Storytelling

Five Unrealistic Character Traits

Storytellers want to have their cake and eat it too, even if the cake is absolute perfection, and the eating is relatable flaws. The inevitable result of trying to have it both ways is a character that defies human nature. These characters have traits that are so unrealistic, the audience starts thinking about the author’s intention rather than the story at hand.

Since all storytellers face similar dilemmas, unrealistic character traits come in a number of distinct flavors. Here are five.

1. Inexplicably Chaste

edward-cullen

Edward Cullen is over 100 years old when Twilight begins, yet according to author Stephenie Meyers, he never kissed a girl before Bella. That’s right, we’re talking about 85 years as a 17 year old boy, and NO KISSING. Why? Because he’s not a normal being, he was specially crafted by God for Bella and only Bella. Totally realistic, that. Just to add a cherry to the top, he is also a vampire that doesn’t drink human blood. Anne Rice, you have done horrible damage to vampires everywhere.

It’s easy to find unexplained chastity in romances, but this trait goes beyond the romance genre. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy stars a virginal protagonist, Vin, who has spent her life in poverty, and works in a crew of male thieves. In the beginning, he painstakingly explains why she has not been raped. That’s fine, not everyone wants to deal with dark topics like that. But he doesn’t explain why she hasn’t had consensual sex yet. She has struggled just to eat, and the right romantic partner could get her food, safety, and shelter. Add simple pleasure to that, and it’s unlikely she’d still have her cherry.

There are a lot of conservative writers who don’t want romantically involved protagonists to get it on before they are married. That’s okay, but don’t dismiss their biological compulsions. If you don’t want your characters to have sex, either don’t leave them alone together, or provide a compelling reason why they resist temptation.

To give conservatives a break, I should also say there are instances where sex is not realistic. I’ve read several books that involve mutual lust between siblings. Social taboo isn’t the only reason sibling incest isn’t common; nature doesn’t like it either. Two children of similar ages that grow up together are unlikely to be interested in each other. This is still true if they are not genetically related.

Update 4/3/15: I have written a comment in response to concerns that this section marginalizes asexuals or other various lifestyle choices. Read my comment.

2. Culturally Anomalous

Drizzt

Drizzt Do’Urden, from the Forgotten Realms D&D setting, is an example of many of the traits on this list, but none is more obvious than how out of place he is among the Drow. He is raised in a society where cruelty is glorified and orgies are common events, yet he somehow decides he shouldn’t kill the innocent or have sex with women he doesn’t know well.

Storytellers want heroes to stand out from normal people. An easy way to do this is to set your story in a culture you consider inferior in some ways, and then have your hero see past it. But this tactic can come off as cheap and contrived. It’s impossible not to see the hand of the author at work when a hero embodies a different culture than the one they are raised in. When the hero uses their outside perspective to solve problems, it doesn’t seem as enlightened or clever as it should, because it’s obvious to the audience.

At worst, cultural anomalies can also be used to express racism. Just replace the Drow with a real group of people, or a race that is reminiscent of a real group.

If you want your character to have different values than the people around her, she also needs to have different experiences. Give her a dissident mentor, an unusual background, or a defining moment that shows her what’s wrong with society.

3. Unaffected by Hardship

snow-white

In Snow White and the Huntsman, Snow White is locked in a room from childhood until sometime after adolescence. Then she escapes, learns to fight, and leads an army to take the kingdom back. It isn’t explained why being locked in a small prison for her formative years had no effect on her mental health, physical health, social skills, or dental hygiene. Except for a inclination toward terrible speeches, she comes out unscathed.

Backstories with extreme hardship are attractive, but storytellers that include them need to acknowledge the permanent effect they have on the character’s personality. That effect is generally not good – a real Harry Potter could suffer from depression and anxiety, or exhibit violent behavior. He might think his role in life is to be a doormat, and surround himself with other people that abuse him. Or he might abuse others.

Serial stories like TV shows also have a habit of neglecting the long term impact of tough times. Star Trek is particularly notorious for torturing a character in one episode, and then never mentioning it again, as though no recovery period was needed.

Characters can overcome and move past previous tragedies, but the audience needs to see them struggle with their demons. To do less is to dismiss the harm inflicted on real people in similar situations.

4. Lightspeed Learner

Stardust

Tristan is a naive and socially awkward boy at the start of the Stardust movie. He has perhaps a day of training on a flying pirate ship. Then he’s suddenly suave, good with a sword, and able to one-up his devious opponents.

It’s common in a lot of movies. Good storytellers start the protagonist with humbling spinach, and then make him more awesome until he defeats the villain, is crowned king, and lives on in the legends of his people. But what if your story takes place in a matter of days? You’ll need a montage, because real people don’t grow and learn that fast.

It is possible to make a character rapidly gain new skills, but it’s tricky. The Matrix is one of the few good examples of this happening. That’s because there’s a scifi explanation for how characters gain new skills quickly. They have the technology to simply download the knowledge they need into their minds. Even so, Neo still isn’t there — he gets his ass kicked by Morpheus in their first fight. What he needs to get ahead isn’t something that takes study and practice, just a change in mindset. An event that would have a strong impact on anyone gives that to him.

Try something similar if you need to level up your protagonist in a short time period. It doesn’t have to something like “there is no spoon.” It can instead be “trust in yourself” or “think ahead.” Clearly demonstrate why that particular weakness is holding him back, and then create a scene that realistically teaches him that vital lesson.

5. Profoundly Ignorant

Jen

In The Dark Crystal, Jen was raised and educated by wise mystics. They knew the secrets of their world, and predicted the quest he would have to embark on. Somehow despite that, the only useful thing he learns from them is how to read. He goes off on his journey completely ignorant about any of the animals, plants, peoples, or places around him. Imagine if you stepped out your door and became frightened by a squirrel.

Spec fic storytellers are always struggling to find ways to explain their world without resorting to exposition. Having an ignorant protagonist allows the storyteller to explain through that character. But unless this protagonist has just been imported from another dimension, he should already know quite a bit about the world he’s living in. Even if he’s lived a secluded life and hasn’t seen much in person, word gets around.

Few things that are either prevalent or have a strong influence on the world would be unknown to anyone dwelling outside of a breadbox. If you want it to be unheard of, you’ll need to justify it. Alternately, you can give your character commonly held misconceptions or false rumors, and have her learn the truth along the way.


The easiest way to avoid unrealistic behavior is to research how real people behave in similar situations. If real people who are locked in a basement through adolescence end up with serious problems, so would your dungeon-confined character. Not that your character should be like everyone else; you want him to be distinctive. But the bigger the gap between his traits and normal behavior, the more convincing your explanation must be.

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Comments

  1. Oren Ashkenazi

    Hero also has the “Light Speed Learner” Trait. He learned swordsmanship in about 15 minutes. I thought for a long time that George Takei’s character had the power of rapid teaching because of that. (It was actually to do math).

  2. Eliza Randell

    I definitely agree with most of your points, but your first is a little off. What do both Brandon Sanderson and Stephanie Meyer have in common? They’re both MORMON. There are plenty of Mormons who have never had sex, and so it is easy to see why neither of them would have realized that to most people chastity is unrealistic.

    • Chris Winkle

      Hi Eliza,

      I totally agree with you about why they thought virginity needed no explanation. One of the big challenges of writing is trying to see outside your own perspective – particularly if you’re writing about a different world.

      But regardless of the reason, I think it would have been better if they’d given their characters some motivation for abstaining. Simply specifying their characters had religious reasons would have done the trick. But Vin was written as not religious, so she shouldn’t have been following Sanderson’s religious beliefs. It’s an easy oversight for any author to make, hence why I wrote about it here.

      • But...

        While I agree with the point, Vin as an example is really bugging me. As a character, she has major trust issues. It makes perfect sense to me why she couldn’t or wouldn’t trust someone enough to build that relationship with when the only people she’d have contact with are the same kind of people who’d mistreated her.

      • arjil

        Yeah, I can’t hang with the Vin example either- only 16, taught by her recently vanished brother to trust No One Ever, and been basically on the run from place to place for the last several years? I don’t see her as the sort to have bothered with it yet.
        As a better example of unlikely virginity, I nominate one Ms. Jacky Faber (as much as I love her) Of the Bloody Jack series by LA Meyer. Yes, she had a reason to cut short her romantic entanglements, saving herself, as it were, for one James Emmerson Fletcher, but I have a very hard time buying it all things considered.
        (If you’ve not read Bloody Jack, et al, they’re wonderful seafaring fun, and the audio narrator is simply briliant)

      • Elise

        I don’t think either Edward or Vin’s chastity is “inexplicable.” What I don’t see anyone mentioning here (perhaps because no one could stomach reading the Twilight books multiple times) is that Edward, while not explicitly religious, does have a religious belief that it is a sin to have sex outside of wedlock. I believe the quote is something like, “This is one area where my soul is as free from blemishes as yours and I intend to keep it that way.” People make that choice all the time in our society.

        As for Vin, my memory is a little fuzzier, but she has major intimacy issues. Some people, even if not asexual, have brains that shut down sexual feelings with there is ANY threat, even emotional. She struggles with this over the course of the books and because she finds someone who she loves and finds she’s able to trust, she makes the decision to have sex.

      • Anon Adderlan

        One of the big challenges of READING is trying to see outside your own perspective – particularly if you’re reading about a different world. And it was YOUR perspective on sexuality and default character motives which affected your assessment, not the author’s intent or any kind of oversight on their part.

