Classic Being a Better Writer: Most Popular Edition

Merry Christmas, writers! This week’s Being a Better Writer is not a new installment, but rather a revisit of some old classics. Since, you know, it’s Christmas and I am most definitely on my break. Which after getting Starforge out on time, I’m going to enjoy.

Now, before I dive into things, I do want to stress that Starforge has just come out. If you’re looking for a last-minute Christmas gift for that Sci-Fi loving reader you know, you can grab that first book in the trilogy for a pretty low price. You can get the whole trilogy for that matter, if you just click this link.

Anyway, that’s all the shilling I’ll do today. Promise. The rest of this post is about writing! Though some of you may find it a bit familiar, since it will be a selection of classic posts.

But maybe not. If you’re new, or missed a week, perhaps this will be the first time you’ve ever seen these posts! For this year’s holiday vacation installment of Being a Better Writer, I thought I’d peer back through time and see what the most popular BaBW post of each year was.

That’s right. We’re going to gaze into the past and see what the most read Being a Better Writer post was out of several years across the site’s seven-year history! So sit back, grab yourself a cup of hot chocolate, put on your fuzzy reindeer slippers, and let’s take a look together at some classic blasts from the past! Hit the jump!

The #1 Being a Better Writer Post of 2021: Worldbuilding from Maslow’s Hierarchy

Huh. Who knew? I certainly didn’t. But 2021’s top Being a Better Writer post is a discussion on using Maslow’s Hierarchy to worldbuild. This post, as noted in its own text, was fully inspired by a panel I was on in 2021’s LTUE covering the same topic, which just goes to show that LTUE has something to teach everyone, from the newest writer to the seasoned veteren.

Anyway, it’s a fine post, and you can check out an excerpt below, followed by a link to the full post. Now grab hold of the Ghost of Christmas Past—who’s running an Uber to make ends meet—and dive further back in time!

Now, minor aside. I’m not saying that Tolkien’s fantasy was bland or bad. Nor that all Fantasy that takes a similar track is to be decried. But it is, well, familiar. It’s the road well-traveled, so familiar that the beats, bends, and potholes aren’t just familiar to most readers, but memorized. And it’s hard to create a sense of fresh wonder when the reader is so familiar with “fantasy kingdom of elves #3” that they could sketch it on their own before the character ever arrive.

“But wait!” some may say! “Don’t civilizations gravitate toward similar solutions to naturally occurring demands and problems like leadership? Doesn’t that mean that it’s fine to have ‘fantasy kingdom #4’ in my story?”

Well yes … but also no. See, that’s kind of making a halfway step. It’s also forgetting something extremely important to the development of any fantastical place you’re building up:


See, here’s the thing. While mankind—and as near as we can tell, sapient beings—will naturally move toward solutions to problems, trials, or issues … the way in which they solve those issues can vary greatly.

And this is where Maslow’s Hierarchy comes into play, or can, with your worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding from Maslow’s Hierarchy

The #1 Being a Better Writer Post of 2020: Flanderization

Another surprise. I didn’t realize how popular this post was the year it came out, but it nearly doubled the views of the next highest BaBW post that year.

Flanderization, if you recall—or for the first time if you never saw this one—is a term given to characters that “devolve” over time through sequels or seasons, becoming more and more exaggerated and/or one-note. Amusingly enough, this post was also written after an LTUE, though I don’t believe the topic was inspired by the con. It just released around that time. If I see three for three in 2019, I’ll start to call it pattern, but for now, check out the excerpt, hit the link, and then rev the engine on your DeLorean because we’re heading further back still!

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.


The #1 BaBW Post of 2019: The Five-Man Band

Hey! This one was several weeks before LTUE! Pattern not there! And … dang. This post was huge. That’s probably because it was discussing a popular trope that a lot of readers still do want to learn about. I say still do because this year, three years later, this installment of Being a Better Writer remains one of the most popular and frequently viewed articles on the site, beaten only by a piece on commissions/popularity writing and—of course—the ever popular breakdown on Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic.

Definitely a classic post. Take a look below, hit the link, and then bribe Einstien to send you another year back down the timeline with a chronoshift, because next up is—

Now, hopefully you’ve heard this term bandied about before. You likely have, especially if you’re someone who follows the games industry, where “Five-Man Band” seems to be tossed around with regularity. At least, a bit more regularity than I see it used when discussing books.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a valid term to understand or use. To the contrary, I feel it’s a very useful term to understand regardless of what you’re writing because of what it illustrates and brings to the forefront.

