How to Find Reliable News Sources in Today’s Stormy Info-Sea

As a child growing up in a household with a respected and celebrated journalist (my father), I learned from an early age the importance of media accountability, fact-checking, and primary sources in news reporting, and how subtly and effectively language – emotional words in particular – can be used to “spin” any story. You will understand that it’s therefore always been my practice to question news sources and ask others where they get their information. This applies to not just COVID, but everything. Fortunately, there’s a terrific website which can give you reliable and objective ratings for a great many of the news sources worldwide.

Rating example screenshot

The mediabiasfactcheck.com site is the gold standard in rating news sources for reliability. If you’re one of the (sadly few) people who yearn for the most unbiased and accurate news reporting you can find, and want to avoid the internet echo-chamber effect of isolating yourself from voices which disagree with your own preconceptions and beliefs, here’s the lowdown. I strongly recommend you take a few moments to understand the methodology involved, visit the many most factually accurate and least biased sources listed, and perhaps search and check the ratings of your own habitual news sources. For example, here’s the rating for the venerable news agency Reuters (reuters.com), which just about every news outlet in the world subscribes to as a primary source of fatcual information and breaking news:

Reuters rating screenshot

Mediabiasfactcheck is an easy site to use with an extensive multilayer top menu, and covers everything from small-town TV and radio stations to national newspapers and websites around the globe. Here are the prime features you’ll want to check out:

The website’s methodology, with a few comparison charts, is quickly explained here:

https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/methodology/

A comprehensive listing of the least biased and most factually accurate sources worldwide is here:

https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/center/

Least biased source page screenshot

 

Simple search – search bar where you can enter the source whose rating you want to see; use the upper, “Dedicated Media Search” bar to search (enter source name and press Enter):

Simple search page screenshot

 

Filtered search: search bar where you can set your own filters:

Filtered search page screenshot

I’m of course aware I’m preaching to a choir of sensible readers here, as those who are already convinced of the accuracy of the sources that agree with their unshakeable beliefs will only feel reinforced in being privy to the TRVTH that others are too stupid to see. If Breitbart or Moveon.org is where you get most of your information, you’re probably not interested in any of this. That’s okay: it’s a free country.

For myself, I’m extremely picky about sources, and you should be too if you have any interest in trying to form a clear picture of world events. I recommend following at least six reliable sources in more than one country to help a form a wide and comprehensive picture of world events based on fact rather than spin, speculation, manipulation, and downright misinformation.

Play with it and have fun! I hope you find this as useful a tool as I do in navigating the minefield which news has become.

Comments are in all cases moderated.

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Fear is the Mind-Killer

I’m posting this because so many people are so anxious over COVID-19 right now. If even one person is helped by these reflections, it’s worth it. So here is my own modest take.

We’re in uncharted waters, experiencing a black swan event, and it’s natural to be anxious and afraid. But fear doesn’t help. Let’s take a clear-eyed at look at where we are, and where we might be going.

California is, as expected, now under lockdown, and more and more states will join us in the coming days and weeks. It’s going to be a trial. I don’t for a moment think the lockdown will be over in two weeks, more like at least six. National Guard deployments nationwide are imminent, primarily to help with logistics but serving the dual purpose of making it obvious to those – and there are many – who think the whole lockdown exercise is BS that this is real, and serious. The image of soldiers on our streets is troubling and not one we’re used to, and the conspiracy people are going to have a field day: expect misinformation and lies about government takeover and all the usual nonsense. Like the nurses, doctors, utility workers, police, and so many others working selflessly through this crisis, the military is on our side.

As testing becomes more available and widespread, we’ll see a massive spike in the number of Americans infected. This is going to rattle a lot of people, but it shouldn’t – those infections are there right now, but invisible, and identifying those infected is a key part of managing this pandemic.

There are, to my mind, two overriding threats from COVID-19: first, the very real danger of healthcare resources being completely overwhelmed; and second, that we let our anxiety and fears overwhelm us.

