Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Secret

Fragment of a royal portrait sculpture,
Akhenaten period, c. 1500 B.C.,
yellow jasper.

I'm getting really, really tired of reading blurbs about heroines with " a secret from her past."

I might find it intriguing in the story itself, but the plethora of blurb-cant cliche is turning me off. These girls all sound like Dolly the engineered sheep.

Unfortunately, the "secret" sometimes turns out to be pure bathos and hardly worthy of the havey-cavey. Wall repair time.

Allied to this stereotype is the hero with the "tortured past."

Very popular, according to Agent Kristin's ( see side bar) report today from a Border's employee.

Again, his "torture" too often comes across as a feminized transference, ie. he was teased for being fat as a teen or something similarily adolescent and this , of course, marked him for life and affects his reactions when he is a tough, (and hunky) anti-terror, combat type.

One agent has commented that when he sees the phrase "personal demons" he almost invariably stops reading.

Vitiated sentimentality and artificial twaddle is not a good alternative to real personal conflict and genuine disasters in a person's background.

And, for heaven's sake, let your characters grow up.


December Quinn said...

*hides* I love tortured heroes...

Although torture over being teased is pretty silly. I like real trauma.

Bernita said...

"Real trauma" is the point, December.
It would be nice to see a few well-adjusted people blind-sided by present trauma, though, not this I'm-weak-deparaved-because-I-was-deprived sort of pop-psychology.

JLB said...

Well said Bernita. Weak, unredeemed characters who never manage to evolve past the wanking stage just annoy the hell out of me - I think "blind-sided by present trauma" is a good way to describe the modicum of realism I seek in the plight of a compelling hero/ine worth reading about.

Ric said...

My life is ruined because I didn't get asked to the Prom.
I can't invite girls over because my Mom hits on them.
My father is a defrocked priest and I'm glad I'm a girl.

While all these may have some bearing on what you have become - and how you view life - and how you might use that earned strength to handle a big problem, they don't really make for interesting "hidden pasts".

Well said, Bernita.

Robyn said...

I read a book where the hero's tortured secret that made him feel inadequate was that he was illiterate. This was a historical, so it didn't make a lot of sense- many people were illiterate- but it might have worked in a contemporary.

I grit my teeth when the "secret" is only told at the end of the book and it bombs. If you're going to set up a huge reveal, it better be astounding.

Sam said...

My daughter is in the seventh grade - and all the kids are 'tortured', lol. It's constant high drama in the pre-pube set, and it's even more intense when they hit puberty.

Do you think all these angsty heroes and heroines are simply immature?
*ducking and running!*

Bernita said...

JLB, to me a hero/ine has already overcome trials and tribulations, am tired of albatrosses.Thank you.

Thank you, Ric.
As December said, "real trauma" is a different thing and it would be nice - and a change - to have them developed strengths from it, rather than in a constant state of needing counselling.

"it might have worked in a contemporary"
Good point, Robyn.

Partly, yes, Sam.
I know I've grown out of a lot of "sensitivities," and find some of these megrims psychologically "purple."

Dave said...

I've told friends and acquaintances that once they reach 30 years old they have to stop blaming their parents for their failures or shortcomings. I'm guessing that the same should apply to fictional characters.
And every kid is teased in HS. That's not trauma. Neither is "Mumsie took away my comic books."
Neither is it "bad" if your parents are so strict you can't get in trouble.
The "dread" family secret that destroys a family for years and generations is probably silliness disguised as meanness and nastiness. Uncle Bernie wears women's underwear or Aunt TIllie like women isn't a trauma. And an illegitimate kid. YAWN.
Hawthorne handled illegitimacy and nasty gossips in the Scarlet Letter.

Bernita said...

Dave, you're more indulgent than I -
I put the stop-blame age at 25 - but certainly 30 is more than time enough to stop being a "victim.".

MissWrite said...

Good post... love the 'wall repair time' I had to think a minute about what you meant, then it 'hit me' haha.

I agree too... a little past demon goes a LONG way. Most of it is silly. Live in the NOW.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Truth is always stranger than fiction...Fiction has to make sense.

I bet, off the top of my head, i can name at least 2 dozen tortured souls that I know in real life...that live in drama every day of the week!

They truly keep me entertained!

Bernita said...

Thank you, Tami.
Fact is, past trauma can make one better able to deal with present ones.
Give me a few characters who learn and grow from their past tragedies, not ones continually swamped in "backstory."

Think we've all met the domestic and office divas, Bonnie. An opera in three acts because they had a flat on their way to work/childcare.

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm glad you put words to this. It's been a private peeve of mine for a long time. The movies are horrible for this too, where every cop has a tortured past. It's become cliche very fast.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Charles.
Possibly it reflects a certain societal trend to find excuses/shift responsibility, etc.
Increasingly, my reaction is a big Whoop-de-do, baby, get a life.

raine said...

And, for heaven's sake, let your characters grow up.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Erik Ivan James said...

Whenever it says on the back cover: "...blah, blah with a tortured past...blah, blah", I immediately put the book back on the shelf.

Unfortunately, I kind of do that with people too, who in real life use their "tortured past" as an excuse....

Good post.

Bernita said...

Thank you Raine and Erik.
I am not alone!

Gabriele C. said...

Some of my characters have a happy childhood. How horrible is that? :)

Bernita said...

Simply terrible, Gabriele!
And your heroes are sometimes "tortured" - literally, and any traumas are real.

Rick said...

I think the Tortured Past is akin to the Flaw - somewhere writers pick up the idea that they're supposed to have this stuff, so they shoehorn it in.

Anonymous said...

As a well-adjusted man, I agree that it seems odd to me as well the number of people with "dark pasts" or "personal demons" that are having books written about them. Is it so impossible that a person with parents that didn't abuse him or her can grow up to be interesting enough to have a story written about them?

LadyBronco said...


I don't have a tortured character one in my novel.

Oh well.

Bernita said...

I believe it is supposed to express "conflict," Rick.

I wonder about that too, Trevor.

Lady B, I don't think of my Lillie, for example, as a "tortured" or "damaged" character. Certainly she has feelings of guilt, secrets, frustrations and anxieties but she's basically a solid personality and is not going to let the buggers grind her down.

Scott from Oregon said...

"Vitiated sentimentality and artificial twaddle"

I think that would be fun to have in real life.

Imagine craving "Vitiated sentimentality and artificial twaddle" the way one craves adventure or romance?

takoda said...

Hi Bernita, This is the first time I visit your blog. Looks great! I can tell I'm going to have fun looking around.

Back to your topic, which is also great! I just have to chime in and say that this is one reason I LOVE writing middle-grade novels. The kids (if it's written well and true-to-life) never truly realize how troubled or tortured their lives are. They just keep on keeping on. And there has to be real character growth at the end. Has to be. That's a hallmark of this genre.

And I love what you said about real people being blind-sided. Who wants to read about a whiny grown-up?


Bernita said...

Some people do, Scott. Any substitute suffices.

Thank you for stopping by, Takoda. Hope you do.