        Just goes to show the interpretation of these matters is nowhere near easy or universal, and maybe we shouldn’t be treating them as if they were.

    • Ana

      Hey, thank you for saying that! ;D To me, staying a virgin until marriage is perfectly normal and realistic (I’m LDS). I know for most people it’s not the norm, but for a lot of people it’s very integrated into our beliefs and was for a good while before there was contraception. XD So yeah, for me it seems really realistic, but I can understand why others would want a solid reason. I’ll try to remember to put that in my own writing.

      !

      • Sarah

        Thank you! I’m Catholic although not devout at all, 25 (nearly 26) and still a virgin. Does that make me an unrealistic character? Or is it more likely that it is just uncommon in this day and age for women my age to not have sex with every person they are in a relationship with because it’s “socially acceptable”? It’s unacceptable to me, not because I was taught that way, but because I think people in general are far too promiscuous. I like it when characters aren’t shown as sleeping with everyone they’re interested in — ESPECIALLY when they aren’t religious and especially when they don’t have to give an excuse for being a virgin!

        • SRM

          I think everyone is agreeing such characters are fine, just remember to disclose the character’s reason at some point. The same should apply to promiscuity. Why is this character so comfortable with sleeping around? Oxytocin provides some serious pair-bonding effects… in my experience, it generally takes some special enlightenment [Stranger In A Strange Land] or serious callousness [James Bond] to be fine moving from person to person quickly.

          • Cay Reet

            In case of Mr. Bond (not wanting to defeat him, though, he’s a horrible character) the fact that his life is in constant danger and he has already experienced what it is like to have a person ripped from his side, his promiscuous behaviour might also be connected to ‘living life to its fullest.’ In other words: if I could die tomorrow, then why not have some fun today?

            I have a female agent who has been hopping from boyfriend to boyfriend for three novels before ‘settling down’ with a guy in the fourth (he knows who she is and what she does and he’s supporting her in every way she needs). To be honest, part of his creation was that I was growing tired with inventing new guys for her to bed a few times.

    • Kelly

      I agree totally that the first one is way off. I’m not religious and I didn’t have my first kiss until I fell in love. I read Twilight and Mistborn and neither struck me as ridiculous. I dated and had plenty of chances (most teenage girls have as many chances as they want). It might not be typical to wait for love but it isn’t terribly unrealistic either. I think a protagonist should be a little unusual in one way or another. That doesn’t mean the character is absurdly unrealistic.

    • Bonnie Mara

      Thank you– exactly what went through my 27 year old virgin Mormon brain.

    • Colleen

      Why has no one brought up the point that if Edward Cullen gets close enough to a girl to kiss her, he’s more likely to tear her throat out? As a vampire who doesn’t drink human blood because he doesn’t want to hurt people, I think it makes perfect sense that he’s never kissed a girl. Even with Bella it takes lots of practice being around her before he’s willing to try it.

      • Carly

        You have a point. Can’t argue there.

    • Amy

      Or maybe characters are virgins because they haven’t had interest in sex with someone else until they’ve met ‘the one’. Or Diana Palmer’s female characters are almost always virgins because they think sex matters, and should only be done with someone they love. I think Edward (from Twilight) had been kissed before, but he was born in a time when sex did matter. And if Edward grew up in a town with a small population, it’s possible he didn’t know many girls to kiss. And for 85 years he’s been fighting blood lust, possibly afraid to be close to people in case he got the urge to kill them. My sister is almost 39 and she is a virgin- not because she hasn’t had opportunity but because that is how we were raised- we grew up believing sex is important, and not something you should just do because society thinks casual sex is ‘okay’.

  3. Lyra

    At least with Edward Cullen I heard that he remained a virgin because of his low sex drive. When he was turned into a vampire he was near death due to Yellow Fever so basically the Yellow Fever killed his sex drive before he was turned.

    Which explains why the other vampires all have healthy sex drives because when they were turned they weren’t dying from illness but from being beaten or attempted suicide. So their sex drives weren’t affected.

    • Martin

      Thanks for the explanation, but this still sounds like the biggest rubbish on earth XD

    • MJ

      The low sex drive from the Yellow Fever theory makes no sense. Turning into a vampire can cure everything (according to the mythos that Meyers created). It can bring people back from the brink of death, fix a shattered spine, and make them practically indestructible, and even take away their need for sleep…but it can’t cure a low sex drive brought on by Yellow Fever? Sorry, not buying it. Besides, I thought the book hinted at the fact that Edward was not actually a virgin in the first place. He hadn’t been with any humans, or even vampires in probably awhile, but it was Bella that was quite believably, at 18 years old, still a virgin.

      • LA Knight

        The reason Edward had no sex drive before being a vampire was because of the era he grew up (Victorian) and because he is devoutly religious (otherwise why would he tell Bella becoming a vampire stripped him of his soul and condemned him to hell?). After becoming a vampire, he had a low sex drive because he is a vampire (bear with me).

        The vampires, once they get over the newborn stage and are safe to be unsupervised around humans, are pair-oriented creatures. This is explained more than once in the book. They fall in love only once, experiencing none of the physical reactions from love until that time. That’s why Carlisle turned Esme – he recognized her as the One. This is also how Rosalie was able to resist feeding on Emmet and carried him over 100 miles to Carlisle while Emmet was bleeding to death – she recognized him as the One. This is also why a dear friend/honorary family member of the Cullen family, Irena, had no compunction at all about turning the Cullens into the bad guys – because Bella was directly responsible for the death of Irena’s mate.

        The only example of a vampire using sex without having that bond is a vampire in South America who is specifically trying to create an army of half-breeds and then Victoria because she is tricking a newborn into thinking she is his One, but he’s only been a vampire for a week or so.

        • kitty

          Just a quick point: The Victorians were not nearly as chastity-driven as people think. The sex was just not as public as it is nowadays. They still had brothels, porn, m/m and f/f pairings, and “illicit” relationships. So Edward being raised in Victorian society, especially as a man, would not have automatically meant that he never had sex.

    • Amy

      I thought Edward Cullen was dying of Spanish Influenza?

  4. JK

    I found your first point interesting because I absolutely agreed with you on Edward Cullen, but Vin’s sexuality didn’t stand out to me at all. Maybe that’s because I was meh on the whole thing as a teenager, and her attitude resonated fairly well with me? It didn’t seem to require an explanation, because it seemed quite natural for that particular character, at that particular age.

    In retrospect, a relationship being a form of security makes sense, but a young character may not have picked up on that—so I think it’s fair that the author didn’t launch into a detailed explanation as to why she was avoiding consensual relationships.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, I could buy a sixteen-year-old in a difficult situation not having sex. She’d be too young to strategically use sexual favours to gain protection, too. You need to be a little older, more experienced, and devious enough to think of that. Humans need to be in a relatively good situation (food/shelter) to actually want sex.

  5. Robert Dobolina

    To give due credit to R.A. Salvatore, Drizzt Do’Urden wasn’t just randomly culturally anomalous (although I’m sure he’s since inspired knock-offs that have been). His personality was shaped by a dissident father, who I think is implied to have been a talented warrior whose travels had given him perspective on drow society. Or something along those lines, anyway.

    • Ron

      I was about to say the exact same thing about Zaknafein and Drizzt. It feels like the author of the article never read a Drizzt book and only knows him by reputation.

      • Chillman

        I was about to say the same thing.

      • Kit

        I was also about to mention Zaknafein. Drizzt’s father hated the world he lived in but never quite had the courage to leave. Whether any of this was influenced by not wanting to leave his children, Vierna and Drizzt, to be raised without his influence to temper what they learned from the rest of their awful society, I can’t recall.

    • Phildog

      Was thinking the same. Drizzt is well known in fantasy, so my guess is the writer never read a Drizzt book or at least the Dark Elf trilogy, because the article writer goes fourth to say “Give her a dissident mentor, an unusual background, or a defining moment that shows her what’s wrong with society.” Umm that is exactly what happened with Zaknafein and Drizzt…

  6. Realistic

    I don’t agree with any of these points. You seem to be making them on the assumption apparently that everyone is like you or something. As hard as it might be to believe, there ARE still people who wait until they are married to have sex, and there ARE people who grow up with some sense of morality in spite of their circumstances, and there ARE people who remain naive no matter how much they’ve been taught.

    Edward Cullen was a 17 year old in what, the 1920’s? and kissing girls was not as accepted as it was now days, and CERTAINLY not sex before marriage. There are times in history when kissing a girl was akin to a betrothal. Maybe he was busy with helping his family or working or something and didn’t have time to think about kissing girls? Who knows? Just because it seems unrealistic to YOU doesn’t mean that’s a correct assumption, and that everyone needs to provide explanations in their writing b/c YOU are out of touch with reality. I think you are the one who is misguided in this. That’s never struck me as an unusual thing because I understand that things haven’t always been how they are today. And I understand that we aren’t all exactly the same.

    I can think of several real-life examples of people who were raised in less than um, upstanding circumstances, and yet they broke the cycle and found a way out of that. I have never thought an explanation was needed for that, either.