We’re all, including myself, anxious, because we’re dealing with unknowns. A lot of unknowns, and a very fast-moving situation, shouted at us from every corner, 24/7. Everything, from our freedom to our livelihood to our very lives, seems threatened. It’s scary. But civilization is not ending, and the vast majority of us will get through this just fine.

Just two winters ago, in the awful 2017-2018 flu season, I came down with a fever and the worst cough of my life and it was three weeks before I was well. 61,000 Americans died of that flu, and just under a million people were hospitalized. I guarantee that if we’d had the real-time numbers and statistics on infections and deaths on our screens and newsfeed every minute of the day, that would have caused mass panic. The only differences are that we’re used to the flu, despite the fact that it mutates every year and can quickly turn deadly, and that COVID-19 has a maybe 10x higher mortality rate, along with a host of other unknowns. All that said, the mortality rate of the current virus is still very low, perhaps averaging 2%, with advanced age and co-morbidity factoring into many of the fatalities.

I say this not to minimize the dangers, but to help us keep a sense of proportion and not give in to irrational fear.

And since stress and anxiety only weaken our immune system, there are a number of steps I’m taking, and I offer them here in the hope they might help you too.

1. Limit your media intake. Severely! I avoid TV news/video news altogether, because (i) humans being primarily visual creatures, video is hardwired to our brains in a way print and text aren’t; and (ii) the platform is geared to hard-hitting, second-by-second, amped-up crisis effect. Instead, I get my news from text sources online and am now limiting it to twice daily rather than checking it all the time. Seriously. Stop piling on the stress, you don’t need updates every hour, and for God’s sake don’t click on every COVID-19 headline or link you see, especially on social media!

Remember: it is the business of news organizations, even the best ones, to keep our attention by making us feel threatened. Informed is good; fearful is not.

2. Eat well and exercise. Even under lockdown, Americans are allowed out for walks and runs, and there are lots of floor exercises you can do at home to keep fit, along with a slew of new free workout apps and more for your phone and on the web. Exercise is a terrific way to lower and manage stress, and will help your immune response. I also drink wine at meals because I enjoy it (hell, I’m Italian!) and it helps me relax.

3. Get a lot of rest. Try thinking of this whole clusterfuck as our fast-paced society hitting the pause button for a much-needed break. Take advantage.

4. Income, or lack of it, will be a huge stressor for many, but this is being addressed at the Federal level and help will come soon in the form of direct deposits. There’s also an order in place for up to twelve months of mortgage repayment relief via Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and I’m sure other lenders will follow. Forced eviction blocks are in place or coming in many states. Utilities are going to be far more understanding of late payments. The Federal government has finally got it, and is acting aggressively and in a largely bipartisan manner. Help is coming.

(Speaking of politics, this is absolutely not the time for partisanship, blame, or finger-pointing! We’re all in this together, and we’ll only get out of it together. Try to be part of the solution and not exacerbate the problem.)

5. Make the time fun. Listen to music, read, cook, play cards and games, do jigsaws, be creative. These things will all help your mood

6. Phone, Skype, and videochat with your friends to keep some sense of community. You’re probably already doing this.

7. Pace yourself, be realistic. This is going to take a while, and believing it’ll be over in 2-3 weeks will only lead to disappointment

8. Cut people more slack than usual. Every one of us is feeling some anxiety, and kindness and understanding are key right now.

9. Look beyond this. This crisis will mitigate, then end. Lockdowns will be relaxed as the pandemic comes under control, and we’ll start getting back to normal. There’ll be a huge collective sigh of cautious relief and life will resume. Stores, restaurants, and bars will reopen. As more infected people recover, we’ll begin to build at least immunity in the population, which means less infection spread next season (as long as the virus doesn’t mutate too much). Early next year, there’s every likelihood we’ll have a vaccine.

10. Longer-term, we may as a society even learn something good from this. Try to take a positive picture. You’ll feel better for it!

