Being a Better Writer: Flanderization

Hello readers! First things first, apologies for the lateness of this post! I am still recovering a bit from that con-crud, it would seem, and slept far, far later than I expected to. Right through my alarm, right through everything.

On the plus side, I feel better today than I did yesterday, and yesterday I felt a lot better than the day before. So I’m definitely kicking it out at long last. I hope (meanwhile, deep within me a lone cold virus tapes its knuckles, chews a strand of DNA, and says ’round two” lol).

So, let’s dive into things shall we? First, before we get to today’s post a quick reminder that Kamchatka, episode 1 of Fireteam Freelance, did indeed drop on Saturday, as hoped. Fireteam Freelance is an episodic side series to Colony and Jungle, taking place on Earth and starting during the ending of Colony. Head on over to the Fireteam Freelance page to start reading, but be warned that as a side story, Fireteam may spoil some elements of Colony and Jungle you’d be better of discovering there!

70081760_568294170598543_7425837595373862912_oSecondly, a quick reminder that A Dragon and Her Girl, the second LTUE benefits anthology, is out! Containing twenty stories of heroines and dragons, including yours truly’s A Game of Stakes (in which a woman hires a dragon to find her a husband), A Dragon and Her Girl is not one to miss. Early reviews that have dropped definitely agree!

In fact, I’m even going to drop a link to it right here. Just click that cover over on your left there, and you’ll go right there on Amazon. Available in digital and paperback. Though sadly, signed copies will be hard to find now that LTUE is over. There’s always next year, however!

So then, that’s the news out of the way, let’s talk about today’s topic of choice: Flanderization.

Yeah, it’s a fun word. But you may not have heard of it before. because it’s one that’s growing in popularity. In fact, the word is entirely modern, the term that makes up the first half of it being sourced from the name of Homer Simpsons’ neighbor Ned Flanders. Characters on The Simpsons, which first aired in 1990.

Which makes the term even younger, as the process the character Ned Flanders underwent to coin the phrase didn’t happen overnight, but over the course of several seasons.

In other words, this makes flanderization a uniquely modern term, clearly younger than even I am. In fact, a quick good wasn’t even enough to know when this term first appeared. Maybe no one’s done any research on it? Grad students, take note, this could be your big break for a fresh paper on language! Track this one down!

Okay, so the term flanderization is younger than thirty years at the very least (and, this is just guessing, but I’d put it probably around twenty-two or twenty-four, as that was the “golden era” of The Simpsons, making it the most likely time for the term to have cropped up). But what does it mean? And how’d it get that bizarre but memorable name?

Let’s start with what it means. Flanderization is the act of a character progressively demonstrating a certain favorable trait continuously to the point that said trait not only becomes exaggerated, but begins to overwhelm all other traits. In extreme cases, it may be the only trait left by the end of a story or series, all other elements of their character now fallen by the wayside or part of this single trait.

The term gets its name from—as you may have guessed, and we already alluded—the character of Ned Flanders from The Simpsons, due to his gradual character transformation over the early seasons of the show. When the show first began in 1990, Flanders’ character was that of the “perfect neighbor” but not one of extreme focus on religion. However, as the cast and writers alluded to this aspect of Flanders, it grew, being both a great mine of jokes and social commentary. Naturally, being confined to episodes of 22 minutes and furthermore being a secondary character, this meant that there wasn’t time to deal with other aspects of his character, so the extreme religious focus gradually grew until that’s what Ned Flanders was: The extremely devout next-door neighbor known for his his obsessive behavior around religion.

Boom: He’d been “flanderized” though the term didn’t exist yet. Mostly because Ned Flanders’ character had just come into being as the codifier people would start referring to the process as.

Now, this doesn’t mean that Ned Flanders was the first character to undergo this process. Plenty of characters have been been flanderized over the years, before and after Ned Flanders. Where Flanders became the namer for the process, however, was in how high-profile the character was while at the same time making the process pretty obvious to those who’d watched the show.

So that’s Flanderization, a process by where a characters trait (or quirk, perhaps, if it helps to think of it that way) takes over everything else about them.

It’s also usually seen as a sign of decay and not a great thing. Why? Because it’s the opposite of character development. Character development is when a character grows and demonstrates new angles of personality to the readers. Becomes three-dimensional, in other words.

Flanderization, however, is the opposite of that. Flanderization sees those new angles flattened away or subsumed by a lone trait. So the character becomes flatter. Less defined. Less real.

