Okay, first, please forgive me for some shameless pandering...
Somehow, my book The Fold was nominated for best sci-fi book of 2015 over at Goodreads. I don’t know how. I don’t even go to Goodreads.
Regardless, it was nominated and made it to the semi-final round, which ends on Saturday. So if you happen to be reading this and didn’t read anything better this year (like, say, Armada or The Water Knife—both also in the running), I’d appreciate it if you could hop over to Goodreads and cast a vote for The Fold.
Sorry about all that. Kind of annoying, wasn’t it?
Anyway, this week I want to talk about annoying things. To be exact I want to talk about mosquitoes. I’ve seen a lot of them lately.
A mosquito is the frustrating, you-want-to-slap-them character who shows up in books or movies. That man or woman who simply cannot take a hint or get a clue, no matter how hard the other characters hit them with one. Usually the mosquito won’t shut up. Ever. No matter what. Plus, it’s a safe bet if someone tells them not to do something, that will be the very next thing they do.
They’re just... well, they’re annoying as hell.
Worse yet, the mosquitoes never acknowledge the problems they’re causing. They leave shattered plans, damaged treasures, and unachieved goals in their wake—almost never their own—and often don’t grasp why it’s such a big deal. Was that important? Don’t get so worked up.
And... wow, when the mosquito is the main character?
By the way, this is just my name for this type of character. Don’t expect to find the term “mosquito” in use anywhere else until I put out my how-to book on writing—Storytelling-the Ed Wood Method! Also, I may come up with a better term before the end of this post.
Now, this is just my thinking, but I feel there are two big reasons mosquitoes get annoying so fast in stories. One is that... well, they aren’t good characters. I don’t mean this in the sense of poorly written or imagined, just that they aren’t the kind of characters people like to read about or follow. I’ve mentioned a few times here that good characters have to be likeable, relatable, and believable. As we just said, mosquitoes aren’t likeable—they’re annoying. That’s why they’re mosquitoes. They’re also not relatable, because nobody thinks they’re this kind of person, which means no one will identify with them. Think about it—the most talkative, clueless person you know doesn’t think they’re talkative or clueless. So right off the bat, a mosquito is failing two of the three basic criteria for a good character.
The other reason mosquitoes are annoying in a story is because they violate the rule of three. It’s a term I’ve brought up here once or thrice in the past. It usually applies to screenwriting, but you can find it in books, too. At its core, the rule of three tells us that if something keeps getting mentioned, it’s important to the plot or story. If it wasn’t important, it wouldn’t be mentioned three times.
Simple, yes? I’ve mentioned something similar with names. If I make a point of telling you the waiter’s name, he must be important to the story somehow. A bare bones version of this would be the popular adage of Chekov’s Rifle, which says if we see a phaser rifle on the bridge in Act One, it should be set to overload and kill someone in act three. If something is in my story, there’s a reason for it being there.
I see a lot of mosquitoes buzz around and around... but they don’t actually do anything. Their buzzing doesn’t distract the bad guy at a key moment. Their failure to follow instructions doesn’t save the day. Their refusal to admit fault doesn’t give a vital clue. What little they do contribute could easily be done by someone else. Anyone else.
They’re just annoying.
Y’see, Timmy, when a character has such a defining trait that doesn’t pay off somehow, we end up wondering why said character’s even here. Why did I put someone in my story that nobody likes or relates to? That serves no purpose?
That being said... what are some good reasons to have a mosquito in my story?
Contrast—Sometimes I start off writing a character as a mosquito so they can go through a transformation. That’s a basic character arc, to start one way, change somehow, and end up as someone a bit different. In Hot Fuzz, Constable Danny Butterman is a mosquito. He’s the screw-up, chattering cop that type-A police officer Nicholas Angel is partnered with. Through the course of the film, though, Danny learns to take his responsibilities as a police officer more seriously, and by the end of the story he’s grown up a bit and become a different kind of cop. In this case, the character starts annoying so they have room to grow.
We’re All Thinking It—Every now and then, somebody needs to lay the cards on the table. Maybe say some things other characters don’t want to hear. And my mosquito can do this, since they’re usually talking non-stop anyway. Vince Vaughn has played this character a few times, like in Made when he points out to his friend Bobby (Jon Faverau) that everybody knows Bobby’s would-be girlfriend is sleeping with their boss. In Love & Other Drugs, Jamie’s little brother Josh pretty much gives a monologue about how eye-opening it was to have sex with someone he didn’t care about, and how up until now he’d really envied his big brother but now he kind of pities him.
In the same way, if I’ve already got a mosquito, they can beat the audience to asking questions and pointing things out. This can calm some nitpicky readers and help carry the suspension of disbelief. On The Flash, Cisco’s tendency to babble makes it more acceptable that he’s constantly coming up with super-villain codenames for the metahumans he and his friends fight. As with many things, though, this is something I want to be cautious with. This should be a tool, not part of my core structure.
Breaking Points—Sometimes the mosquito uses their annoyance to their own benefit. “The Ransom of Red Chief,” Ruthless People, and The Ref all use the idea of kidnappers stuck dealing with a mosquito. In The Usual Suspects, Verbal Gint’s nonstop babbling make it hard for the police to catch small holes in his story.
It’s worth pointing out, though, that in all of these examples, the mosquito is the antagonist of the story. Not necessarily the villain, but definitely the antagonist. They start off with them as the victim, but our sympathies slowly shift to the other characters—they’re the ones we’re identifying with and relating to.
Fast friends—Okay, I was tempted not to mention this one, but... what the hell. I’m trusting you to use this responsibly.
Sometimes we need to introduce a character just to kill them off. The problem is that it’s really hard to have any sympathy for a character we’ve only known for seven or eight pages. In this case, a mosquito can work because... well, if they’re talking non-stop they have to talk about something, right? Family, goals, television shows, dirty jokes—there’s any number of things this character can spew out. The reader can have a reason to like them and before the character gets annoying BANG they’re dead, just like that.
The thing is... I can only do this rarely. Once a book is almost too much. More like once every two or three books. The moment I start to overuse this, it becomes a cheap gag—the sort of thing done in bad horror movies and SyFy films from the Asylum.
Keep in mind, there are other ways to make a mosquito acceptable, too. The important thing is that I have a reason for giving my character such an abrasive trait. If I don’t... it’s going to be really challenging for me to keep my readers interested.
And writing is challenging enough as it is without making it harder for no reason.
Next time, let’s take this storytelling thing on the road.
Until then, go write.