But that’s getting ahead of things. Let’s jump back to the start for a moment so that we can make sure everyone’s on the same page, and talk about what the Five-Man Band is first.

So, what’s the Five-Man Band? It’s an archetype collection.

And some of you just glazed over, so let me try that again. What I mean by that is that the “Five-Man Band” is a trope name given to a collection of characters, each one fitting a role or mold that naturally compliments the other four. Sort of a “five parts become one whole” idea, but extended to a team of characters. Often seen any sort setting where you have a team that gathers together for one purpose or another, fictional or real, the Five-Man Band is basically an observation on types of team members and roles that work well together in a number of ways, both narratively (five characters is an easy number to follow) and in-universe.

The Five-Man Band

The #1 BaBW Post of 2018: Sympathetic Villains

This one makes a lot of sense.

People love villains. As much as we love our protagonists, we acknowledge that they’d not nearly be so memorable without foes to stand up against. In retrospect, given the hubbub of the year this post was written I’m not surprised that it was the most popular post. 2018 saw, at least in the circles I was part of, a lot of discussion about villains. And with that came a lot of misconception as well. Misconception that I still recall writing this post in part to help clear up. Which ended up being such an undertaking that a follow-up post was required to further clarify a few details that some readers were still left questioning about.

But this was the year of people talking about villains, so it’s no surprise to me that this post was the most popular of 2018’s long list (and in fact, it to this day remains a fairly popular pathway to the site for many). Check out the excerpt, hit the link, and then politely ask for a seat next to the Time Traveler for our final jaunt into—

… are a mistaken understanding.

Okay, that’s a strong statement as a lead-in for today’s post, but it has merit! Welcome back to Being a Better Writer, the weekly writing guide post where we discuss, well, writing topics of all kind.

Today’s topic, Sympthetic Villains, is another request topic. It’s also a topic that I knew would inspire a bit of controversy when I tackled it, particularly among newer writers, because of the amount of misunderstanding I’ve seen concerning it. Misunderstanding that comes from, unfortunately, the name itself and the oft-mistaken misuse of two similar but different words: sympathy … and empathy.

See, a lot of people use the former when they mean the latter. And, to be fair, the two share similar meanings. Sympathy is defined firstly as “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune,” and empathy is defined as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”

Sympathetic Villains

The #1 BaBW Post of 2017: Horizontal and Vertical Storytelling

Yet another post that to this day remains one of the more popular avenues to the site for many, this post from 2017 about horizontal and vertical storytelling—and what all that means—drew a lot of eyeballs back then as well. Understandably, since while not the most common method of referring to a story, some reviewers, critics, or writers do still use the term, and the average person has no idea what they’re referring to.

This post set out to answer that persistent puzzlement. And, given that it still picks up likes and hits to this day, must have done a good job. Check out the excerpt below, repeat history with a link click, and then—

Today, we’re going to discuss horizontal and vertical storytelling: what they are, what they mean, how they work, how they differ, and of course most importantly how you can use them in your work.

Now, I’m going to warn you. What you read here may not line up 100% with what you’ve read or heard elsewhere. Why? Because people disagree on some of these terms and what they mean, probably as a result of their background in English. Suffice it to say, in doing research on this topic to keep myself straight, I found articles and discussion pieces that flat-out disagreed with one another about what was assigned—or perhaps a symptom of—each axis. Translation? There’s a little leeway here, and if you find yourself thinking “Well yeah, but I heard that …” well, you probably did. Far as I’m aware there isn’t some set-in-stone version of what we’re about to talk about, just one that’s a little general, the result being that some argue a particular facet of a story belongs on one axis while others argue that it belongs on another.

So then, with that warning in mind, let’s begin, starting with the very basics: What am I talking about when I say “Horizontal and Vertical storytelling?” How can a story be horizontal or vertical? Isn’t that a position?

Horizontal and Vertical Storytelling

Boom. We’re back in 2022. Though not for much longer, as the Earth for now keeps spinning.

I hope you enjoyed this look back down memory lane, and I also hope you have a very Merry Christmas, a wonderful holiday period, and a Happy New Year. It’s been a long and tough 2022, but we all made it.

Merry Christmas readers. I’ll see you soon for 2023.

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