 

 

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THE FICTION WRITING HANDBOOK, my Disruptive Writing Guide FREE today only!

My different, iconoclastic craft manual, The Fiction Writing Handbook: The Professional Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules, is FREE on Kindle until midnight today, Saturday September 14.

With a foreword by Janice Hardy, this book directly challenges and questions all the accumulated writing rules and dogma that rattle around the internet echo chamber and are endlessly parroted by writing blogs, teachers, and books. 

Most of the so-called writing rules are flat-out wrong, and a great many others — Show, don’t tell and open with action, to take just two — are deeply misleading and poorly-understood. Check out the reviews and grab your copy now!

 

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Self-Editing: The Inconvenient Truth

A few days ago, I found myself reassuring an author on Twitter. The author had shown someone their final novel draft, which they’d gone through countless times, and the reader found a number of mistakes in just the first ten pages.

This isn’t in the least unusual. And although there’s currently a rash of books and blog posts on how to self-edit, the reality is that you’re not — unless you’re already a seasoned pro, and even then — going to catch the majority of issues with your own work. It’s impossible.

I’m not talking about typos here, or even commonly confused words (discreet for discrete, effect for affect, etc.), missing quotation marks, and the like, all of which will slip past spellcheck and most authors’ revision passes. No, the dangers lie in far more significant errors such as plot holes, continuity glitches, confusing passages of insufficiently-tagged dialogue, impossible actions, viewpoint slips, mangled syntax, and so much more. (More here on what good copyeditors look for and how they go about it.)

The two main reasons self-editing doesn’t really work are that the author is so familiar with their own manuscript they can’t read it slowly enough, and (worse) they understand their own creation so well that they’re not going to see the holes and missing links that will prevent the reader from fully understanding or following it.

Looking back over dozens of manuscripts I’ve copyedited in the last several years, I find the following rough metrics emerging (based on 80,000-100,000-word novels):

 

WRITING LEVEL Mistakes/corrections (average) Comments, editorial (average)
Newer writers 2,000-3,500 200-300
Intermediate 800-1,500 50-150
Advanced/Pro* 200-1,000 30-50

 

Sobering numbers? They should be.

Now, bear in mind that the mistakes/corrections listed in my table above will include a large number (up to 50%?) of quite minor issues, such as punctuation, paragraphing, indents, etc. Still, punctuation errors can change the meaning of a sentence; and although most readers are somewhat forgiving if the story is engaging, if the text has repeated errors, they’ll likely ding the author in a review, or put the book aside for good. With between one and three thousand new books published every day in the US alone (yes, you read that right) and millions of books for sale on Amazon alone, the competition for the reader’s time and money is beyond ferocious. And although good editing/copyediting doesn’t come cheap,** the author who publishes a book without having a professional go over it is taking a big risk.

Some authors may also be a little wary of copyeditors, because they see the process as inherently adversarial (“red pencil syndrome”), or because they’re concerned about having their style altered. These aren’t unreasonable concerns: as an author myself, one of my guiding principles is to respect the author’s style and intention and make every effort to hew as close to their original text as possible when making corrections or suggesting changes.

Perfect examples of this are sentence fragments and even comma splices: while most copyeditors will unhesitatingly treat each instance as a transgression, I try to determine if they’re intentional stylistic choices; if there’s no significant grammatical issue, the author gets the benefit of the doubt. And many authors have thanked me for respecting their style choices.

Secondly, I try (if it’s not apparently obvious) to give the author an insight into the reasoning behind my strikeouts and, at the risk of seeming overly didactic, to supply any applicable rule behind errors I see repeated, in the hope this may help the author in future.

It’s true that good beta readers, if you’re fortunate to have some, will catch quite a few things. But even the best readers aren’t going to spend twenty minutes recasting an awkward paragraph (it’s very rare to find a manuscript that doesn’t have many), check your facts, scrutinize capitalization use, address incorrect punctuation, monitor for consistency, and so on. It’s unlikely they know their style manuals inside out, or have the broad array of general knowledge a good copyeditor should. Given they’re doing this as a favour to the author, they’re unlikely to give a ms. the close and careful scrutiny and the time a copyeditor will.