    Anyway, I think this goes against everything I feel about stories. When I read, I’m not reading to read about everyday people and everyday things; we read to find the heroes in the face of adversity, and the men who are good & honorable in a world of shallow men, etc etc. I don’t think I’d want to read explanations for all of those things, because in my opinion, they are unnecessary. People are all different, and THAT’S reality. I don’t feel I need an explanation for differences in personality and intelligence.

    • IB

      “…we read to find the heroes in the face of adversity, and the men who are good & honorable in a world of shallow men,…”

      This excerpt from your response is the most accurate, most poignant description for why people read that I’ve heard in many a year.
      I applaud you, Realistic…actually, I give you a standing ovation.

    • Late response

      I’m late in the game here but I just wanted to say that Realistic’s response was excellent, I could not have put any of that better myself.

      On the whole Edward issue, I could go on about everything that is wrong with the Twilight series. But a character’s lack of sexual experiences is not one of them. Who cares that the author is Mormon, that doesn’t mean her characters are too. Religion shouldn’t be treated as the only acceptable excuse for abstinence. Is it really that hard to believe that a person of any age, of any background, can be a virgin (by choice) past 17?
      As Realistic stated, it’s likely that Edward’s abstinence was due to the fact that he lived in a very conservative period before and after his transformation. And as a vampire, what are the chances that he’d get to have consensual sex?
      What ever Edward’s reasons were for not having sex, nothing indicates that it was not by choice. Believe what you will, but the reality is that there are plenty of people of all ages and backgrounds that don’t jump at the opportunity to have sex just because they can. There’s nothing strange or unrealistic about that and explanations certainly aren’t owed to anyone.

      • Kat

        Um…. The 1920s were *not* a conservative era. Check out some of the music — “Ain’t We Got Fun” comes to mind. There were ex-pat Americans living in Paris who did things like name their dog Clitoris and leave a box of condoms in the front hall for guests. It was also the era where women’s skirts went above the knee for the first time in centuries.

        Mythcreants could do a whole article about the “the present is always more liberal than the past” trope, if they haven’t already.

        As for Edward: I don’t buy the “chaste for 85 years” thing either.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        The yellow fever argument doesn’t sway you?

    • Benji

      As someone who has a passion for history and sociology, I want to say: Accepted and done are two different things. Premarital sex may not have been accepted in the 1920s, but that does not mean people did not engage in it. In fact, there is irrefutable evidence that premarital sex has always been a thing. That is, even, where “shotgun weddings” comes from.

      • Benji

        And to add to that, people even in the 1600’s (GASP) were engaging in premarital sex. That alone gives you an idea that – if the present is indeed more liberal than the past – such acts were definitely not uncommon in the 20’s. People stereotype the past as being so innocent, and so conservative, without realizing that people in the 20’s were still people. They had different societal expectations. Their gender roles were a bit more strict. But they were still people, with sexualities (or lack thereof, if asexual) and desires. The past is not as innocent as people like to imagine.

  7. Rachel

    Many of your points are spot on, but I agree with realistic’s comment about your first point. Culture is a funny thing and we aren’t often aware how much our culture shapes our assumptions and worldview. You assume traits like chastity are unrealistic, but at another place or time, a person would be arguing that a character having sex with many people was unrealistic and demanded some sort of explanation. You also presume that the only reason a character would abstain from sex is because of religious beliefs. This may be true, but people are born with religious/moral beliefs, so the underlying beliefs don’t need to be explained, but can simply be assumed without the need for a specific explanation. In the same way, a character can believe in the importance of justice or upholding family honor without an explanation. Some people/cultures don’t value such things highly, but we can understand without need for explanation that many humans just do. ( case in point: family honor is not very emphasized in America in comparison to Japan, but I can still understand this belief to some extent) Not everyone believes sex outside of marriage is wrong, but many just do, and that’s not weird, it’s pretty normal. Morality is a part of us. It appears you’ve been conditioned by your culture to assume beliefs about sex having a moral significance are unnatural, but that is a big assumption. Whatever you may have been raised to believe, every culture until the “modern” one have believed sex carries significance which makes it a very important, spiritual, symbolic, and mysterious act.

    Also, to your second point, there are always outliers, people who were raised in one type of environment, yet hold morals and beliefs that are different. I agree with you that having a character uniformly reject his cultures beliefs and adopt ones is often done badly, especially when a character adopts beliefs that are identical to the author’s. But, this is not completely unrealistic. I recently read a real life book about a warrior culture which included a man who was quite peaceful. The others considered him weird, but that’s the truth. Morality is odd like. It’s influenced by culture, but not determined by it.

    • kitty

      People are not born with religious/moral beliefs. They are taught them, usually in childhood. This is why children are given religious education and why they are (usually) indoctrinated by their parents or guardians in the family’s moral beliefs. You may or may not be inclined by personality and/or innate sexual orientation to act on those beliefs, but you most certainly were not born believing in specific moral values or religious doctrine.

    • Cay Reet

      It’s not even an argument against #1, though. If it was explained well, then being a virgin at over 100 years could have been believable. But it wasn’t really explained. If it had been, it wouldn’t have seemed ridiculous. I can, just about, buy that Bella would still be a virgin at 18, but I don’t buy that Edward still was one at over 100. He lived through the 1920s (where sexual encounters weren’t uncommon) and the 1970s (flower-power and free love).
      I don’t buy the whole ‘he might have killed a girl he tried to kiss’ myself. Why not? Because if he managed all those years to keep himself from drinking human blood, he could have kept himself from killing in that situation, too. Even blood-thirsty, happily-killing vampires like Angelo from the Black Widower series can do that – and Angelo wouldn’t think twice about killing a human.

      Nobody is born with a specific belief. Belief is taught and learned. Which means it can be rejected (and often is rejected during the teenager years or a little later, which is precisely the time at which Edward is stuck). And even without rejecting belief, most young people challenge it at some point and act against it. Which means the teaching ‘sex before marriage bad’ would at some point, quite likely, have become ‘sex before marriage good.’ Since Edward had a lot more time in that moral twilight (sorry) than Bella, it’s not very likely there never was a kiss – let alone something more than that.

  8. NT

    …On #1, I disagree completely. Chastity is not just something religious people do anymore. Some people are just born with low sexual drive or are rarely sexually attracted to people, if at all. (Google asexuality and asexual spectrum for more information.) In Edward Cullen’s case, while unusual, it’s not impossible. (Also the fact that he’s written by a mormon, as the others before have explained better than I could, has a big effect on it.) You also have to take culture into account as well, along with family when it comes to attitudes towards sex, and you have your well-rounded character that isn’t particularly sexually interested in anyone.

    Chastity in itself is realistic as long as you research sexual attitudes and the asexual spectrum well, and execute whichever fits your character appropriately.

    Also, “But he doesn’t explain why she hasn’t had consensual sex yet. She has struggled just to eat, and the right romantic partner could get her food, safety, and shelter. Add simple pleasure to that, and it’s unlikely she’d still have her cherry.”

    I don’t like the implications from this at all. I’ve not read this story, but already I can think of plenty of reasons as to why she doesn’t want to. She doesn’t even need to be on the asexual spectrum – she could have intimacy issues (not even sexual intimacy issues – trust issues, for example), she could have pride/ideals that get in the way of asking for help, or maybe she’s just generally uncomfortable with the idea of using someone’s food/protection/shelter in exchange for sexual favours, especially if it’s something she’s never done before? The real question that I want to ask is whether you’d even question this if she were a male character? Would you even notice?

    The only good point from that part is the “unexplained” bit. If your chaste character is asexual/has a low sex drive/etc. then please put it somewhere in the text so that the audience can understand easily. If it’s there, but not explained very well, then that’s the author’s fault.

    • Kyra

      Thank you for saying this! I was worried I’d have to be the one to point this out, and I am not as good as you in explaining these things….

      But anyway, as someone who identifies as asexual, I found #1 rather offensive. Virginity is not a character flaw of any sort.

    • Glitter

      RE: ” She doesn’t even need to be on the asexual spectrum – she could have intimacy issues (not even sexual intimacy issues – trust issues, for example), she could have pride/ideals that get in the way of asking for help, or maybe she’s just generally uncomfortable with the idea of using someone’s food/protection/shelter in exchange for sexual favours, especially if it’s something she’s never done before?”

      This pretty much hits the nail on the head. If you don’t mind being slightly spoiled – Vin’s backstory is that her (half?-)brother raised her to trust no one at all and at the beginning of the series, she believes that he betrayed her and left her as he kept saying people would. Furthermore, she believes that drawing attention to being female is a terrible thing in her line of work. She’s basically groomed into a position where, IMO, the suggestion of her using another person/sexual favours to gain security seems completely unrealistic.

    • Benji

      Also – in regards to the girl who is struggling to eat – I was a bit bothered by that point, too. I have not read that book, so don’t understand the full context (and maybe I’m wrong), but assuming she is struggling to eat… she would be starved, no? A person’s sex drive plummets when starved. I speak not from knowledge, but knowledge AND experience. It virtually disappears. There is none. That alone would be sufficient enough to explain why she has not had sex.

      • Benji

        And yes. The idea that she would “use” men to survive is offensive. As someone who grew up in poverty, and still lives in poverty, I can say honestly – without batting an eye – a vast majority of women in poverty would not do so. For either pride or moral purposes. In some cases, trust reasons. I am not judging women who would, merely pointing out that the wording was very offensive toward a pretty big class of people.

