Hello readers, and welcome to another installment of Being a Better Writer! We’ve got a really interesting topic for you today and we’re looking forward to diving right in! But really quick, before we do jump into today’s topic, there is a bit of news to cover.
First up, and most importantly, next week’s Being a Better Writer will once again be a Live Question and Answer session! That’s right, once again I will be taking questions from a live audience and answering them over on the Unusual Things Official Discord channel, The Makalay Camp. It will run for about an hour, starting at 5 PM MST, which would be 7 PM EST, and 4 PM for those on the west coast. Hopefully this time works best for those who’d like to listen in, at least in the US (in advance, I apologize to those living in places like India, but we really are put in a difficult spot there by the Earth being round).
But yes, next week’s Being a Better Writer will be live, at 5 PM MST. The day of, an invite will go up on the day’s BaBW post with a link to the official discord server, so that those of you who have not joined yet can get in and familiarize yourself with the server (which is small, and like the site, has grown as needs have demanded) before the Q&A session goes live.
So mark your calendars! Next week, October 25th, 2021, at 5 PM MST. Live Being a Better Writer Q&A session!
Got it? Good! Now, let’s get talking about today’s topic: The Big-Lipped Alligator Character Trait. I’ll admit with a name like that the initial response to seeing the title of the post likely fell into one of two camps. On the one side, you had the people who are familiar with the term “big-lipped alligator moment” and immediately wondered what that had to do with character traits attached on the end (as a true big-lipped alligator moment” is a scene, which we’ll discuss in a moment. The rest of you? “Big-lipped alligator what?”
So hit the jump, and let’s start answering those questions.
All right, first up let’s answer the primary and most concerning question here: What is a “big-lipped alligator moment?” The term actually comes from film, with the phrase itself being specifically coined by internet film critic Nostalgia Critic. The term refers to a scene from the animated film All Dogs Go to Heaven, where out of nowhere the protagonist (who, for the record, is a dog; this is an animated film) meets an alligator in a sewer with massively exaggerated lips and is suddenly thrust into a random musical number. Said musical number comes completely out of nowhere, has nothing to do with the rest of the story, and upon concluding is completely forgotten about, having no context, bearing, or purpose for the rest of the story.
Nostalgia Critic dubbed it a literal (and fitting) big-lipped alligator moment, and from then on would reference similar moments in other films by the same name (even if they lacked alligators).
So what makes a big-lipped alligator moment, then? Well, the TV Tropes pages for them notes that a big-lipped alligator moment (BLAM from here on out) is in effect a sort of non-sequitur moment (a scene or comment that is deliberately out of place, usually for humor) cranked up to eleven. It’s not just a non-sequitur moment, it’s a full on non-sequitur experience. They’re something very in the audience’s face, strange or odd compared to everything else, and then of course, immediately forgotten about and never mentioned again, no matter how crazy.
In other words, a BLAM has three criteria it has to fit in order to be a BLAM, rather than just some sort of odd scene that feels slightly out of place. First, it has to be completely out of nowhere. This doesn’t just mean that it’s unexpected, but that it has no ties to anything else going on in the story. There’s no foreshadowing, no reason to expect it to appear. For example the TV Trope page for BLAM notes that running into a trap while storming a castle isn’t a BLAM even if it fits all the other tropes, because a trap is expected when dungeon-crawling. A BLAM is something that is completely out of context to the rest of the story it is in and appears with no warning, foreshadowing, or context. Like a singing alligator in a sewer.
Second, not only does a BLAM arrive with no context, it keeps no context. There is nothing to tie it to the setting, the narrative, or genre. As the TV Tropes page notes, if the story or world justify or explain what’s happening (or has just happened), then it is no longer a BLAM, as there are reasons for it existing. A true BLAM not only appears without warning, but has no ties to the story being told, in its characters, setting, or plot. A hard line offered by the TV Tropes page is the classic ‘this was all just a dream’ handwave, which is usually enough to make a scene not a BLAM. Sure, it may have come out of nowhere, but revealing it as a dream gives it context and setting.
Usually. The tropes page notes that some instances make that reveal just as much of a BLAM and leave things even muddier. But it’s a good rule-of-thumb to keep in mind.
Lastly, in order to be a BLAM, the scene must have no bearing, continuity, or effect on the story whatsoever. Once it’s over and done, it must never be referenced again, and must not be acknowledged by the characters. Cutting it would change nothing, and the characters will never speak of it, acknowledge it, or show any knowledge of its existence. If it were removed from the story, nothing would change, and no member of audience would ever know that anything was missing.
