Story Taboos: A Personal List

After a reader’s suggestion following another post, I decided to share my personal* list of things I detested as a reader and will not duplicate as a writer. I will not name the disappointing novels and falling-short stories which inspired this list, but readers are free to guess.

Protagonist

  • Don’t make everyone love/protect your protagonist unless it’s clear WHY the protagonist is lovable/valuable to those characters.
  • If the protagonist’s friend or family member is kidnapped/tortured/killed, NEVER LET THE PROTAGONIST FORGET. (Especially if it’s convenient to later make the kidnapper/torturer/killer into a key ally of the protagonist!)
  • Don’t kill off the supporting character who is more interesting and/or charming than the protagonist. Make the protagonist rise to the occasion!
  • Don’t choose a world-weary teen, entitled whiner, misanthrope, or fragile waif for the protagonist unless you’re going to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.
  • If the protagonist must wallow in self-pity, go on a bender, etc. don’t make it a habit but a reasonable reaction to a particular event.

Antagonist

  • If an enemy sets out to destroy/kill/humiliate the protagonist, don’t use deus ex machina or a secondary character to avoid the head-to-head conflict.
  • Don’t make an antagonist who is so horrifyingly horrible and relentlessly relentless that the protagonist barely manages to escape multiple times.
  • Don’t make the antagonist a stand-in for a politician or another notable person whose power or notoriety may decline within a decade.**
  • Don’t promise a showdown with a powerful/dangerous/legendary villain and not deliver it.

Avoiding -Isms

  • Don’t make lazy correlations as shortcuts to understanding characters; e.g. religious = fanatic, gay = artistic, old = feeble or demented.
  • Don’t build up a strong, intelligent female and then have her take unquestioned orders from an oracle, a newly-met male, or a stranger who says “Everything you thought was true, is a lie!
  • Don’t belabor the ethnic/racial/sex characteristics of the people who populate the story. Let them live like normal people, not tokens.
  • Don’t give lectures through characters; use actions by and interactions between characters to illustrate the point.
  • Don’t tell the reader that a character is black unless you’ve been telling which characters are white, brown, ruddy, bronze, sallow, etc.
  • Don’t sexually assault characters to move the plot along or to demonstrate villainy – and for the love of cod, don’t make the protagonist a rapist!

Miscellanies

  • Don’t make characters unconscious (e.g. sleeping, knocked out, drugged) so they miss crucial conversations or so other characters can do the heavy (plot) lifting.
  • Don’t create a world in which main characters have no real-world responsibilities nor necessary labor. Addendum: Don’t create an underclass of servants or servile pals who do the work for the protagonist unless there’s going to be a reckoning
  • Don’t create a Prophecy of Old, a Chosen One, or a Doomsday Foretold for use as character motivation or plot device.
  • Don’t make a baby grow up super-fast (or time-leap) just because you can’t figure out how couples can still be happy after Baby Makes Three.
  • Don’t have characters remember people, places, or incendiary devices that were never mentioned until needed to solve a problem.
  • Don’t bait-and-switch story elements: swap genres, retrofit conflicts, change tone completely, mix metaphors, or abandon crucial supporting characters.

*Your mileage may vary. May cause headaches. Is not intended to diagnose or treat one’s own writing. Etcetera ad nauseam.

**This is what I call “The Jan-Michael Vincent Rule” because I sometimes read older novels that threw in his name as a shorthand description of a character’s looks.

5 thoughts on “Story Taboos: A Personal List

  1. I don’t read as much as I would like, but the Nanster has been complaining about stories with kids who don’t have homework or tutoring sessions. Disney and Nickelodeon are “not at all real.” Who knew?

    • The Young Humans used to arrive as freshmen and expect a combination of “The Breakfast Club” and “High School Musical.” Give my love to all!

  2. Those are all good points. Thank you.
    I’m still smiling at “for the love of cod”. ☺

    • Ellem, I can’t claim credit for “love of cod.” A long time and another career ago, one of my coworkers had a plethora of not-quite-swearing-or-vulgarity.

      Thank you for your comment.

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