Thursday, August 11, 2011

How to Lose Fans & Alienate People

The Writer's Cardinal Sin, Part I

My favorite part of any movie looks like this:

That's right: It's blank. Best part of most movies. Just loaded with promise...
Preview over. Lights down. I sit in the darkness, munching my popcorn, excited at the possibility that the next hour and a half or so will deliver. I want to see something that I can't wait to see again. Something I can add to my list of favorites. Something I wish I'd written.

Sometimes the characters alone
make the whole thing worth watching.
Photo by kakisky.
Sometimes cinema magic happens. I've seen Twilight, Penelope, Brokeback Mountain, Up, Ladyhawke, The Princess Bride, and Moulin Rouge more times than I care to admit.

(There will be a reckoning, one day, I'm sure. God will ask me what I did with my allotted time on the planet, and I'll have to account for the hours -- days? -- I've spent watching these & other titles.)

Sometimes it's just a pitch-perfect scene that does it for me; a scene so entrancing, with characters so compelling that it sucks me in every time I see it. Though the movie itself may be imperfect, one great scene can cover a multitude of flaws.

I want to be blown away; to see something I've never seen before... meet characters I never knew were missing from my life... have an experience that up till now I never knew was lacking. When that happens, unicorns poop rainbows, the planets align, and I am a fan for life.
Are you not entertained? Photo by Michael Richter

The writer's first job is entrancement. This is the art of getting someone else to take time out of her busy day, when she could be doing laundry, balancing the checkbook, bathing the dog, vacuuming, flossing, washing her whitewalls, or learning to make perfect creme brulee -- and spend it reading / watching YOUR stuff.

After that's achieved, you just have to keep people turning pages. Or tuned in. You've got them hooked. They're yours.

Unless you commit the writer's Cardinal Sin.

Ready? Here it is:

Writer's Cardinal Sin: Sacrificing your characters for your precious story.

When I bemoan writers who sacrifice their characters, I'm not talking about "the hero has to die" tragedy. No -- true tragedy arises because of the hero's fatal flaw. Heroes can die, cheat on their spouses, stiff their waiters, or fart audibly at funerals, as long as their actions are consistent with the characters your fans have grown to know and love.

What they cannot do is suddenly change into people they've never been who do things they should have never done because the writer wasn't bright enough to figure out how to write the story and keep the players consistent.

Ever wonder if you're committing the Big C.S.? Here's how to tell:
Committing the Writer's Cardinal Sin flushes all your
hard work in entrancing your audience right down the...
you know. Photo by jdurham.

If smart characters suddenly become stupid, if weak ones suddenly become strong, if dumb ones suddenly know more than your reader, or if sinners suddenly become saints, you're flirting dangerously with the unpardonable.

Few things will lose you readers, watchers, or fans faster than making a favorite character do something ... wrong. I don't mean something marginally out of character in order to prove a point or have some personal growth. That's not only OK; but it's expected. No, I mean Intentionally Wrong.  The kind of Wrong that makes your audience go "Huh? Has the writer ever met this character before? 'Cause even *I* know the person wouldn't do that."

Those kinds of questions destroy entrancement. They bump the audience out of the story and make them realize that the writer is just human. Even worse, they drive home the realization that the characters aren't.

Have you ever encountered this Cardinal Sin? (In others' writing, of course; not your own...) If so, please comment below about how it affected your enjoyment of the work. If not, tune in tomorrow for Part II: a glowing example of what I'm talking about...

All photos from MorgueFile.


Michele Shaw said...

Great post! Yes, I have encountered this. First I wonder what the heck happened, then I get mad and want to throw the book across the room. I hope I haven't done it. I TRY not to do it. But if I'm not sure, that's what precious betas are for:)

Ami Hendrickson said...


I know the feeling of "what the heck happened?" I personally feel that the writer has betrayed me and wasted my time. And you're right: I hope and pray I don't commit this transgression. Because nothing makes me put a book down / turn a movie off faster...

Oh, and God bless betas! Where would we be without them?

Anonymous said...

In The Chopin Manuscript, which is a novel written by several thriller writers. It starts with the amazing Jefferey Deaver, and then other writers each do a chapter.

Some of the other writers did a great job of carrying the characters through, even if you could tell their style or tone were a bit different. But there were a couple of chapters where the main character, who was set up to be a very controlled, unemotional guy, and an intellectual, starts screaming and cursing and using "street."

I felt angry! I said to my partner, who was also reading it, "Did they even READ the previous chapters?" It was all I could do to read past those chapters (there was one in particular) because I knew that writer wouldn't show his pen again!

Ami Hendrickson said...


You make an excellent point: sometimes what I might consider a Cardinal Sin is merely Death By Committee. Still, I maintain that if a writer is going to write a collaborative effort (and by this, I include nearly all screenwriters, and all television writers), he or she owes it to the fans to know the characters at *least* as well as the audience does.

Anonymous said...

I think this is particularly annoying (and unfortunately common) on television shows. And I'm sure it's often the fault of "the committee."

That said, I've had this happen in my own work as well. As another commenter said, thank goodness for good beta readers. A good one will catch those kind of mistakes!

Ami Hendrickson said...


I think it should be mandatory that all TV writers have betas! (Thinking of several shows that I'd volunteer for the position...)