Now, there are some other qualifiers, and the TV Tropes page goes into more detail (as well as noting that it is pretty hard to get a trued BLAM, and that anything borderline doesn’t count), but for our purposes, this is as much context as we need. A BLAM is a scene which comes entirely out of nowhere, keeps its lack of context through its entire appearance, and then leaves with no bearing, impact, or even acknowledgement by the characters.
At this point, most of you are probably expecting that the rest of this post will go into further depth about how to avoid BLAMs in our writing, why we should avoid them … All the usual stuff. But no, we’re not actually doing that. For one, I feel that any reasons that could be offered for avoiding BLAMs are pretty self-explanatory. Second, actual BLAMs in literature seem pretty rare. Even the literature page on the TV Tropes page starts by referencing a number of them that only appear to be BLAMs but then gain some later context preventing them from being so. Actual BLAMs are thankfully, not exactly a common problem in literature. That isn’t to say that they don’t exist, but that they’re rare, and anyone reading this post, thinking about how they can improve their writing, isn’t like to fall into the trap of making a BLAM in the first place. At least not one that an editor wouldn’t spot and clean up, making something that wasn’t a BLAM.
With one exception. Those of you glancing back up at the title right now may have already guessed it, and where the true focus of this post lies. Because while books and writers as a whole do pretty well in avoiding scenes that are BLAMs, there is an area where something akin to a BLAM occurs a lot, especially among young writers, but with increasing regularity from works from published, established ones as well.
What is this area? BLAM character traits.
Let me explain what I mean, just so we’re clear. A “BLAM character trait” is a trend I’ve noticed in recent years cropping up in actual fiction of giving a character in a book or story a character trait or quirk that appears for a single scene, ostensibly to flesh the character out and give them more depth … but then much like a BLAM, has no actual bearing or context on the rest of the character, vanishes as quickly as it came, and is never mentioned again.
So it’s not a BLAM, because it’s not usually a scene (sometimes at best it’s a quick paragraph or two) but in other respects, it does fit the criteria for it, or at least come very close. It usually does have context, though not always. But after a single appearance, it vanishes and is never brought up or mentioned again, nor does it have any impact on the character or their behavior.
Let me offer an example of what I mean. Let’s say we have a character who, in one of their first appearances, makes a big deal about their coffee. They only want it a particular way, with a very exact order (millions of folks that worked in retail are right now feeling a collective shudder and bit of sympathy for anyone that deals with this character). This character wants their coffee a certain way, and they establish it needs to be that way.
Then the coffee is never brought up again. Oh, the character is put in plenty of situations where they order coffee, but none of what happened the first time ever comes up, from anyone. None of the behavior they demonstrated occurs again, there’s never a repeat of that early character moment. The entire scene is presented, carried out … and then in a manner similar to a BLAM, forgotten and never referenced again, even when the characters do engage in scenes and moments that should naturally bring it up.
In other words, what we’re talking about is inconsistent characters. Characters that despite being given traits, backstory, or specific quirks, never have those quirks come up again or emerge in any meaningful way. They appear, are presented to the reader … and then vanish, never to be heard from again or impact the story or character in any way, shape or form perhaps beyond the most banal (like specific coffee character ordering a coffee, though again, without any of the character coming through, does it really have any context?).
To be more precise (and clear up a possible misunderstanding), I’m speaking of primary characters here, not secondary or one-off characters. A one-off character crouched in a foxhole that the protagonist only interacts with the one time lamenting that they hate loud noises isn’t a BLAM character moment because that character is less a character and, if we’re honest, a prop for the scene. Just one we’re making human.
But a primary character? If they’re displaying character traits and attributes, said traits need to be more than just one-off moments that appear for a single scene in a book and never come up again. Or somewhat worse and almost insultingly, only come up at a climax when they’re suddenly relevant once more despite having had no appearance, function, or thought for the rest of the book.
They need to be part of the character. From start to finish. If our character has an addiction that they’re struggling to beat, then they need to be struggling with it over the course of the story. If their orders are always meticulously specific because they’re incredibly anal about the details, then we need to display that through the whole of the story with their behavior and actions. Not just mention it once and then forget it with the mindset of “I’m sure the reader will think of it through the story.”
Worse, in the last few years I’ve run across increasing numbers of stories that do exactly this, dropping a moment of “Here, have these character traits” on the reader, then ignore them or forget them either until the finale or worse, altogether.
So then if that’s the problem, what can each of us take away from this post to avoid it (and thus, in the theme of these articles, better our own writing)?
Well, it’s actually pretty simple: Don’t just drop character traits into a story and then never consider them again. If your character has a fear of puddles or an odd habit of humming old commercial jingles when they’re nervous, or sands, anything that defines them and makes up who they are, it needs to continue to define who they are. Little references, similarities to other aspects of their character. It should be part of who they are.