      • Evon

        Exactly. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, anyone? (Of course, I don’t fully agree with it in all things, but anyhow…)

    • Mc normal

      Normal adults find this chastity to be absurd. Yes there are some religious people out there but for most normal adult this does not ring true.

  9. Jamie

    I hate the use of the word cherry to mean virginity. It’s crass and based in myth. Virginity itself is a social construct. Makes me sick that people still use this nonsense term.

  10. VampireNovelReader

    Sorry, but y’all trying to fangirl over Cullen and say BUTHEWASRAISEDINTHETWENTIIIEEES need to chill. It’s not an excuse. He may have been raised in the twenties, but he’s written as an intelligent fellow who catches on quickly. He hasn’t been living under a rock, he’s seen cultures changing. Hell, he even drives the culturally cool cars, and listens to the “cool, indie” music. Unless he were written as a stick in the mud puritan who lives by his olden morals, you cannot have it both ways.

    And saying it’s because of his fever is as equally ridiculous. Why would his sex drive SUDDENLY fix itself? Because he’s a wish fulfillment character.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Obviously Bella Swan is the cure for yellow fever. It’s been so obvious we missed it! The possibilities are endless!

    • response

      “It’s not an excuse” – A male character written for teenagers that exists in the 21st century doesn’t have sex by choice. Ignore the author’s religion and the fact that stories can be written objectively. Ignore the conservative period in which the character was brought up in and then lived through as a vampire. Ignore the fact that any vampire (especially one as mopey as Edward) could not for many reasons, have genuine interactions with normal people – let alone, consensual sex. Why is it so hard to believe that Edward could be a virgin? What would your and the audience’s reactions be if his character was instead a sexually active female? Would she be realistic and relatable or would she be a slut? But most important of all, why do you feel that a sexually mature person needs a justifiable “excuse” for not having sex?

    • Lana

      Right. Because ALL good-looking, mature males from the 1920s had sex. Not one man could’ve possible been celibate simply because of the time he lived in. I’m sorry, but that is just ridiculous. It’s borderline nonsensical honestly. You can’t possible set that.

      • Cay Reet

        Most likely ALL good-looking, mature males from the 1920s had some sex, but not many are around these days to ask.

        There can be reasons to be celibate, but simply ‘he grew up then and has still not moved from that’ doesn’t cut it. Especially when it’s obvious he does adapt to the changing world around him otherwise. There’s a huge difference between ‘he’s had sex with every woman he encountered’ and ‘he’s been with one or two or three women in 85 years.’ Besides, it would have made for a much better story, if he’d had some experience. Sex between two virgins rarely is such a great experience. A more experienced partner who could ‘teach’ Bella would have been a better thing to present. Because ‘he’s never had sex and she’s never had sex and their first time was glorious’ is even less realistic than ‘he’s 100-something and never kissed.’

  11. Sanderson SuperFan

    I love Brandon Sanderson’s books, just so you know going in. I felt Vin’s choices fit her character very well, and actually you address it – she spent most of her life with her BROTHER. He protected her from the other members of the gang until she was old enough to protect herself from rape. He was abusive, but he was the ONLY person she trusted because she had seen everyone else around her cheat their “friends.” They lived in a thieving gang, not the most trustworthy of characters. Once her brother left, just a small time before the beginning of the book, she was already trained in the mindset of not trusting others, and depending on only herself for everything. There was one member of her gang that she felt she was close to being friends with – but even he betrayed her. So, with all of that, not exploring her sexuality with her brother just a breath away for most of her life, and with major trust issues – those both explain perfectly to me why she wouldn’t let anyone close. You don’t have to be a Mormon to understand those motivations.

    And, because I also do like the Twilight books, I always felt that Edward was affected by his ability to read minds, and the automatic unwanted intimacy that created. He was initially drawn to Bella BECAUSE he couldn’t read her mind. I can understand how his struggle to give others the privacy of their thoughts would lead to a stand-offish nature that would prevent friendship or beyond. He also had a very strong sense of morality, taught to him by his parents and continued by his adopted father, so he had great practice in self-denial. So, even though he allowed current culture to influence him, it didn’t have power to overcome his already closely-held belief system.

    I saw these without having to be hit over the head with it. Coming from my mindset, which I will admit seems to be the polar opposite of the article’s author, I find people that quickly jump into bed with each other with no explanation harder to swallow than those who are “inexplicably chaste.”

    I did agree with the other points, though, especially not dealing with obvious consequences of difficult life events.

  12. Midnight Voyager

    I hate to say it, but 4 was a problem of adaptation. He didn’t learn swords in a day, he learned it over a very long trip.

    …In the book. But they wanted a greater sense of urgency in the movie, so he had to get the stardust back in a shorter deadline.

    It is a problem, but the problem is entirely adaptation.

    • Bookwyrm

      Exactly! I also find it funny that the author of the article says that you’d need a montage to show the training over a period of time and that is exactly how they show it in the movie….

  13. Ditz

    So I read a lot of articles similar to this… Writer helpers and all. Most articles are below average… Amateur writers sharing the 5 steps to writing a good book that works for them. While trying to obtain good advice… It’s sometimes difficult to weed out the shit. I read these articles to view characters, plot lines and descriptions through someone else’s eyes. My perspective doesn’t count when trying to sell my own book. I found your articles very enlightening. You’ve articulated valid points that I hadn’t considered. Whether people agree or not with what you’ve written, you’ve highlighted how certain character traits can come off as unrealistic to a reader. Which, essentially, is what we’re trying to better understand as writers. Thanks for the interesting read.

  14. Chella

    Interesting article. I agree with number 1 and 2 – those authors may have trouble leaving their religions behind, at a risk of becoming didactic. I’d say this is the case for Meyer, but I haven’t read Sanderson. Although, based on reputation, he’s a much better writer than Meyer.

    I don’t agree with the examples you use in number 3. Both Potter and Snow White are fairy tales, rather than an exercise in psychological realism. You could apply that logic to classic tales, such as James and the Giant Peach and Cinderella, but they’d be different stories, which is fine, but not what was intended by the original writers.

    I think Rowling lays her cards on the table by having Harry start life under the stairs and go on to have adventures and relationships without much psychological trauma. She’s saying, this is fairy tale on page one and she delivers on that promise.

    That said, I agree with the sentiment behind number 3. I think writers need to be consistent. If it’s going for realism, then the characters should be affected by hardship. But not everything has to be hard realism – leave room for whimsy, as long as it’s consistently whimsical. Angela Carter does a good job on magical realism, which plays with that rule.

    Interesting points though.

    • Qondomon

      “Both Potter and Snow White are fairy tales, rather than an exercise in psychological realism. ” Yes is true, but they turn out being to a major public too and well, I think the post want more to warn us to not do that if we wirte to YA and adults, you now?

      • Qondomon

        GOD I misspelled so much: “…to warn us to not do that if we write to YA and adults, you know?”

  15. Connie (Corcoran) Wilson

    I write a novel series (The Color of Evil; Red Is for Rage; Khaki=Killer) where the characters are real teenagers and many have sex, consensually (some more than others.) Unwanted pregnancies have been known to occur. Hardships cause various problems for those who endure them, and their actions/reactions are realistic, even to the point of discussing teen-age suicide rates, “cutting” one’s self, and other self-destriuctive behaviors.

    As a result, the books are often attacked for their accuracy and attention to real-life detail. Did I mention that I taught students aged 12 through college for 33 years? What I’ve learned is that, when you portray youth the way they REALLY are, you run the risk of backlash from the conservative crowd. This may explain why many authors (especially Mormons) avoid reality like the plague. I don’t. Try one of the well-reviewed books and find out for yourself.
    Sincerely,
    Connie (Corcoran) Wilson, M.S.
    http://www.ConnieCWilson.com
    CEO, Quad Cities’ Learning, Inc.

  16. Adorabell

    There seems to be a lot of discussion going on about the idea of unexplained chastity so I’ve decided to put my two cents in.

    Chastity in itself is not wrong or right unless presented in context. An author wouldn’t need to explain why a character is chaste if they set their story in a society that sees chastity as normal. Likewise, there are some reasons that a person remains chaste that need no explanation. Living away from civilization is one, age is another. On the other hand, if a character lives in a world or society where chastity is out of the ordinary then an explanation is needed, otherwise The character starts to become less believable.

    Let us take the popular case of Edward the vampire. Edward was born in the twenties. Now, thats far away in history but the twenties was a strange time very much influenced by WWI and extramarital relationships were much more common then than in the previous years, especially amongst the poorer classes. In addition to that, he has been through the sexual revolution and lives in a time and place where premarital relations are the norm as oposed to the exception. In such a case, there would need to be an explanation by the author of why he remains chaste.

    Now, the type of story being told is also important. Twilight follows the damsel in distress fairy tale which means that his chastity is presumed as he is meant to rescue and wed the princess, aka Bella. In the later novels, SM does explain that Edward has withheld from sex due to religious convictions and also because sex with a human is very dangerous for a vampire with their greater strength. Other vampires are either already partnered or are not interesting to him.

  17. John

    The problem I have with Edward and Bella’s sexual relationship is this: as a vampire, he has no blood circulating and therefore, cannot get an erection unless he has a pump of some type. I have no problem with him not having sex for 85 years as a vampire, since a vampire would not be able to get an erection, that would make sense.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Only if they describe the pump in the sex scene.