Finally, copyediting is not critique. If your betas are writers, there’s also a good chance some of them may have their own ideas of how your story should go, and that’s not always a good thing. Copyediting is a necessary and valuable step in preparing a manuscript for publication, and an investment in both the current work and the author’s career, whether they’re indie publishing or going the traditional route.

Are you interested in having your work copyedited? Please check out my services here, or drop me a line.

Notes

*The very cleanest manuscript I ever saw was from a longtime professional who’d written dozens of novels and short stories. In the whole 80k words, I only made thirty corrections and eight comments. One of these, however, was a doozy: at the pinnacle of the climax, the hero gets the chance to draw his pistol, saving the day. Unfortunately, he already had both hands full, a catch for which my client was very grateful indeed.

**Copyediting an average length novel takes anywhere from thirty to forty hours and up, depending on how much work is required. It’s intense, high-focus, and highly skilled work, and a good copyeditor is worth every penny they charge.

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“A Fistful of Dynamite”: Director Sergio Leone’s Overlooked Masterpiece

Fifty-five years ago, in 1964, Italian film director Sergio Leone took the film world by storm with the release of A Fistful of Dollars. In the process, he singlehandedly created the spaghetti western subgenre and established Clint Eastwood as a screen icon. Initially panned by critics in Italy, Fistful nonetheless found a cult following; American critics, on the other hand, got the joke, and the rest is history.

Fast-forward to 1971. After three more westerns (For a Few Dollars More; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; and the glorious, epic, Once Upon a Time in the West) a tired Leone once again took to the dusty hills and arroyos of Andalusia, in southern Spain, to make the final, and most mature, of his western masterpieces.

I’d known of this film for many years, but somehow — despite being a lover of the subgenre — never got around to seeing it until this week, when I found it on Amazon Prime*. If you’re also a Leone fan, I can’t recommend this film highly enough: it’s jaw-dropping, spellbinding, and hugely entertaining.

A meditation on and a critique of both oppression and revolution, the film is visually sumptuous, with many sequences of sheer art — if you’ve seen Once Upon a Time in the West, you’ll get my drift. Coburn and Steiger’s (the latter fresh from In the Heat of the Night) acting is flawless. And Ennio Morricone’s score contributes a perfect, teasing, brilliant counterpoint to the action and the dynamic tension of the film, which balances tongue-in-cheek and sober social commentary.

Set in 1913 during the Mexican Revolution, the film, whose main themes are friendship, the dawning of social conscience, and class struggle, opens with a quote from Chairman Mao**:

“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”

Enter Rod Steiger as Juan, a raggedy-assed and apparently illiterate Mexican peasant; he soon turns out to be a wily bandit, modeled on the character of Tuco in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, with a gaggle of bastard sons for a gang. The first scenes of the film see an increasingly feverish, near-surrealist scene in which Juan is degraded and humiliated by a stagecoach full of rich upper-class Mexicans, who soon get their comeuppance.

As the bandits loot the stagecoach, an explosion up the trail interrupts their business. Moments later, James Coburn appears on a vintage motorcycle from a cloud of dust, very much in the manner of The Man With no Name. The initial face-off between these two is priceless, and Coburn soon reveals himself as Irish Revolutionary John Mallory, a man not to be toyed with on account of the fact that his duster coat is lined with enough dynamite and nitroglycerin to reshape large parts of the landscape.

As the plot develops, the continuing tension between the two protagonists develops into a strong, if unacknowledged friendship, and the initially simple story grows around them. One of the movie’s set-piece scenes, depicting a massacre of revolutionaries by the army, is straight from World War II… as is the German colonel who is the film’s rather surreal antagonist.

