For SF&F Writers. Trope Alerts Part 1: The Hardboiled Something-Or-Other

So with the latest submission period to Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores now closed, I’ve decided to start a new running segment to this blog which I call, you guessed it, Trope Alerts. In case this isn’t self explanatory, my next few posts will focus on all the things I feel I’ve seen just way too much of, and offer the reader/writer advice on how, if not to avoid them completely, at least to steer clear of writing the same old story we’ve all seen too many times. This first installment, and maybe a few afterwards, will focus on characterization, but it’s more likely than not I’ll branch out into other areas of storytelling before I’m finished in this vein. Good? Good. Let’s get cracking.

So what do I mean by the title of this post? I mean the sort of character we all love to see done if their arc actually leads somewhere. Better still, if they’re played by Harrison Ford in the film adaptation. I think you all know what I’m talking about. The tough guy, the loner with the troubled past. Often a primary or secondary character, usually but not always male, and probably encountered by your other characters in a dive bar, badly lit space station, haunted forest, or some other equally tense and obvious locale. Usually while the other main characters are running from or looking for something. Detective, Mercenary, Con-Man, Starship Captain, it doesn’t seem to matter. The hardboiled something-or-other plays it cool, and helps the other characters out of their various sorry states, either for a price, or his/her own mysterious purpose. Sadly, in my slush pile anyway, this is frequently revealed later in a moment of out of character self-sacrifice or grindingly terrible expository dialogue.

So why do I have a stick up my ass about this type of character? Because not everyone can write a Han Solo, Bronn, or Josephus Miller. It’s one of the pitfalls of reading and writing short fiction. That sort of character is really damn hard to do right if you don’t have a couple books or movies in a series at your disposal to flesh them out. That doesn’t (and shouldn’t) stop authors from trying to craft their own characters along similar lines. My gripe is that I’ve encountered so many obvious knock-off versions of those examples I just listed that I might as well be reading fan fiction.

So what’s the writer to do? You want your story to have a real bad boy (or girl) who comes to the rescue, takes no prisoners, gets the girl (or boy), and rides off into the sunset with a wink and a nod? Preferably with their stout horse, galleon, or spacecraft loaded with plunder as reward for their reluctant but no less effective heroism? Sure, sounds great to me. The trick is to make sure you have enough story to go round between the characters. All to often when reading short fiction, the hard-boiled so-and-so shows up to rescue some hapless, unprepared crew of protagonists from an easily avoidable evil which has to be explained hastily to them. Why bother with the ensemble cast when one or two tightly written characters will do? Maybe speculative fiction authors are inherently lonely people? Maybe we’ve all just played a few too many D&D campaigns? Perhaps it’s time for short-fiction writers to stop treating their speculative fiction work as author insertion fantasy personas. Feel free to write them, just maybe stop sending them to me. I have enough to do without weeding through a dozen stories about Bronn Solo: Space Mercenary stopping the Galactic Zombie apocalypse.

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