    • Colleen

      My sister and I tried to figure this out as well, and we decided that since their skin is already “hard” due to “crystallization of the cells and tissues in the transformation process”, he’s pretty much good to go at all times.

      • kitty

        It’s not the skin that needs to be hard, it’s what’s under it.

  18. Maddie

    Ok, this aspect of these arguments is driving me crazy: Edward Cullen was NOT born/raised in the 20s. He died in 1918, during the flu epidemic, well before the cultural progression of 20s. His upbringing was…”Edwardian”. Not Jazz Age.

    • kitty

      Ah, so that’s not Victorian, either (as mentioned upthread, to which I replied).

  19. semprini

    “…don’t dismiss their biological compulsions.” Well, not everyone has a compulsion to have sex, so they don’t need to “resist temptation.” Asexuality is a thing and we asexuals aren’t sexually attracted to anyone. There doesn’t need to be an explanation. Just enjoy the story instead of complaining about a character’s sexual proclivities, or lack thereof.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      You’re certainly right that asexuality is a thing that gets ignored a lot in fiction, and I’d be all up for more of it. The problem is that none of the characters mentioned are asexual. They clearly want sexual relationships. It’s just that they only start wanting them when the story begins for some reason.

    • Raconteur

      I agree with Semprini that we should “just enjoy the story instead of complaining about a character’s sexual proclivities, or lack thereof.”

      Even when a character is not asexual, it is quite possible that he/she has not met someone up to that point in the story, to engage in such an activity. Perhaps the idea may seem messy or gross to them (in spite of their biological compulsions) and there isn’t anyone they have met worth going through all that trouble. Characters may also have gone through a very conservative upbringing but this needs some explanations as well.

      However, I do agree that Edward Cullen never having kissed a girl is far-fetched. However, it is not far-fetched that he has not had any sex with a non-vampire since most encounters of this nature usually result in the death of the human partner…

  20. Chris Winkle

    First, I just want to say that “chastity” is not one of my unrealistic character traits. Real people engage in chastity for many reasons, including:

    – They don’t have any interest in sexual activity (asexual)
    – They are following religious practices that include abstaining from sex
    – They don’t have reliable birth control, and they are avoiding pregnancy.
    – They have social obstacles such as isolation or anxiety

    The unrealistic trait is “inexplicable chastity,” meaning a character refrains from sex without any apparent motivation for doing so, including the ones listed above.

    In my examples, I used two characters in situations that would make them more likely than average to have been sexually active (they are not average teenagers). There is no motivation provided for why they abstained, then as soon as the right character steps into the story they get started as though there’s no hangup.

    That’s why it didn’t occur to me that someone might interpret this section as anti-asexual. Calling these characters asexual would be suggesting that an asexual could be “fixed” when the right person came along.

    In addition, I don’t think a character that inexplicably refrains from sexual activity counts as asexual representation, any more then Dean and Castiel on Supernatural represent the queer community. The asexual community needs characters that say “I don’t have sex because I’m just not interested,” not “I don’t have sex because my writer thought it would make me a ‘slut’ but wasn’t willing to acknowledge that.”

    I’m sorry for not being clearer, but currently I stand by everything I said. (Except for the cherry metaphor actually. I agree with Jamie, that was tasteless of me).

    • Lalala

      I’m asexual, and I think your choice of the phrase “lifestyle choice” when describing asexuals is pretty interesting. Like ??? It’s not a “lifestyle choice” that I don’t want to have sex I just don’t. That’s not weird. I just literally have no desire. Also asexual characters don’t have to outright say “I don’t have sex because I’m not interested.” They don’t have to come out and acknowledge that they’re asexual. I feel like some people think asexuality is weird or they can’t comprehend it, but it’s literally the exact same, you just don’t have any interest in having sex. And I don’t think that they should have to specifically acknowledge that they’re asexual because then it sets the precedent that asexuality is abnormal and everything is normal. It’s a normative term. And I actually think that we should have more characters who just don’t have sex and give no explanation for it. Because that’s what being asexual is like. Also, unless you are a part of the asexual community (which I’m guessing you’re not by the way you’re writing here), you probably shouldn’t speak on behalf of the asexual community. I, as a member of the asexual community, actually very much disagree with the claim that having people specifically come out is the best representation. Like if they’re sharing their experiences, okay. That’s cool. But I don’t think they should come out just because it would otherwise confuse readers who aren’t asexual. Again, normative. That’s something that people who want to have sex write in there because they’re confused by the fact that someone could just not want to have sex and they need a concrete explanation. But I actually want to see books where the people just don’t have sex and there’s no explanation for it. They just go about their lives without sex and it’s viewed as an equally normal way of experiencing things, just different. So yeah, inexplicably not having sex is actually pretty great asexual representation because it shows that there are these people who just don’t have sex and that’s normal. Because that’s what being asexual is. Also, “fixed”??? There’s nothing broken????? Lol @ that.

      Also, pretty sure that most of the authors don’t make readers not have sex because they think it would make their characters “sluts”. Based on the tone, it seems kind of like you may be projecting here. So maybe you should evaluate yourself instead. Also, chaste is a really outdated and in many ways sexist term.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        You’re right that it would be great to have more stories where characters just didn’t have sex. However, that isn’t what’s happening in any of the stories that Chris is critiquing. Instead, what we have are characters who are clearly sexual, but without any explanation abstain until they meet the person the author has chosen for them.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        And to clarify, when Chris wrote “lifestyle choices,” she was referring to sexual people choosing whether or not to abstain, and not asexuality, which we all agree is not a lifestyle choice.

      • Lexi

        In a novel I’m working on, the main character COULD be described as asexual. It is never said that he is asexual. He has a boyfriend and isn’t a virgin but he doesn’t have the urge to have sex. He has no interest in sex nor does he enjoy it.

        But his characterization is complicated. He’s a sociopath and views most people as disposible/throwaways. He doesn’t feel in the ways “normal” people do. His boyfriend has helped him hide a body from murder he committed and his boyfriend is in love with him (although other characters think the boyfriend just has Stockholm Syndrome lol).

        The main character is literally one of the most complicated characters I have ever written. He is not a sadist. He does not get off on killing people. He does it because people “get in his way”. Some of the story is written in direct 1st POV and he self-proclaimed does not feel emotion (there are instances which counter that statement, using the Unreliable Narrator plot device) so that COULD be why he does not express interest in sex. Or he could be asexual. The reasons are never explicitly said. It’s just a part of who he is.

      • Skylark

        While it would be awesome to not have to define asexual as something different, for a large portion of readers, it is. Specifically mentioning that a character is asexual also serves two purposes: it gives people who want ace representation more concrete examples, and it offers a chance for younger ace readers to find the terms and do more research to find their own identity.

        It’s true you don’t want to bash the reader over the head with it, and I’d leave it out altogether if romance or sex isn’t part of the story, but if it comes up in conversation, I wouldn’t try to work around it so much. Just like a gay character might say “I’m gay” so they don’t have to go through a long conversation as to why they don’t want to date someone, an ace character can simply say they’re asexual to nip that conversation in the bud.

      • Jen

        I know I’m really late to this conversation, but I just want to clarify that while a person who is asexual is no doubt totally normal, being asexual is not a social norm, and most people know nothing about what it’s like to be uninterested in sex. And as far as writing fiction goes, the whole point is to let the reader into the mind of the character, especially when the character thinks or feels differently than the average person, or when they don’t react to things the way the reader would expect them to.

        To just have a character inexplicably be uninterested in sex when the reader would expect otherwise would leave the reader confused and disassociated with the character. Readers want to know why characters do things and how and why they feel. It would be like putting someone on an island with nothing but coconuts and peanuts to eat, and having them continually turn down the peanuts without explaining that they were allergic. A person doesn’t have to be abnormal to be different than the people around them, but I get a little tired of people expecting the whole world to instantly understand every different lifestyle while pretending that they’re all social norms when they’re not. If you’re asexual, you definitely aren’t alone, but you’re also not the same as the vast majority of people. That’s just a fact, and it’s unrealistic to expect the whole world to understand how you feel simply because you want them to.

        In direct response to your suggestion, I think it would serve the asexual community much more positively if there were novels about asexual characters who actually showed readers what it’s like to feel that way. It would also make for a better book, since it’s pretty hard to connect with characters you can’t relate to because you don’t understand how they feel or where they’re coming from.

        • Shadowkat678

          I agree with everything you said except that the word lifestyle seems to be slipping in again. Nothing against you, but it does get a tad annoying…

    • Katie

      “Real people engage in chastity for many reasons, including:”

      See, that’s the problem, there needs to be a reason. Engaging in sexual activity is assumed the default.

      Not everyone who is capable of sexual attraction necessarily going to have sex if there’s no motivation to be abstinent, even though society acts like this is the case.

      • Cay Reet

        By default, human beings are sexual creatures and sexual activities start in our teens these days. That is why it’s usually assumed someone needs a reason not to be sexually active, especially when the book/movie/whatever makes a point of telling you ‘they haven’t had any sex before.’ Of course, you can just throw in ‘it was her first time’ in a small sentence on the side and not comment on it. But if it adds to a character’s worth that they have not had sex before, there should be a motivation for that. If you portrait a person like Edward as especially worthy for never having had sex in his 150 years on earth, give a believable reason for that. If you put a spotlight on Bella not having had sex before, tell us why.

        If we lived in a society where having sex before marriage was frowned upon, it would be the other way around and a character who has had sex before the marriage would have to justify it.

