Avoiding the Dinsmore Disease

I grew up on classic novels, most of which were Christian fiction. Most of the stories I read were fantastic, and developed my taste and appreciation for literature.

And then there were books like the Elsie Dinsmore series.

Elsie Dinsmore

You may or may not have heard of these books. They are tremendously popular among conservative Christians, because they embody Christian ideals like patience, honesty, and love. They are also infamous for the heroine, Elsie. She’s perfect. That’s all. She’s just perfect, and as such, is an imperfect character. But writers can learn a few things from her.

Don’t Write Idyllic Characters

Elsie Dinsmore is the ultimate idyllic character. She embodies a plethora of values, but I’ll focus on one: honesty. I distinctly remember reading the first book, and coming to a scene where she was in her family’s schoolroom, agonizing over an arithmetic problem. Eight year old Elsie already knows the answer, but insists upon worrying over the exact figures to ensure that she is perfectly honest. In a conscientious tween, this might have been realistic, but in an eight year old, it’s pushing it. The author let the ideal control the character.

There is a difference between writing a character with ideals, and writing an idyllic character. Avoid the latter. Characters with ideals leave room for flaws, while idyllic characters are quixotic standards that are so consumed by values that they have lost their realism along with their flaws. To avoid writing an idyllic character, pick a few flaws to contrast their positive qualities, and don’t let them become the ultimate personification of their positive qualities and ideals. The character should control their ideals, not vice versa.

The Truth About Undeserved Misfortunes

An undeserved misfortune is a widely used method of endearing readers to a character by creating sympathy. Oliver Twist and Tiny Tim are two widely known examples of this. It’s an author’s way of tugging on the reader’s heartstrings. They are wonderful tools, but they don’t always work, as in the case of Elsie Dinsmore.

Her mother died soon after Elsie’s birth, and her father didn’t know her until she was eight because he spent years touring Europe. These alone would have worked for the character, but the author added more. Elsie lives with her grandfather, his wife, and their children, all of whom despise her for no apparent reason.

To avoid creating another Elsie Dinsmore, keep the character’s undeserved misfortune moderate. If your character is orphaned and destitute, they already have the reader’s sympathy–you don’t need to kill off their best friend just to create more. Also, don’t ever provide opposition that lacks definable motive. No one despises someone else just because. They might not always voice it, but their motives (whether it be jealousy or anger rooted in past events) are always visible.

Mary Sues and Gary Stus

Elsie Dinsmore is what you call a Mary Sue. A Mary Sue/Gary Stu is a sit-in for the author’s idealized self. In the Elsie Dinsmore books, Mary Sue took the form of an eight year old role model. Elsie was a character who could be relied upon to demonstrate ideals like truthfulness, piety, and obedience. She’s also rich and beautiful. Those last two elements are two of the most base facets of the typical Mary Sue. However, beauty isn’t strictly a Mary Sue quality. When used in a Mary Sue character, there are always accompanying factors, like excessive talent (at everything), considerable intelligence, and some form of fame. This last element, fame, often comes in one of two extremes: either everyone is jealous of Mary Sue’s amazingness and therefore she’s treated with spite, or she has adoring fans that follow her everywhere. 

Mary Sue worked her way into my tween writing in the form of a fourteen year old archery prodigy in an oppressive fantasy kingdom where she (and only she) could save the people from certain doom. At age eleven, that was my idealized self. But you can’t write characters like that, because they lack realism. To keep from writing a Mary Sue, don’t focus on your ideal qualities while crafting characters. Give your characters pitfalls, and things at which they don’t excel. Also, if you’re writing someone who has a step-up in society (like beauty, wealth, or fame), be sure to include an undeserved misfortune to amp up the reader’s empathy.

Elsie Dinsmore was a great role model, but a poor character. The ‘Dinsmore Disease’ can be avoided if you just remember to write real. Avoid idyllic characters, a load of undeserved misfortunes, and Mary Sues. In short, write a real person.

Point of View

Point of view (POV) is my favorite part of writing, but also something many writers don’t understand. The fine details are often lost in the technical aspects. When writing a novel, you have two main choices: 1st Person POV, and 3rd Person POV. (There is also 2nd Person POV, which I’ll touch on last.)