The movie’s name went through some interesting changes. In Italy, it was released under the title, “Giú la Testa,” which in English approximates, “Get your head down.” Originally titled, “Duck, you sucker!” in the U.S., the title was later changed to “A Fistful of Dynamite,” to tie in with Leone’s Dollar films. In France, where the film did very well, it was named “Once Upon a Time… the Revolution.”

The genesis of the film was equally tortuous. The screenplay was originally written for Jason Robards and Eli Wallach, who’d respectively starred in Leone’s previous epics, Once Upon a Time in the West, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but ended up with James Coburn and Rod Steiger in the leading roles. Additionally, Leone didn’t want to direct the movie himself, but after three other candidates (Sam Peckinpah was the second) didn’t pan out, and at Steiger’s insistence that Leone direct the movie, he finally acquiesced.

The review site Rotten Tomatoes gives A Fistful of Dynamite 91%. Brilliant, thoughtful, visually rich, and immensely entertaining, this is a film that deserves to be seen.

Are you a fan of Leone’s work? Have you seen this film?

Notes

* You can watch the movie here on Amazon Prime, or buy it here in various formats

** It’s worth mentioning that the Mao quote, along with several scenes, was cut from the initial 1972 release as they were deemed too politically sensitive for U.S. audiences. The film was banned in Mexico until 1979 as offensive to both the people and the Mexican Revolution.

 

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The Invisible Economy of Middle Earth, and Why Readers Don’t Care

When I finish a novel and I’m casting around for the next to read, I’ll often spend  a few evenings dipping back into an old favourite, one of those evergreens I like to re-read a few pages or chapters or beloved passages of. Lately I’ve been re-reading portions of Lord of the Rings, which I first encountered some fifty years ago.

Well, it got me to thinking.

Looked at critically, Tolkien’s masterwork breaks a great many of the rules that present-day writers, agents, and editors obsess over.

But readers, the people who actually matter (because they, not the writer’s critique partners or agent or publisher, are the ones shelling out the money for the book) don’t care one bit.

First, LotR is written in third-person omniscient, or “God’s eye view,” in which the author dips into each character’s thoughts at need. This  viewpoint technique is deprecated by writing mavens today as being distancing, and frequently dissed as “head-hopping.” Compounding his sins, Tolkien often employs the passive voice and uses adverbs liberally, with several on almost every page of the book. A writer trying this today would get mauled by their critique group, and I guarantee their manuscript would bounce off an agent’s slushpile faster than hail off a tin roof.

But that’s only the beginning.

As Frodo and his companions traverse Middle Earth, we discover a vast, empty land curiously devoid of any significant trade, agriculture, homesteads, or even travelers. Oh, the dwarves mine and craft metal, and we get the token farmer like Maggot in the Shire, and mentions of agriculture and crafts in Minas Tirith, but seriously, is any of this truly credible without a visible functioning economy?

I think it is. Certainly we never encounter trading caravans traveling between regions, but I suspect that – in fact, Tolkien implies it in a few places – the realms of Gondor, Rohan, and so on, actually do have agriculture and artisans, smiths and woodworkers, hide tanners and potters, glassblowers and stonemasons, thatchers and ploughmen: but other than one or two mentions Tolkien simply doesn’t bring them onstage or discuss them. Why? Because they’re not generally relevant to his story and thus he had no interest in describing them. There are occasional hints and implications of regional economies, and, before Middle Earth fell into a darker age, of a greater, interlinked economy, but no more.

One thing I stress repeatedly in my craft book and when I edit books for indie authors is that the only person whose opinion matters is the reader. An author shouldn’t be writing for their critique group, and certainly shouldn’t take all the nitpicky advice they’re given to heart. Yet sadly, I’ve seen more than one perfectly fine tale diluted and fractured by authors trying to address their fellow writers’ concerns over where the ore for the iron is mined, who grows the food, and so on ad nauseam. Some concerns may be valid, of course; but in the example I’m using here, I maintain they’re not.

