Monday, May 16, 2011

A Writing Rant: Cliches you may have never noticed.

I suspect that this, at the end of the day, qualifies as a rant. But it's a rant about writing, so I think this makes for an acceptable blog post. Comment if you think it doesn't.


I live in a family of readers. We tend to write TV episodes as we watch them on television. Obviously, we record everything, otherwise we'd never hear a word. Sometimes, the writers out-think us, sometimes we like our endings better than the ones on the screen. And then, sometimes, we catch only an image, and we sigh, and we know exactly where everything starts to go downhill...

Have you ever wandered into a TV show, and without knowing anything of the story thus far, a mere thirty seconds can tell you more than you wanted to know? In fact, you know so much from that brief glance, you can, without any hesitation, write the entire episode?

This is pretty much how it goes in our house whenever we see almost any Christian clergyman on television. If it's some sort of religious figure, he's the murderer / pederast / psycho / bad guy. In fact, if there's a guest star who shows up as a priest, the only way my family is surprised is if the priest is not guilty of something. Also, if there's a choice between an old-fashioned, grouchy priest, and a hip, young good-looking priest filled with charisma, we know whodunit—the old guy, because killers are never charismatic, are they?

Now, unless someone can correct me, this rule only applies to some variety of Christian group, but, more often than not, it's a Catholic priest. Even on the television show 24, where Muslims terrorists were involved (literally) every other season for the first six years, no Imams were involved. I have never seen a Rabbi involved in a crime anywhere on television.

Under the heading of “these and other stupid things,” there are some interesting facts.


Despite what the average conspiracy theorist likes to spin, priests have a fairly good record, behavior-wise. Within the last ten years, The New York Times came up with an interesting number: 100. One hundred is the number of priests who have been guilty of abusing children. Not over the course of a decade or two, but over the previous SIXTY YEARS. So, one-hundred priests over the course of sixty years have been sick, twisted freaks, out of a NATIONAL population of over a hundred and nine thousand.

In 2004, John Jay did a study, and their number was: 4%. That's the number who were accused of sexual abuse. Of those allegations, 3% ended in a guilty verdict. 3%

So, many were exonerated. But, let's assume that some were never reported, because some aren't. So, let's assume these two numbers cancel each other out, and stick with 10,667.

Hmm.... wait, in nine years, public school teachers have abused twenty-nine times the number of children than an entire profession of priests over the course of sixty years?

On average, abusive priests have been accused of going after 810 kids per year, but the public schools have assaulted 32,000 per annum …

Wow, Catholic Conspiracies? Really? Rome has nothing on the teachers union.

So, if we use the number of the NYTimes, there have probably been more abusive priests on television than in real life. I say probably because I've only seen a few dozen on television, and because I will use a power drill on my temple before I watch another episode of Law & Order: SVU.  Certainly, though, the per capita count on tv is higher than in real life.

I must have missed all of those episodes where they went after teachers. Oh well.


Fun fact: since the Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade, there have been a grand total of six abortionists assassinated in the United States.

Which means there have been more abortionists killed on the twenty year run of the original Law & Order than there ever were in real life.

And the amusing part is that all of the abortionists are so good, so pure, and so virtuous, that there was no other conceivable reason that anyone would want to kill them. In real life police investigations, the first step is that you look for at the significant other for your murderer. Why? Because, more often than not, that is the murderer. Cop shows will, occasionally, follow inquiries along this line.

But, nope, you can't have it happen like that when it's an abortionist? Really? Just once, I want an abortionist on television to be murdered by his ex-wife or something. Current wife? Girlfriend? Wife and girlfriend? No one is so perfect that the only people on the planet Earth who would want to kill him/her is a right-wing violent psychotic.


I don't know what it is with British television (not just the BBC), but, recently, I watched through a whole slew of British mysteries and stories, etc. After a while, I started to get the odd notion that the British have the strangest obsession with being gay. From the murder mysteries of Inspector Morse to the science fiction of Dr. Who, and the list seems interminable.

Original statistics showed that 10% of the population had some sort of homosexual sex.

When they stopped polling the prison system exclusively, the number averaged out to about 1% of the population.

By my count, there have been more gay characters in all of British cinema than have ever been born.

And that's another problem I've had, as far as murder mysteries and cop shows are concerned. Notice that my formula about real life murders was generally gender-vague. Gay, straight, bi, whatever, most people are murdered by murdered by their nearest and dearest.

In fiction, the victim is murdered by anyone, as long as they are not gay. And no one will ever consider suggesting that they did it. This strikes me as mildly offensive. What sort of homophobe will declare that a gay person is innocent because they're gay? Isn't that just a sort of passive bigotry? "Oh, you're the obligatory gay character, you can't have committed this brilliant murder." What? Wait? Really?


Why do I mention any of this? Because cliches are tiresome, and boring, and for the love of God, can't anyone come up with an original idea? There are only so many times I can see the same plot recycled through the same unoriginal scripts. If real life were like television, abortionists should collect hazard pay, every priest should be arrested immediately on suspicion, and half of everyone is gay, and are so pure and virtuous that they've never perpetrated a crime.

I'm not approving clergy child abusers, or assassinations of abortionists, nor am I condemning gays for being so. However, if you spend more than five minutes on someone being gay in a plot, you better have a damn good reason for it; I fast forward through “straight” romance subplots unless it's relevant, why should I care that two guys are making out in the corner?