Before I begin: for the sake of conciseness, I use abbreviations. (1PPOV = 1st Person POV, 2PPOV = 2nd Person POV, 3PPOV = 3rd Person POV)

1PPOV

A character is narrating the story. (I walked down the hall, holding my breath as chills ran down my spine.) The most widely used form of 1PPOV is employing the main character to tell the story. Example: The Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. However, you can also pick a secondary character to lay down the narrative. My favorite example of this is The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Most of these stories are told from the perspective of Watson, who is a secondary character. 

If you’re just beginning to write, 1PPOV is the simplest. Some say 3PPOV is best for writers to begin with, but 1PPOV teaches you how to get inside a character’s head and call it home. Once you learn how to look at the story directly from a character’s eyes, you begin to see it unfold in a different way. No matter what I believe, however, it comes down to a personal decision. Even if you choose to write primarily in 3PPOV, try to write in 1PPOV every once in a while, whether it be in character journals or short stories. It will expand your understanding of your characters.

3PPOV

You are narrating the story. (He walked down the hall, holding his breath as chills ran down his spine.) You can pick one of two paths with 3PPOV: omniscient or limited omniscience. Omniscient 3PPOV is used when you are narrating the story, but you can peek into the head of any character. This is not used very often, as sticking to just a few characters causes the reader to become more strongly attached. Limited omniscient 3PPOV is used when, again, you are narrating the story, but you can only stream the thoughts of a select few characters. Examples: The Hobbit. 

This POV is favored by many, as it seems more “professional” than 1PPOV. The concept of professionalism in POV is in how you use it, not which POV you choose. However, 3PPOV tends to be less intimate than 1PPOV, because the reader is not wholly submerged in the character’s thoughts the entire time. You can play with the prose to create an intimate feel with 3PPOV, but it is more difficult than 1PPOV.

No matter which POV you choose to write in, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Every character views the world a different way. Their private thoughts, beliefs, and emotions will cause them to see everything differently. This will have the most impact when you’re writing 1PPOV, but it will also affect your voice in 3PPOV. For example, a depressed character will probably see the shadows and the fog, while an optimistic character will focus on the sun and the beauty. The character’s feelings and thoughts will cause them to bias the reader via the voice of the prose. No matter which POV you choose, the character’s voice must remain consistent.

‘Head-jumping’ is the dreaded act of switching POV mid-scene, or including the thoughts of a non-POV character. It’s most often found in 3PPOV. Even if you choose to have more than one POV character, they cannot all be at the center stage for every scene. Rick Riordian’s Heroes of Olympus series is a great example of this. He has a multitude of POV characters, but each scene is dedicated to a different character. Instead of jamming all the thoughts of all the characters into all the prose, he dedicates each scene to a single character to avoid confusing readers. However, head-jumping is still possible with only one or two main characters. Here’s a simple rule to ensure you avoid this: if your POV character wouldn’t know or notice it, don’t include it.

2PPOV

Like I said in the beginning, there’s another POV: 2nd Person. This is where the narrator is talking to the reader, addressing them as you. (You walked down the hall, holding your breath as chills ran down your spine.) Most 2PPOV stories I’ve read have been written to a character, like a letter, but the narrator is the main character; these stories tend to mix 1PPOV with 2PPOV, to avoid the confusion that writing in straight 2PPOV can cause. This POV is incredibly difficult to maintain for an entire novel. You can knock yourself out with short stories written in 2PPOV, but I don’t recommend writing in straight 2PPOV for a full book.

For all its difficulties, I love this POV for short stories. Like I said before, though, it’s usually mixed with 1PPOV to avoid confusing the reader. If you plan on trying it out, I advise having the narrating character writing to another character, so the character being written to is not the only main actor.

Your two main choices for POV are 1st and 3rd POV. Remember to keep your character voices consistent, and avoid head-jumping. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even use 2PPOV. Try dabbling with all three, and work at developing characters through each. Every POV offers its own mark

Setting the Scene

Setting plays a huge role in stories, no matter what genre you’re writing. Fleshing out this element is necessary, though sometimes painful. Whether you’re writing a coming-of-age story set in a fictional town in rural Minnesota or an epic fantasy, you must delve into your setting.