And yes, this is something that can happen in your writing if you’re not careful. Not even in a series, but just in a single book or story. How?

Well, let’s say your writing a sword-and-sorcery fantasy about a (flip of the coin here) brother who sets out to rescue their younger sister from bandits. Adventure ensues. Now they’re not a fighter, so along the way you have them meet up with a traveling warrior, a woman of the blade who’s all kinds of trash talk … but backed up with a blade.

And they’re not flat. You’ve made sure of that. They’ve got goals, ideas, etc etc, and they set out with your protag for one reason or another.

However, as the story goes on and you escalate the action to ramp things up, maybe that starts to change. You’ve got a lot of action sequences, and so maybe most of what the audience starts to see is the action-side of this woman, the deadly with a blade bit and her trash talk. And it’s fun, and you enjoy it and it’s the latter half of the story, so you start using it more, and … before you know it, the story is over … but you’ve accidentally flanderized your own character because the entire last half of the story has her showing off only one part of her personality. Perhaps one emotion.

Thankfully, this is a bit harder to do in a single story, and most authors will notice it … but being a bit harder to do doesn’t mean it’s impossible. There are definitely sub-par books out there where what little character was given at the beginning is stripped away completely by the end in favor of one sole aspect that readers were expected to resonate with most.

In other words, it’s worth keeping an eye out for even in a single story. Are you letting one aspect of a character take over their other traits? Are they only showing up in scenes where they can show off that trait? Have you accidentally flanderized them?

Maybe not, but it couldn’t hurt to check.

Okay, in all frankness, it’s generally rare that this sort of thing happens in a single story. Usually we’re all pretty good about writing characters consistently through a whole story, and it’s not too hard to keep track of someone over the course of a single book.

But what about a series? Several books, with an expanded cast? Well, that’s where this sort of thing can become a bit more of a risk (and why a lot of flanderization occurs with serial shows). As a cast grows larger, and especially if you’re limited with the amount of pages/words you have before each entry needs to end, it can be really easy to slip into flanderizing a character entirely by accident as you might end up in a situation where you only have a brief moment to show a character, so you choose to show them in a way that’s memorable by picking their strongest or most memorable/entertaining trait to show off and …

Well, do this a few times with the same trait, and bam, you’ve flanderized a character.

Okay, so we’ve talked about what flanderization is and how it happens, but how can you avoid it, especially if you are writing in a scenario where you worry you might end up falling into that trap?

Well, it’s actually not that hard. I think the best way to put it is “Let the character breathe.” Keep in mind that they’re more than a single note of their personality, or two, and let the whole aspects show. I say “let them breathe” because this means you might have to give them a little space, sure, but not too much.

For example, a character that could very easily be flanderized, but isn’t (actually, a whole crew of characters) are some of the cast from the Borderlands series of games. Brick, for example, is a character who loves fights and loves punching things. However, while it would have been very easy for his character to fall into flanderization even after he became a side character, it didn’t. Instead, even when he shows up to fight things, the writers gave him lines about what he’s been up to, or other characters he cares about, asking about things that have been going on.

In other words, they keep his character from flanderizing by making sure that the audience sees more than that one side of them, though he also shows that side.

And that’s really all it takes. Let your characters breathe and be themselves rather that being subsumed by one defining element. Sure, it might mean a few extra sentences, or even a slightly longer scene. But the payoff is a character that stays feeling well-rounded and real, rather than a shadow of what they used to be.

But that’s all it takes. Not losing sight of the full range of their character. Letting them breathe and show off their full range.

Okay, so one last thought. What if you’ve already flandarized a character. Is that the end?

No. You can build them back up. Let that one element deflate a little so distinction among the other elements starts to come back and show once again, and you can bring them back. Or, if you’re in editing, just go back to their one-note moments and let their other aspects shine through a bit.

The more they breathe, the less flanderized they’ll be, and in the long run, your audience will appreciate it.

Good luck. Now get writing.

Don’t forget! Being a Better Writer exists thanks to the support of the following Patreon supporters: Frenetic, Pajo, Anonymous Potato, tiwake, Taylor, Jack of a Few Trades, Alamis, Seirsan, Grand General Luna, Miller, Hoopy McGee, Brown, and Lightwind. Special thanks to them for helping keep Unusual Things ad-free and Being a Better Writer articles coming!

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