Now, I’m not saying you have to go overboard. We don’t need the alternative with “tortured reminders” of a “dark tragedy.” Or just constantly overbearing reminders of a character trope either. But if your characters have an aspect to them that is a part of who they are, it should appear more than just in a single mention, never to occur again.
Now, how you go about doing this can vary. Maybe you’ll need to set a sticky note on the side of your workspace with a reminder not to forget a character’s traits. Maybe during planning, you’ll set down parts of the story that will resonate with that trait so that it’ll be on display. Or maybe during editing you’ll specifically question the Alpha Readers if said trait was on display or acknowledged over the course of the story, checking for consistency with the character’s behavior.
Point being, you won’t forget that aspect of who your character is, and you won’t let the story forget it either. I’ll be more than a BLAM of character that appears without warning and then never matters again. You’ll craft something that is a part of who the character is. Something that not only matters to the story, but matters to the character.
And through them, it will matter to the most important individual of all: The reader. Well, or audience, whatever form that might take.
So take a look at your characters. Are you giving them any traits that exist to flesh them out, but then never once come up again? Could you rework what you’ve written to make them more apparent and give your character more depth? Or, moving forward, what can you do to give your character traits more of an impact?
Remember, a BLAM is a scene that comes out of nowhere, has no prior context, and then disappears with no impact or acknowledgement that it ever existed. They’re harped on in film and other forms of entertainment because they’re not great storytelling moments.
But don’t let your character traits become BLAMs. It’s not enough to have a character state something and then forget it, leaving it devoid of context for the rest of the story. Make them part of who the character is, not a signpost or a label that’s conveniently discarded, or even deliberately misplaced for the story to move on.
Remember who your characters are, and let that be them. No BLAM character traits. Living, breathing characters.
Good luck. Now get writing.
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5 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Big-Lipped Alligator Character Traits”
I’ve always looked at the whole “big lipped alligator” trope and thought one thing. Does NO ONE remember that the alligator shows up again at the climax of the movie? Heck he’s the one who offs the main villain for goodness sake.
Right, but the song and everything else about that scene didn’t have anything to do with that. Had the character just shown up and then come back later to kill off the villain, that’d be one thing, but instead there’s a song and dance number that contributes absolutely nothing, plotwise, characterwise, or elsewise, that is then NEVER acknowledged again and is bizarrely out of place. Years and years later, as an adult, I saw the scene and was shocked because I’d actually written it off as in another movie it was so bizarre.
Now, I won’t say Nostalgia Critic gets it right all the time, but that whole song and dance is really strange.
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My theory was that whoever was in charge, they probably just thought that moment would be fun and something the kids would enjoy.
There probably isn’t really much meaning behind why it happened. Someone just felt like putting it in there.
For me the term “padding” certainly does come to mind. Or perhaps it could have been because “Disney does song and dance, we need to as well.” And yes, certainly kids aren’t likely to complain, depending on the kid.
But it IS an odd bit of the movie. Certainly something that short of runtime padding could be cut with little fanfare.
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Might be worth noting that lot of people over-correct on this, too. Like with the coffee scene, sometimes writers will then go on to have the character throw a tantrum every time the mere mention of coffee comes up, which can be good for humour, but not so much in serious writing. Most of the problem seems to be that everyone tries to over-think and second-guess themselves on how exactly to replicate people in fiction.
Real people are often (not always) a lot more nuanced and subtle in the way they display things like that, and it leaks into other areas, too. Need to have your coffee an exact way? You might have a problem with a rigid schedule and how you like your food, too. Or you might be totally incongruous and confuse everyone else with your bizarre obsession with coffee alone, something that comes from that one time you had it a different way and ended up with a splitting migraine, possibly as a result of your addiction to caffeine. Something fun I like to think about is how sometimes people are aware of how… odd… these quirks are, sometimes making an effort to downplay it (and more often than not failing).
You really can always turn a BLAM around by giving it context. Main character usually isn’t that bad with coffee, but tried to get it how they wanted earlier, had a really bad day at work, and is now grumpy as a bear with a migraine. The post-it notes idea, on the other hand, is a great way of keeping track of traits meant to be consistent, though I usually just take the route of adding it into a character sheets file to lower the mess count. Can’t really see how you could forget something as important as a quirk you really wanted said character to have, but sometimes it happens. On the other hand, if you keep forgetting it then maybe it just doesn’t fit with that character.
You’d think more errors like that would get picked up in editing. Even if the writer is too new to catch it, the editor should at least have enough of a basic idea to see something’s wrong.
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