For a story, a novel, a world to be credible, all that stuff doesn’t need to be told or shown on the page, it simply needs to be known to the author. The obsession for detailing and showing everything is a modern one, an industry fashion, and really doesn’t matter a whit to the reader. As generations of adoring Tolkien fans have proved, if the story flows and involves them and the author does nothing to break the spell, they will keep turning the pages.

Writing a great book isn’t so much about doing a ton of things right (and certainly not by the fashion of the day) as it is about telling a great story and simply not doing anything wrong.

Tolkien knew his world worked, and the reader senses it. I very much doubt that the vast majority of LotR readers give a thought to the details of Middle-Earth’s economy. What concerns them is the pressing matter of the ring and the imminent destruction of all that is beautiful and fair in Middle Earth, not to mention Frodo’s own dire plight.

To date, the LotR books have sold more than 150 million copies. Game, set, and match to the author.

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On Conflict in Fiction

As some of you may know, I’ve just revised and re-released my 2017 book on writing craft, formerly titled Drown the Cat, as The Fiction Writing Handbook: The Professional Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules.

The Fiction Writing Handbook takes a hard new look at common writing myths and diktats and challenges conventional wisdom with the goal of helping writers to develop an individual voice and understand the reasons underlying the so-called rules of writing.

Here’s an excerpt on the topic of conflict. If you find this interesting, you can find the book on Amazon.

 

External and Internal Conflict

It’s a truth of the human condition that our interest is more easily sparked and our attention held by threats than by good news. We watch the nightly news and read newspapers to keep informed of threats and crises, not to feel warm fuzzies at the good fortune of others—unless they’ve been snatched, against all odds, from the jaws of death. This focus on negatives and threats is a hardwired survival mechanism from eons past when we weren’t at the top of the food chain and lived in constant fear of attack from predators and other small bands of early humans. So it’s no surprise that conflict—a condition born of clashing goals between ourselves and others, ourselves and nature, or simply our conflicting inner drives—is a core component of story.

Conflict in story comes from the presence of obstacles between a character and their goal. The conflict can be external or internal. When a rival tries to steal the heart of the woman the hero loves, you have conflict; but the conflict could equally well stem from the fact that geography and life circumstances (distance, children, jobs they can’t quit, etc.) keep the couple apart. Going more internal, if the hero’s drinking stops him from gaining the affection of the woman he loves, the potential result is the same: hero loses girl. Going deeper still, if the hero’s insecurity and lack of self-worth undermines him in his interactions with the object of his affections, he still won’t get the girl.

There’s a widespread assumption that, since conflict of some sort is an essential component in fiction if we want to have an audience, more must be better. This, like so much else, is a fallacy based entirely on the commercial drivers of the narrative and dramatic arts in the modern world. It’s nonsense.

The word conflict means serious disagreement or struggle, and we’re continually told that for a story to keep the reader hooked you need conflict in every scene, and even every page. This is idiocy. What keeps the reader hooked are questions, often of the will they/won’t they kind. Some of these may contain oppositions—a character is hungry but everything conspires to prevent them from eating. Are these conflict? You decide.

Then there’s the problem of forced conflict and melodrama.

Take the television series Downton Abbey, most of which I enjoy enormously. Despite some superb writing and often brilliant character work (Lady Mary, Mr. Barrow, et al) this hugely successful series frequently crosses the boundary into soap opera and melodrama. This is of course a subjective judgment; but I contend that though the series is compelling viewing and full of conflict, it often achieves that at the cost of being manipulative. Take for example Mrs. O’Brien, a character entirely lacking in roundness and whose sole purpose is to stir the pot; or consider the repeated and ultimately tedious crises of Mr. Bates’s plot arc, and you may see what I mean. The longer the series ran, the further it strayed over the line between natural and forced conflict.

