as well in fiction.

Sentence fragments can indicate fragmented thought. Run-on sentences can convey anxiety. Particular errors can become hallmarks of a character’s voice. For example, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes famously begins with so many spelling and grammatical errors that it can seem nigh unintelligible, because throughout the story, the way Charly writes signals as much (if not more) to the audience as the content of his words. During the entire book, you can map his mental state by his writing style. The same can be said about Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, in which individual letters are systematically excised from the text throughout the novel. The more draconian the town’s laws become, the more convoluted the prose becomes.

If you’re tempted to use style in this way, though, keep three things in mind:

  • These flourishes are all deliberately placed by the writer
  • The reader’s attention is drawn to the dramatic flourishes and away from the text itself
  • The dramatic flourishes actively reinforce the most important part of the text

It’s important to beware, though. Get too bold with your style, and you may sacrifice the content of your words altogether.

Do you have any flourishes you favor? Know any good grammar jokes? Are there styles that drive you batty? Tell us in the comments!

Why writing rules are so hard

Depending on who you ask, there are six rules for proper use of a comma or sixteen. Depending on who you ask, numbers should be written out or typed as numerals, or written out and then typed as numerals inside of parentheses.

Why? What’s up with these rules? What’s the point, and why all the changes? Continue reading “Why writing rules are so hard”

Characterization: What shape is your noodle?

Maybe you’ve come across those prompts that have been floating around the internet since 1998 or so: they’re massive lists of things that, supposedly, every writer should know about their character. They start out with some solid information: legal name, nicknames, appearance, where they were born, etc.

And then things get specific. Oddly specific.

Questions like “What would your character give their life for?” and “What does your character think makes a successful love life?” could be good to know, especially if they’re going to be in situations where that comes up. And then there are some questions like “What was your character’s earliest memory?” or “What is your character’s favorite shape of noodle?” that probably won’t come up at all, outside of very specific circumstances.

I don’t know about you, but unless it’s a major part of their identity, I really don’t care what a character’s favorite shape of noodle is.

I’m partial to bowtie noodles, but Boxy’s got a thing for dinosaur shapes. (image from Wikimedia Commons)

A lot of people will tell you their ideas of what every writer needs to know about their characters, so here’s mine– and instead of the typical 25/50/100, I’m going to give you an easy number to remember. Three.

  1. What do they want? This is both in the short term (I’m thirsty; I want a glass of water) and the long term (I want to become a world famous dancer.) Everybody wants something, and as a writer, you should have a clear understanding of at least the short-term desires of every person that appears in your story.
  2. What is their defining experience? A defining experience is one that shapes who you are, what kinds of things you want, and what you value. It could be a relationship with a particular person, a single moment, or an environment, but it fundamentally altered who they became. For example, Frodo Baggins was shaped by the stories of his uncle Bilbo’s adventures. They instilled in him a craving for adventure and an appreciation for humility and mercy– and those qualities set him apart from every single person he interacted with.
  3. What changes them during the story? In order to be dynamic, a character must change at some point over the course of the story. In order to do so, you must give them a second defining experience that shapes them in a different way. Staying in Tolkien’s world, I would argue that Gimli was changed when he met (and was smitten by) Lady Galadriel of Lothlorien. It didn’t make him an instant Elf Friend, but after that point he treated elves with far more respect, and was able to cement his friendship with Legolas Greenleaf– and in doing so, rise above the animosity and racism that had existed between their two families since before Smaug took Erebor.

The way I see it, being able to answer those three questions will let you build vivid, dynamic characters– but that’s just my list.

What questions do you think a writer needs to be able to answer when they create a character? Let us know in the comments!

Happy New Year!

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Traditionally, I’ve done a new year’s resolution post on this day.

This year, I’m going to not do that– because isn’t making and breaking traditions what today is about?

Instead, I give you the first writing prompt of the new year:

Your character finds a genie, and they are given a wish. Just one. But there’s a catch: the wish can only be used on your character.

What would they wish for? What would they change– or preserve– or retrieve– or undo– about themselves?

And what would happen if they got their wish?

Let us know what your character wished for in the comments, and have a fantastic new year!