  21. Amashelle

    I find it interesting that so many people thought Edward’s virginity was unbelievable while Vin’s wasn’t. As someone who accepted both of these situations as fine, I wonder how many are loathe to believe Edward could not remain chaste simply because he’s a man – and of course men have a greater desire for se than women do, right? (Please note the sarcasm there.)

    As a reader, I would rather be able to imply a character’s reasons for their actions based on the fact that IT FITS WITH THEIR CHARACTER rather than because the author explained it to me. Vin’s reasons have already been explained in detail. The Author does not need to tell us these reasons because he assumes his readers are intelligent enough to read between the lines, and I appreciate that he doesn’t out line them to me. As for Edward: while Meyer was extremely lax in developing Bell’s character, Edward is quite well portrayed. I don’t need her to tell me why he’s remained chaste because I already know that 1.) He’s wound tighter than a rusted screw and is so terrified of relaxing even for a moment that sex is probably a genuine terror to him. 2.) He’s too strong for a mortal and most other vampires he knows drink human blood, which is undoubtedly a huge turn-off.

    Bottom line being, if the actions fit the character, why do we need an explanation of this any more than we need an explanation for why a character chose to wear the green coat instead of the red one? Personal choices should only be explained if they’d rather have chosen differently.

    • Qondomon

      “Personal choices should only be explained if they’d rather have chosen differently.” Totally agree, but you know how it is, reading the books we always want to know everything, because whatever to the subtext (not always, right?)

    • Kel

      I can’t figure out why it’s ridiculous to believe that some people (not even for religious reasons) wait for a strong emotional bond before having sex. Certain people are more casual about sex than others. I don’t find characters who have casual sex ridiculous. ONE character choosing to wait for love shouldn’t be absurd to a reader either. For me, this just shows a person’s inability to get outside of their own mind and body. If you think, “Waiting for love is absurd for me–so it must be absurd for EVERYONE,” than you’re hindering your creative range. It’s important to learn that not every character is going to react in a way that you would and if you’re talented, you can put yourself in different shoes and figure out what makes all different types of people tick.

      • Cay Reet

        Yet it is unrealistic that Edward never felt a strong connection to someone before. That plays into the equally unrealistic trope of ‘the one chosen person’ to love.

        Bella might never have connected with anyone on a deeper level in her 18 years on earth, but Edward must have met a lot of people from different walks of life (undead or living) over the span of his life. There has never been anyone he felt a close emotional connection to? That is unrealistic, unless you explain it extremely well.

  22. Qondomon

    Well, a lot of discussion about virginity here ๏̯͡๏﴿
    About the first point, Vin could be asexual (─‿‿─) (sorry, I really love the text faces and I never read Mistborn Series)

    I love Drizzt Do’Urden but the writing of the first three books made Drizzt a little retard about the good and evil thing.

    About the last three points is something we (writers, etc) need to be careful in our characters. (─‿‿─) Probably I made (and make) something like that, especially the Lightspeed Learner :|

    • Pam

      Speaking about being careful writing, you may want to re-examine your casual use of the word “retard” for obvious reasons.

  23. Michaela

    I don’t fully agree with the first point. Sex isn’t everything to everyone. Edward was obviously a strange character to begin with, he doesn’t do anything the same way as everyone else. The girl who was on a ship probably has trust issues with the male species. I can totally understand not wanting to get close, and vulnerable, with someone who could potentially hurt her.
    Also, I agree about the Lightspeed Learner, but you used a bad example with Tristan. In that same scene, he got a “haircut” that made his hair longer. That was a magical, mystical movie, so obviously strange things will happen, such as learning to fight with a sword in only one day. In the future, you might want to appeal to the whole plot of the story, rather than just a point that helps your argument.

  24. Vlad

    Dont`t know if it`s just me but lately all TV series seam to go for nr. 4: Lightspeed Learner. Some guy with very bad social skills that can learn all wikipedia in one day. Interesting post btw.

    Regards Vlad
    personality tips

  25. Anonymous

    Actually, abuse victims can rebound quickly, especially if they’re removed from the situation or if their situation improves. That’s not to say there aren’t permanent effects, but a strong-willed person like Harry Potter might be more resilient. Although “quickly” is a relative term, and when it’s related to mental health it’s not really that quick. I speak from personal experience and from talking with several therapists >.>

    Of course, he could also be suppressing his emotions and by book 5 they take their toll.

  26. LA Knight

    I have two comments to make about your points.

    1) Tristan Thorn as a fast learner. I always thought that the training/ship montage spanned several weeks. Yes, I know, he only has one week to get the Star and bring it back to his town, but that’s on the English side of The Wall, and time flows differently (they say this) on the Stormholde/Fae side. So he could have picked that up in a few weeks. And while he does fight a bad guy using a sword, Septimus makes the mistake of underestimating Tristan the first time, and then he’s a corpse being controlled by a witch with no sword training the second time.

    2) Snow White serving her formative years in a small cell and having no issues. She didn’t spend her formative years in a cell. She was 12ish when she went into the cell. Still young enough to be a maiden, but a lot older than a child of say, 7 or 8. We have no idea if she was kept there always, since Ravenna seemed pretty ambiguous towards her until Snow White was pointed out to be a problem several years later, and Ravenna seemed fond of Snow in a distant way, and only imprisoned her for political reasons, similar to Lady Jane Grey and Mary Tudor.

    It is actually said in Snow White that Ravenna killed the king because men are basically inherently evil in her eyes, but that Snow White had a kind, good heart. Since Ravenna sees herself as a heroine, only using her life-sucking magic so she can remain queen and keep the kingdom as she believes it needs to be for the sake of the people, she would have no reason to kill Snow White out of malice. Also, Snow White is only 15 in the film, though her actress is older. This means at most, Snow was kept in the cell for 3-4 years. And while that is a long time, it’s not as if she was kept completely isolated, tortured, and wasn’t fed or allowed to bathe or clean herself (obvious by the fact that she can talk to other prisoners, she bears no scars or disfigurements, she’s a healthy weight, and her hair is in relatively good condition).

    I already commented on Edward’s chastity (it’s explained he’s religious in the books so I don’t know why he’s mentioned). As for Mistborn, haven’t read it, so I can’t comment.

    As for Jen, the Mystics lived in a desert canyon. Jen actually wasn’t supposed to venture into the forests, and when he did, he didn’t go into deep forests. Kira, on the other hand, was raised by a species who make their homes in deep-forest groves and commune with nature. You can’t take someone who lives in, say, northern Arizona and drop them in the middle of Montana and expect them to know what’s what.

  27. Micki

    You lost me at ” Anne Rice, you have done horrible damage to vampires everywhere.” Stephanie Meyer wrote the Twilight books and they are quite a different take on the subject than Rice’s series.

    • Chris Winkle

      I was referring specifically to the emotionally tortured vampire trope. I believe that is a legacy of Anne Rice.

      • Fantastical M

        Actually, I’m pretty sure the credit for that trope goes to Varney the Vampire, who appeared in a series of penny dreadfuls in the 1840s. Honestly, though, I think Anne Rice did vampires rather well. Admittedly she does seem to have inspired a number of less commendable works.

        And just to throw my two cents into the chastity debate, I’m a 21-year-old virgin for no particular reason other than that I’ve never made the acquaintance of anyone who appealed to me in that way. I know other people around my age who are in the same boat, and a lot of teenagers who feel the same. I suppose it’s possible that I’m ace, but I don’t really identify that way. If I were writing myself, I would not describe myself as asexual.

        I think this is a very useful debate for writers to see, though, because it really shows the diversity of beliefs and assumptions in our prospective audience.

      • Devlin Blake

        I agree that it was Varney the Vampire that did it first, but it was Barnabas Collins (Dark Shadows TV series, NOT movie) that made the reluctant vampire mainstream.

      • Cay Reet

        Then there’s also Nick Knight (TV series and movie) which centre around a vampire who wants to be human again and is often haunted by his deeds of the past.

  28. Braisik

    Your usage of Drizzt Do’Urden as an example for overly different people in a society doesn’t make much sense. You even give reasons at the end about how to decrease the specialness, one of which is a ‘dissident mentor’, which Drizzt had. His father, Zacknafein was known for being difficult and how he did not agree with society. It is mentioned that the women only put up with him because of his amazing skill in combat, his opinions would have gotten him killed otherwise. He imparted this viewpoint on Drizzt, who actually gives credit for that viewpoint. Also, there are many times where Drizzt is alienated from Drow culture throughout the time he is with them, particularly when Guenhwyvar was involved.

  29. Chrisle

    There’s been brilliant points about chastity, and how it can make sense, but I like to point one aspect of sex that also indicates that virginity is a reasonable choice for a character. For almost all of human history sex has meant, yes fun, but also danger. Sex, specially for women, meant pregnancy and pregnancy meant great deal of danger. If all went well, then pregnancy meant babies and babies meant great deal of work, emotional commitment and responsibility. Sex hasn’t been easy, casual choice for women until quite recently. I don’t mean that women haven’t had pre-marital coitus, I just would like to underline true nature of sex beyond pleasure and romance; there is always been quite dark side of pain and danger that specially women have had to consider.

  30. Sarah Lombardo

    Thanks for this article. I found it useful – not because I think all characters must be sexual, or overly “moral”, or naive, or brilliant, but because their point of view with regards to these should be explained, struggled with, sufficiently self-evident. I’ll keep this in mind when drawing my own characters!