Good conflict needs to be unforced, naturally occurring rather than engineered. The quality and dimension of conflict in a given story is important—a hero risking death will command our attention more than a hero risking a few bruises; the protagonist facing ruin engages us more than one facing a parking ticket. But when, as in so many contemporary crime novels and virtually 100 percent of TV and film detective stories, every protagonist comes literally crushed under the weight of internal and external baggage, the effect is inevitably formulaic.

I’m not saying that audiences don’t get hooked by this: the runaway success of novels like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and TV series like Breaking Bad speaks for itself. What I am saying is that manipulating your audience doesn’t equate to good fiction or storytelling. But such is the grip of suits and money on the publishing business that things have become confused.

Each era has its fashions, but the drive in publishing to expand the bottom line has led to a pedal-to-the-metal, all-conflict, all-the-time formula being applied to so much drama that it all starts to look the same. The protagonist was abused as a child, has a deeply dysfunctional family background, custody issues with their ex, struggles with drink, drugs, or both, has endless interpersonal and discipline issues at work, possibly a life-threatening condition…and that’s just their backstory.

Sound familiar?

You don’t have to cynically manipulate your reader with every tool imaginable to keep them interested. To my mind, the real craftsman strives for economy and originality instead of milking the reader dry by using the exact same template every other novelist and screenwriter out there employs. Yes, some people in real life do carry a similar and crushing baggage set, but I submit that to just throw in the kitchen sink because it sometimes works erodes our art and ultimately damages our soul. I’m tempted to use words like “cheap” and “lazy” in regard to this way of overloading a hero with conflict except for the fact that too many writers I respect do this very thing: but I stand by my opinion that the protagonist struggling to even breathe under the load of their internal baggage is a fad born of Hollywood and the ever-intensifying pressure of the bottom line rather than any requirements of story or craft. Was Homer’s Ulysses an alcoholic? Was Shakespeare’s King Lear abused as a child? While both these things are possible, the power of both these dramatic figures certainly isn’t undermined by our not being told.

We are all who we are because of our past, and it’s true that our past, and especially deep-rooted childhood experiences and trauma, can predispose us to certain behaviors; but this doesn’t mean we have to take it to excess.

Let’s take as an example John Le Carré’s character George Smiley, one-time head of the British Secret Service. A somewhat introverted, cerebral figure, Smiley is endlessly cuckolded by his wife Anne, who has taken for a lover one of Smiley’s colleagues, the suave, worldly Bill Haydon. But that’s it. Along with a sense of his growing age and concomitant vague melancholy, that’s the sum total of Smiley’s personal baggage and, my God! how much more believable and unique a character Smiley is for that. Nor do audiences balk at Smiley’s lack of inner demons: the Smiley novels have sold in the millions, been translated into thirty-six languages, and adapted for radio, television, and film.

To show that it’s entirely possible to have very successful narrative drama without resorting to crushing internal conflict, and that a perfectly normal, well-adjusted protagonist can still be at the core of a compelling and hugely successful story, consider Frodo in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. At the onset of the story, Frodo is a normal, happy, and well-to-do hobbit. Once the truth about the Ring is revealed, it’s all downhill, but Frodo doesn’t start off conflicted or struggling against inner demons.

Then there’s Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby in the hugely successful British TV series, Midsomer Murders: Barnaby has a good family life, lives in a lovely village, and is in fine health and good spirits most of the time. Or Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: other than the ordinary, everyday concerns of living with a neurotic mother, a few silly sisters, and a bookish, eccentric father, Elizabeth is a happy, carefree, normal young woman.

Do we care any less for any of these because they’re not struggling to even stand under the burden of emotional baggage? Of course not.

To conclude, the writer doesn’t have to follow the herd and pander to current cults in storytelling. One can craft powerful, resonant fiction without overloading every available slot in a character’s makeup. Like everything about your story, your characters’ backstory is a choice—your choice. Not being bound by ludicrous assumptions and conventions frees us up to tell our own story without imposing someone else’s tired template on our characters.

What do you think? Do you find contemporary genre fiction and television predictable, formulaic, and ultimately tedious in its overuse of these devices?

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