I don't want Barry Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby in collars, but damnit, I'm tired of writers who are so brain damaged that the only way they can think to bring in a priest on television is to make them the villain.

And, please, can someone on television murder mysteries kill an abortionist because his wife caught him cheating on her?

In A Pius Man, I take pride on the fact that I take every cliché I can think of about the Catholic Church, and I turn it on its head.

I have a mysterious priest in the background, and he seems to have combat training. Hmm … he's got pale skin and silver hair, does that qualify as an albino?

I have a violently, borderline right-wing African Pope who is Atilla the Hun, and who uses the line “by any means necessary” more than a few times. Could he be a villain?

I have a violent, borderline psychopath that the Vatican has hired. That can't be good, can it?

I have a shifty-looking Cardinal, he up to something?

Does the head of Papal Security have to come head to head with the Pope? Maybe even arrest him?

The answers shake out to a yes or two, a few no answers, and a maybe. You can't trust anyone in my book, but you can't automatically conclude that they're the villains.

Nothing is obvious, even if everyone is dangerous.


Strike back below. However, anything above PG-13 language will get you deleted. I don't care if your point is brilliant, if you use one, just one, word that would offend network television, I will delete you. I dislike having to use this statement, but prior events have made it necessary.


  1. On religious figures, two points:

    1. It's not exclusively Catholic priests. Try looking at shows with prominent Protestant clergy--especially a televangelist. Charlatans, child molesters, adulterers, bunco artists, and let's not forget the periodic bouts of homicidal rage toward gays. Negative portrayals of Catholic priests do tend to follow familiar, cliched lines--but they're not the only Christian clergy being portrayed negatively on American TV.

    2. You have overlooked a small but significant minority of portrayals, which I personally find as irritating as the negative ones--what I call the "magical clergyman." This is the kindly old priest, the wise minister, or the hip young clergyman who dispenses sage advice when the hero is having a crisis, and who never seems to have flaws of any kind (or much in the way of a personality outside his interactions with the hero). The magical clergyman acts as a mysterious but helpful direct conduit to the divine and may or may not have supernatural powers. If the clergyman is black, you get double cliche points.

  2. Um... can I comment if I *do* think it's an appropriate blog post? :)

    Seriously, I'm still looking for the magical statistic that convinces anyone. No matter where it comes from, because I'm Catholic, you can't believe it. Also, even if you do use stats that are deemed worthy, they turn around and point out that statistics are meaningless. Just because *one priest* did anything like that, means that we are irredeemably evil. It doesn't matter what's happened since then. It doesn't matter how good our behavior is now. That it happened at all is a crime and an offense, and we will be doing penance for it, forever. While the actual victims are used, discarded and offered up to the actual predators who devour them under the color of the law. To make matters even worse, they are trying to legalize it, properly by making paedofelia a 'sexual orientation'.

    You can't trust child advocacy organizations paid for by the church of Molock. Yet so many people feel virtuous for their blind hatred, that blinds them to a greater scandal and a self perpetuating injustice.

    So we repented. No good deeds go unpunished, eh?

    Priests are another issue. I'm afraid we have to blame GK Chesterton for the "awesome holy priest" stereotype. I enjoy it, because it is a welcome diversion from the New Butler. "Before they hated you, they hated Me." Admittedly, I like "Ordinary" better. Too bad it's probably in permanent hiatus.

    My priestly novel set in Greece during the riots was supposed to be a slightly nerdier than average yet none the less flawed put into a difficult situation and yet exhibits extraordinary heroism. Because frankly, it's not just priests. You see the same dynamic going on with heroes in general in fiction. I read some Harry Harrison (not Stainless Steel Rat) and was refreshed and revitalized. Why, his heroes have characteristics in common with the rest of us!

  3. Response to 1: Catholics have all that visual imagery that helps instantly identify them as Religious Nutjobs. I was just at a Protestant wedding last week, the first Protestant ceremony I've been to since converting nearly two decades ago. It was extremely weird to see the pastor in a suit and tie up there by the altar. Why, if it were TV, we'd never know he was a Religious Nutjob.

    And since the TV writers are already lazy enough not to look up real-life statistics, we know they're lazy enough to go for the visual identification. Based on TV and movies, you'd think the US had a Catholic majority.

    Response to 2: Declan's talking about negative and obviously-false (assuming you spend five minutes on the Internet) portrayals. I don't know about him, but I'll reserve the cliche you talk about for a separate rant.

    Mind you, it's not much of one, at least the way you describe it -- dispensing spiritual advice is kind of their job description. You might as well complain about doctors not having a purpose beyond patching up a hero's wounds. The issue isn't so much one of cliches as it is layered writing; that is, a writer must always ask if the character has a purpose beyond this one scene.

  4. I can think of exactly one episode of a Cop Show where it turned out that a gay character had been murdered by his lover--it was an episode of Life, and the ending was a genuine twist, because we were supposed to believe that it was the straight white man who had made disparaging remarks about gays.

    What made it even more astonishing is that the murderous lover was having an affair with a woman and the two of them planned it together, including framing the red herring character.


Please, by all means, leave a message below. I welcome any and all comments. However, language that could not make it to network television will result in your comment being deleted. I don';t like saying it, but prior events have shown me that I need to. Thanks.