  31. angel-courtesan

    While some of your points are valid, many of your examples are flawed and show a lack of understanding of different kinds of storytelling, such as fairytale and allegory.

    Harry Potter sits within a grand tradition of children’s stories and fairytales, such as James and the Giant Peach. Parents get eaten and die vicious deaths, releasing the child into a world of danger and adventure. It’s a story archetype, which works in the case of Potter because Rowling promises and delivers that type of story.

    The same can be levelled at most of your examples. You’re expecting psyc

    • angel-courtesan

      Urgh…stupid phone

      You’re expecting psychological realism from Cinderella, which isn’t the point of that type of story.

      Some good points, but better examples needed to support them.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        It should be pointed out that Snow White and the Huntsman is not a fairy tale. It’s a gritty fantasy reboot of a classic fairy tale. As such, different conventions apply.

        • Anon Adderlan

          And which ones would/should those be?

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            Gritty reboots, by definition, raise the expectation of greater realism. That’s what gritty means in this context. For a good example, see the gritty Battlestar Galactica reboot.

  32. Rik

    “Except for a inclination toward terrible speeches”

    Ha!

  33. Tatiana Bickler

    I loved your article! I must say my personal pet peeve is when writers (mainly of fantasy) take a weak character who has never even looked at a sword, and have them master the weapon enough to win an epic battle against a swords master by the end.

    Not sure I completely agree with number 1 though. Your Twilight example was spot on (and gave me a great laugh) but the reference to Vin seemed a bit off. Now I haven’t finished the book personally but from what I do know about her, she is not one to trust others. Granted she could use a relationship merely for the benefits, but if you are someone with a deep level of mistress of humans in general, you most likely wouldn’t trust anyone enough to sleep with them. Her brother had also been there to at least give her some food and protection until a few months before we meet Vin. To top it off she is fifteen. It’s not strange for a fifteen year old to still be a virgin. Now if she were a twenty-one-year old girl living this sort of lifestyle then I would be more prone to agree.

  34. Carole Nomarhas

    I can remember rolling my eyes, at quite a young age, at a fantasy character who despite being imprisoned in a dungeon at a very young age was a master swordsman when released. The explanation? He kept fit and learned his expertise with a sword by fencing with his shadow, without a sword. Sigh. Yep, of course he did.

    Oh, and he was also mentally sound after those years of isloation… Yep.

  35. Terri

    I suppose that is why it is classified as fiction. Not real. Not reasonable. Not right, by your standard anyway. I try to enjoy the author – created moment and let real life roll on by while doing so.

  36. Asher

    Actually, Harry Potter did suffer from depression, anxiety, and anger issues. He lashed out often in the books (Order of the Pheonix having the most obvious examples), and suffered socially because of his past abuse. Using him as an example of abuse not taking its toll is kind of ridiculous.

  37. Lexi

    I think some of the examples were a bit off like the other commenters said. My way of making characters is research.

    I have a character who is now 21 but was a feral child until he was 18 when he killed his severely abusive mother. The story follows him after he’s been in an asylum for three years and being worked with by a psychologist. One of his long-term effects of abuse is he has a wolf-like mentality. He thinks more like an animal than a human. He will growl and snarl when he’s angry. He sleeps on the floor instead of the cot he’s given.

    One of my biggest inspirations for the character was the story of Genie. Look it up but be warned, there are lots of triggers.

  38. Johnny

    I would like to point out that Edward could also hear the thoughts of others. Don’t know about everyone else, but I’m thinking this would be a huge turn off.

    • Jennifer

      Besides hearing their thoughts (another vampire series, by Lynsay Sands, has vampires able to read the minds of regular humans, and other vampires, with the exception of their potential mates, which lets them have one person they don’t have to control their thoughts around and someone they have to work to get to know- also, the vampire cannot mentally control a human who may become their mate, giving them free will)…

      Edward also couldn’t relax during a kiss because he could accidentally scratch her tongue and either kill her or have to turn her. He had explained beliefs that differed from those of his adoptive siblings, and turned out to be unable to avoid hurting her on their wedding night. “Twilight” is good for what it is meant to be, and to me Edward makes sense

    • JT

      You are correct Johnny!

      Only here’s the thing: this very ability explains a heck of a lot about Edward’s character. And the source of the ability, explains a lot about how Bella wound up seeming ~special~ to him! (Beyond her blood, anyway, which is apparently redonkulously tasty-smelling for sparklepires, well beyond the human tastiness norm, for…Reasons?)

      See, in the Twilight series, for Reasons (again, it’s never explained, it’s just a Thing), people converted into a sparklepire develop a specialized superpower in addition to all the default abilities of a sparklepire. These are often psychic abilities of some sort, e.g. Edward gains mind-reading, Alice gets psychic visions, etc and yes, it’s basically therefore like Sparkling Vampire X-Men. It’s kind of weird, but okay, just roll with it for now, this is going to have a point I swear!

      Alright, so how is this relevant to why the heck Bella – little wet blanket Bella – seems so interesting to him?

      Well, in the fourth book, we finally see Bella converted to a sparklepire. And it turns out that Bella’s vampire superpower is a shielding ability…which it turns out she had a variant of the whole time. She can now use it as a protective force field but before that it was a passive ability that happened to protect her from mind reading!

      So, in a bit of an oddly brilliant twist, poor Edward, who CANNOT turn the mind-reading off otherwise, cannot read BELLA’s mind in specific. And only, literally only, Bella’s mind in specific.

      It drives him a little nuts (since of course he’s no longer used to not being able to know what people are thinking) and between that and her tasty blood smell, he becomes fixated on her, and in particular, at figuring out what the heck she’s thinking about. Meaning he has no idea how boring and whiny she is inside her own head!

      Like, I’m loath to admit that Twilight did anything all that well (I really don’t like the series, and I hated Bella so damn much – I’m familiar with it because I felt a pop cultural obligation to be lol) but this was the one conceit it had that was actually pretty clever. Because it not only explains why he’s cranky as heck all the time, it explains why he finds her so interesting despite her being incredibly boring: it’s because of the unknown aspects that he can’t figure out about her that he’s used to being able to figure out from literally everybody else!

      In other words, thanks to their respective powers, not only is she Not Like Other Girls to him, she’s unlike any other human being, period, simply for being unable to be “read”, which provides some frustrating inner tension and confusion for him, so that he becomes obsessed with figuring her out, and between that and her blood being vampnip, it’s understandable it became more, especially when she started basically throwing herself at him, and yes, despite the fact that he was also a traditionalist who firmly stated he didn’t believe in having sex before marriage (yeah, please remember this was written by a Mormon lol).

      On a side note, this is why I’m vaguely disappointed Meyer never did finish “Midnight Sun” – which was supposed to be the first book told from Edward’s POV, but got the first 12 first-draft chapters leaked by “someone Meyer trusted” and then the writer felt really hurt and gave up. I didn’t care for Edward as a romantic lead but by gum, even in hilariously unedited form, “Midnight Sun” was a hundred times more interesting than the original version of the first book. Bella in “Twilight” is a boring, whiny, frankly uninteresting girl with a crush on a confusing prettyboy with superpowers and a weird secret, but Edward?

      Edward has a relatively unique, effed up perspective due to being wound tight to begin with + 100 years of mindreading humanity, and is pretty much, as Cleolinda Jones put it in her review of MS: “flailing around inside like a bipolar muppet”. It’s kind of gold, really.

  39. Katie

    You mentioned the abnormality in Drizzt’s character was unrealistic because of his difference from his culture. But his difference wasn’t unrealistic because Drizzt was sheltered the entirety of his young life, until he met his father who taught him the morals he had, while sheltering him from the evil of his peoples culture. He was completely sheltered from “evil” until he was at least 16, and although drow live very long lives their maturity rate is near that of humans. This made him nearly an adult when he had his first contact with “evil”. This was his defining moment, Zaknfien was his mentor and Zak was the person who introduced to Drizzt at an early age that he could be different from his crule sadistic culture. Throughout the series Drizzt reflects on his different raising and questions if it was possible that his people weren’t born evil but chose to be because they were never taught a better way

  40. L

    Harry Potter didn’t remain untouched by the abuse he was put for the first 16 years of life in the Dursley’s household. He has a lot of personality traits that are BECAUSE he was abused and that are why he sometimes acts the way he does.
    Is the fact that he remains, after all odds, a good, brave, caring person is what makes him awesome. That he CHOOSES to be good is so important and a key factor of this character.
    Snape had a childhood similar to Harry’s. But he made all the wrong choices. Choices that Harry could have easily made. But he didn’t.
    The fact that you say that he was unaffected with hardship hurts my soul and demonstrates me that you haven’t read the books in a long time.
    Cheers

  41. kaity

    Not everyone, even some men, are comfortable having sex before they’re in love or just don’t want to until then. People really do have self control (EVEN MEN) and different ideas on morals. And as an immortal you have unlimited timed, you probably learn patience especially if your personality leans that way. He’s basically annoyingly honorable and if you haven’t met someone like that maybe you cant get imagine it but it is realistic. Also, Edward thought he’d kill Bella if they had sex so there’s that… Lol

  42. Kiki

    Honestly I don’t think ANY of these traits are inherently bad. They’re only bad if they don’t have good reasoning behind them like anything else. If you can give good in-universe reasoning, you can make almost ANYTHING work at least pretty decently.
    I admit I write the Cultural Anomalous pretty often, but I’m getting pretty good at giving good reasoning for WHY they’re that way.