Getting from a concept to a story

The amazing thing about being a writer is that you learn to spot the ideas and ‘what if’s that other people would normally pass by. They’re everywhere, and they’re incredible. And they can also be incredibly frustrating. You can get incredibly intricate and detailed ideas in your head, but for the life of you, you can’t do anything about it. Creating a world is wonderful, but it’s just words on paper unless you have a story to take place within it.

So you’ve got an idea…

This afternoon I had a conversation this afternoon on the subject, so I’ll use that as an example: one character discovers that his friend doesn’t actually exist.

It’s a fantastic idea, and there’s a lot of directions you can go on the subject. So how do you shape that idea into a story?

Find the problem

At its core, every story is driven by some form of desire. Everyone wants something– a new bike, their crush to return their affections, the ability to live to see tomorrow, etc.

Every character is going to have a desire driving them– at least one, and often more.

  • Does the real friend want the unreal friend to find out about their non-existence?
  • Does the unreal friend feel threatened by their non-existence and want to feel more secure?
  • Does the real friend envy the unreal friend’s way of life? What about the other way around?

And so forth. There are nearly endless variations of things that your characters can want out of life.

Look for a solution

Once you figure out what each character wants, figure out how they’re going to go about pursuing that thing, and then have them pursue it. Plot is what happens when we watch them try, fail, try again, and possibly even succeed. Of course, they don’t have to succeed, and sometimes it’s for the best that they don’t. People don’t always want what’s best for them, and sometimes Character A getting what they want can have some nasty repercussions for Character B.

When that happens, or when Character A’s needs clash with Character B’s desires, that creates conflict, and that’s what the Western idea of story is built around.

Make sure the action is active

A general rule of thumb I’ve seen around: If the character can get over their internal by just sitting alone in a room and thinking really hard about it, then it wasn’t really a conflict. If a pair of characters can solve their conflict by just sitting down and having a conversation like actual adults, that wasn’t a conflict, either. Problems shouldn’t be solved by navel-gazing.

You can have issues be resolved through conversation and meditation, but the actual conflict will be whatever prevented those processes from happening in the first place.

The problem with Lawful Good


((image via Know Your Meme))

If you’re a nerd, you know a nerd, or you’ve spent any amount of time on the internet, you’ve probably seen some variation of the above image. It’s a chart of the standard Dungeons & Dragons character alignments, which goes by the theory that any given character can be charted a spectrum between good and evil, lawful and neutral.

And it works. Kinda. In theory.

Law and chaos aren’t that big of a discrepancy– on one side you have order and adherence to authority, and on the other you have rebellion and… well, chaos.

It’s the other spectrum that’s always given me trouble. Continue reading “The problem with Lawful Good”

The case of the mistaken love interest

They’re just hugging, I swear! (Image from Alexander’s Ragtime Band, 1938, via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s our protagonist’s first day at a new school. She’s frazzled and distracted, her mind heavy with plot-relevant drama– and BAM! runs headfirst into someone, sending her books flying. She and this stranger look into each other’s eyes, and the readers are given a lavish description of how good-looking he is. Their hands brush as he passes her the books, and she immediately looks away, embarrassed by the contact. They make awkward smalltalk, and he welcomes her to the school and offers to show her to her classroom, adding in a joke that helps lighten the protagonist’s tension.

Oh– wait– I’m sorry, did you think he was her love interest? Goodness, no. He’s just a minor character! He’s just really nice, and she’s just socially awkward and easily embarrassed by physical contact. Why, what did you think was going on? Continue reading “The case of the mistaken love interest”

A rose by any other name…

Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Name_tag

One of the awkward things about writing is that we become acutely aware of some of the words we use, especially the ones we use most often. “Said” can make us physically cringe, even though readers often glaze over it. In the same way, saying the same character’s name over and over and over again can sometimes start to feel cluttered and over-saturated, and so we can be tempted to mix it up a bit.

Maybe if the protagonist’s first name is worn out, you’re tempting to switch to his whole name, or his surname. Maybe a nickname, or an identifier like “the bespectacled man”.

I know it’s tempting, but please don’t– or if you absolutely must, tread with caution. Continue reading “A rose by any other name…”