There are three primary aspects to configure when fleshing out your setting:

Physical, Geographical, and Historical.

Physical setting is what generally comes to mind at the word setting. It’s the time of day, weather, season, etc of the story and its individual scenes. Physical setting is often employed to create symbolism, mood, and tone.

Geographical setting is the where. Is your story set in a rural French village or a bustling American city? This will generally have a significant impact on the implications of historical setting, which I’ll explain in a moment.

Historical setting is, most obviously, the historical period in which the story is set. It is, less obviously, the social, cultural, religious, economic, and political atmosphere. These factors will vary depending on your geographical location.

When choosing a setting, look for conflict. The setting should generate tension and conflict, even if the hero is comfortable in it. (For example, a character who has a secret can be comfortable in a small town, but the close community works against him because the people want to know his complete biography and will do a lot to obtain it.) Now think about the mood you want your setting to evoke: is it comfort and safety, or fear and suspicion? The setting should have a mood that contributes to the story. Note: the mood must contribute to the story, or it will be an unnecessary detail that will bore readers and should be excluded.

Once you’ve decided on mood and the type of conflict the setting will inspire, you need a location. (This section will be devoted specifically to those who are writing novels set on Earth. I’ll touch on the setting of science fiction and fantasy books in a moment.) This part is a little bit harder to define. For one of my novels, I wanted a decidedly European feel (my character was a hardcore American, and I wanted to force her outside her comfort zone). But I also wanted a small village, with friendly people but a decidedly ‘small-town’ flavor. In the first draft, I invented a tiny English town. This made-up town would have been good enough, had I fleshed it out. However, I did not. So in the rewrites, I took to Google Maps and began combing the coastlines of Scotland. The area had to be rural, but not too rural. I needed room to expand and add a fictional manor. Thus, I found Cruden Bay, in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. It’s a small village, but also a tourist attraction–so while the community is tight-knit, like I wanted, they also have an appreciation for the cosmopolitan.

And then the real research begins. If you hate research, you can get away with printing a map of the town and just knowing where everything is, if you’re already familiar with the basic culture. I prefer to extensively study the culture and geography of my setting (but I’m a detailed person). If you’re writing a novel that occurs in a country you’ve never experienced first-hand, it’s always best to research food, culture, prominent religions, and geography. Yes, I said food. Most cultures have a variety of traditions that revolve around food and drink. You generally won’t find the French feasting on a quintessentially American dish like a cheeseburger.

Writing an Other-worldly Setting

This type of world building is more complex than writing an Earth setting. Not only do you need to configure the physical, geographical, and historical settings, you also have to invent them. And in inventing them, you need to keep a few things in mind.

1) Rules

Every system works by rules, whether they are spoken or not. Some of these rules limit behavior (if the character does [this], [that] will be the consequence). However, the rules I’d like to detail involve magic and/or special abilities. If superpowers or magic exist in your story world, they need limits. Without boundaries, the character gets off scot-free with wonderful abilities which snaps suspension of disbelief in the readers. Readers will think of these powers as a ‘talent’ and just as people’s talents are not limitless in the real world, they cannot be endless or unrestricted in the story world.

You need to be consistent with your rules. Characters cannot violate these standards, and if they do, consequences must occur as a result. Again, the system of rule-breaking and consequences must transfer from the real world to the story world, or suspension of disbelief will suffer.

2) Customs

If you look at any country, you’ll notice specific traditions that permeate the culture. Things as small as phrases and wives’ tales, and as large as coming of age ceremonies and marriage traditions. In your story world, create customs and rituals that are regular part of life. Your story does not need to be centered around the customs, but they need to be there nonetheless. Common traditions that vary from country to country include birthdays (generally a specific birthday that is associated with adulthood), courtship and marriage, and child-rearing.

3) History

Your story world will have its own history, and you will be the one to make it up. I suggest finding a country/continent to base your story world on, as it will be simpler and more realistic, but you can also start from scratch. You can use your model country to structure your story world’s government, climate, wildlife, and vegetation.

Know your setting more intimately than the reader will. Your audience will sense that you know what you’re talking about, which will create a layer of trust.