  43. Benjamin

    You don’t seem to understand Drizzt very well if you think he “just happened” to have a different perspective on the world then his whole culture. His father and trainer instilled all of his original sentiments of his people into him, but even he wasn’t just a white knight stuck in a bad place, his opinions were driven by the fact that he didn’t like being a slave to the women of the Drow society and he came to hate it all, he was stronger and more powerful then most of them because of all his lifelong experiences and hardships, yet because of the way the society worked he was still considered to be lesser. So when he instilled this distaste for the Drow into his son, who hadn’t really experienced this feeling of enslavement, Drizzt took it in a more honest manner, something his father even tried to warn against but eventually encouraged further down the road.

    So you see, you’ve made a horrible presumption here. He isn’t just nice because his author wanted him to be different, he was given plenty of reasons to drive him to this view of the world, and it’s even changed drastically over the years, at one point he even gives up on his ideals until someone reminds him of why he originally followed them.

    You make it all seem so one dimensional, likely because I doubt you’ve read too much of it or just didn’t enjoy it.

    I agree with the rest, even that point was a good one, but I don’t know why you tried to use Drizzt as an example when the author did a good job explaining why he was that way and put Drizzt through many hardships to develop his views and personality.

    On a side note, why do you always refer to “the protagonist” as “her” and “she?” I mean I personally go out of my way to use gender neutral terms like “they” so as to not get yelled at by feminists, like if I say “he” or “him,” but you seem to have just swung entirely to the other side. I’m just curious, do you do this to try and make a point, do you do it cause in todays society someone asking about it like I am right now will likely get harassed for even questioning it, even though the opposite is considered rude and distasteful regardless of it being the exact same thing, or is it simply just what you’re used to writing?

  44. The Stray

    You really don’t seem to understand most of the character you’ve discussed here.

    1. While I can’t speak on thw Twilight Series, I *have* read the Mistborn books, and Vin’s reasons for being a virgin are completely in line with her characterization. She has MASSIVE trust issues and lives in an environment where rape is an ever-present threat, and, until recently in-story, had her brother Reen around to provide food, safety, and shelter. I mean, you point out just a few paragraphs later why you’d find lust between siblings unrealistic. Vin getting over her issues enough to be intimate with Elend is a major part of her character arc, not an “inexplicable chastity.”

    2. Drizz’t *had* a dissident mentor, his father Zaknafian. Drizz’t was also pretty sheltered from the backstabbing nature of the Drow, relatively speaking, before being exposed to their shockingly callous ways in the academy.

    3. In the early books, Harry Potter is living out a dream fantasy for any child in his situation. As the books progress and he gets more acclimated to the wizarding world, his psychological issues start becoming more and more prominent, to the point where he is certainly suffering from some form of PTSD by “Deathly Hallows.” Hardly “inexplicably trauma free.”

    4. Tristan was in Faerie for a year. His time with the Sky Pirates was several months of time compressed into a montage. Plenty of time to learn swordfighting enough to best a magically animated corpse and a village dandy.

    5. As for Jen…I got nothing, and I’d need to see the movie again to see if this is spot on or just another mischaracterization. Given your track record in these examples, I’m pretty sure there’s something you missed here, too.

    • Anneke

      Agreed that the examples don’t fit the point of the article (which isn’t bad at all, just ill-fitting examples). The points still stand, characters need reasons to do stuff, otherwise they’re an empty shell who obeys the plot/writer.

      As for Edward, he also did have a reason to not have sex, he was raised religious (he talks about hell, heaven, souls, sins etc) and still believes he has a soul (of sorts, there is some doubt about what he thinks) he even says at some point he wants to wait until mariage for sex, because that is one area in which his soul is still clean. Add to that, the people he met were either food (too yummy to try, because he would kill them), or too frail to try anything without killing them, and the vampires he knows mostly drink human blood, so probably not up his alley.

  45. A

    If I were a character, you would have listed me under numbers 1 and 2.

    Sometimes people are born without an arm. Sometimes they’re unusually taller than their parents. Nature makes typos. Sometimes these “typos” are in a person’s brain. And then said person doesn’t behave like everybody else, for no apparent reason.

    It does happen, and I have to live with it.

    • Cay Reet

      Only Edward didn’t behave like everybody else until he met Bella. Then he behaved like everybody else. That makes it unrealistic. Yes, Edward could have been born asexual, but then there wouldn’t have been a love story in the novels. (Not between him and Bella, that is.)

      There are those who could be called ‘the odd ones out.’ If you create and use one of them, however, they need to continue to behave in that way. All of those listed above can work, under the right circumstances, but are terribly overused, which makes them appear unrealistic.

      One person who remains a virgin at all cost, one culturally deviant person, one lightspeed learner, one undamaged victim of abuse, or one culturally ignorant person can be explained. But if you find them in every other novel, movie, or TV series without explanation, things get ridiculous.

      • JT

        “Then he behaved like everybody else. ”

        You haven’t read the Twilight books at all have you lol.

        That character is, as someone above us put it, “wound tighter than a rusty screw”. He compulsively follows a strict set of moral codes (which by the way includes a lot of religious stuff including not having sex before marriage so the article is inaccurate that it was “inexplicable” in the first place). He acts completely unpredictably, at times irrationally; he runs hot and cold with Bella, seemingly encouraging her affections one minute and telling her THIS IS THE SKIN OF A KILLER the next, lashes out inappropriately, tries to suicide at one point in the second book, and obsesses constantly about the one thing he has trouble understanding…which is Bella.

        Why Bella? Because Edward has literal mind-reading powers, and Bella is the only one they don’t work on. And as we see from the never-finished draft of “Midnight Sun” (MS was a version of the first book that was going to be told from Edward’s POV; you can find it online if you look), that bugs the crap out of him.

        He’s got symptoms of SEVERAL possible mental disorders and/or personality disorders, probably has Borderline Personality Disorder or Bipolar Disorder, just off the top of my head. He has NEVER “acted like everyone else” and those aspects of him do not really change after he meets Bella, and certainly not in a “acts like everyone else” way.

        The only thing that changes is he notices that this particularly tasty-smelling human can’t have her mind read, and thus she starts to weasel into his brain more than he likes. He absolutely does NOT “act like everyone else”, unless “everyone else” is downright Byronic (which they aren’t, even in Twilight)

        And even then, he is only ATTRACTED to Bella; he refuses for over three whole books to get too physically close to her despite this, because he’s (turns out, rightly) concerned he’ll physically hurt her if he gets too worked up, and on top of that, again, he’s still firmly entrenched in the idea of No Sex Before Marriage. When they do actually get married in the fourth book and have their wedding night, he winds up indeed injuring her, so turns out him never sleeping with anybody until that point is perfectly logical on his part!

        I don’t even like Twilight (I kept up with it purely to keep up with pop cultural conversation), but darn it, I won’t let weird assertions like that stand when they’re inaccurate.

        And yes, credit where credit should be due, Meyer actually DOES make it not that inexplicable at all, because Edward is one weird sparklespire with tons of reasons to have avoided sex! I get the feeling the author picked Twilight purely because people unfamiliar with it heard about the “117 year old virgin” part and scoffed automatically, rather than, you know ANY familiarity with the canon because if you had told me to talk about examples of “inexplicable chastity” in a character I would never have picked Edward Cullen, I would have pointed out, begrudgingly, that he’s actually a subversion of that!

  46. R. K. Thorne

    Well, that escalated quickly.

    FWIW, I thought great and well-reasoned points, all.

    And I hope I have not committed either 1 or 4! =)

  47. Alverant

    I just saw this article and wanted to give my opinion about the first item. What bothers me is when female virginity is expected but not male virginity and how virginity of both sexes gets treated. In the book Wearing the Cape the author, Marion G. Harmon, went to great lengths to show the female protagonist as being “pure” – young, blond, attractive, does charity work, a devout christian, and of course a virgin. The male romantic interest however is a bit older and is not only not a virgin but divorced. Yet that’s OK and doesn’t detract from any perceived “perfection” he has. I don’t like the double standard. I remember someone comparing women to chewing gum in that you don’t want either of them if they’re used. When women were considered property, they were expected to be virgins until they were handed over to their new “owner” (husband). OTOH teenage boys were allowed to explore their sexuality provided they kept it hidden. But that’s a topic for another time.

    I don’t have a problem with making a character a virgin if 1) there’s a good reason and 2) implying that it makes a female worth more is not a good reason.

    • Cay Reet

      I agree completely. There are good reasons within the narrative to make a character a virigin, but simply ‘it makes her a better/worthier/purer person’ isn’t one.

      Virginity is a strange concept as a such, I think. There are many virginities in a human’s life, but society is fixated on one of them: the first time a person (especially a female one) has sex. What about the first time a person speaks publicly? The first time they drive a car? The first time they land a job? The first time they go and see a movie in a theatre? Technically, all of those are ending a form of virginity, too.

  48. Katie

    Well, I have some of these traits, so I guess I’m unrealistic.

  49. Fay Onyx

    Thank you for this! The details of specific examples can be quibbled over, but I think the main points are solid and I definitely have felt frustration at multiple of these tropes.

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