Before my co-author and I began writing novels I had no idea that characters live under strict guidelines we don’t observe in real life. True, they can be glittering vampires (What’s up with that, anyway? Part of the deal for eternal life was no more sunshine, or poof! But that’s a subject for another day). Or they can live in world overrun by zombies, or filled with angry teenagers forced to fight to the death on national television. But here are some rules writers and their characters can’t break.
1.) Identical or Similar Names
Don’t know about you, but even with the first name Melanie, I find myself in situations involving other Melanies. A few weeks ago, my co-author Andrea and I were asked to play tennis in a group with another Melanie and Andrea. Figuring out who was coming and who wasn’t was a bit tricky. But in noveland, similar names are a no no. You can’t even have multiples of the ubiquitous Kayla/Kaitlyn/Katie, although any kindergarten teacher will tell you that there’s always at least three of them in any group. The exception being if similar names are used as a plot device, i.e., one Katie gets another Katie’s texts by mistake, and ends up on the run from international terrorists. And, okay, I realize this is a terrible example because no one with a cute name like Katie would ever do anything more deadly than photobomb.
2.) Out of character behavior
In noveland, characters may grow and develop over time, but within an expected arc. I’ve had editors tell me to change a phrase because “Bethany wouldn’t say that, it isn’t consistent with her character.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen mild mannered women go full metal bitch on a bad day. Conversely, the people I loathe most in the world will sometimes annoy me by doing nice things. In fiction, if a bad guy commits a selfless act, he is virtually guaranteed to die a couple of paragraphs after redeeming himself. Lengthy deathbed monologue optional.
3.) Excessive use of cellphones and other devices
One of my theories on the current popularity of dystopian and historical settings in all genres is that it gets rid of the blasted phone, not to mention iPod, iPad, laptop and monster TV with seven million channels. Of course characters in some novels use cell phones, but not in the maniacal, obsessive way real people do. That’s because it would be boring as hell to read about someone snapchatting and Instagramming her life away (maybe we need to think about that).
4.) Wardrobe repetition
In noveland, every everyone seems to have access to Kim Kardashian’s closet or the equivalent. The exception, of course, is when clothing is an indication of a disturbing character trait or the end of civilization. Crazed killers might wear the same jeans and shirt repeatedly, as would someone on the verge of a breakdown. Zombie fighters in a world where there is no running water, electricity or J. Crew may also have wardrobe issues. But the rest are expected to undergo multiple wardrobe changes, and each and every outfit must say something about who that character is. I have to applaud fictional characters, who are rarely seen shopping or doing laundry, yet manage to come up with clothes that are not only clean, but expressive. Personally, I spend a lot of time in yoga pants.
5.) Paying bills, voting or paying taxes
If I weren’t ready to give up real life and live in a book for the clothes (see above), I’d do it just to avoid all civic and personal responsibility. When was the last time a character returned to his home to find his electricity had been cut off because he’d been too damn busy tracking down a kidnapped girl or saving the world to pay the power company? Never going to happen. Magical elves take care of all these mundane details even in books where there are no magical elves. But that’s okay. Who wants a detective hot on the trail of a psychotic killer to turn to his partner and say, “Damn, man, I forgot it was April 15. You’re going to have to handle this while I go wait in line to mail my return.”