I spend a lot of time in this column focusing on the positive; I decided some time back that I would rather promote the books I like than rip apart the books I don’t. But the fact is, I don’t like every book I read. I read primarily for pleasure, and I’m usually pretty good at picking out books I’ll enjoy. But sometimes, one slips by—and it often does so because it hits upon one of my literary pet peeves.
There are some things that, when they’re present in works of fiction, always manage to irritate the hell out of me. I think every reader has them, and they’re unique and particular to each of us. But you know, today I’m sick of focusing on the positives. Today, I’d like to vent about the things that annoy me.
Wimpy Female Characters
Probably my biggest pet peeve is wimpy female characters; it’s probably the main reason I’ve railed against the Twilight series so often. That doesn’t mean that every female character has to be some super-human, butt-kicking superhero, a la Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Xena. But it does mean that I prefer to read about women who are strong-minded, independent, and, above all, have a strong sense of self. I never had a problem with the fact that Bella wasn’t as strong or as durable as her vampire or werewolf friends; based on the premise of that story, she couldn’t have been. What bothered me was that she spends three books belittling herself in comparison to the wonderful, amazing, fantastic Edward, only to discover her sense of self worth after she’s turned into a vampire.
Even in books where the sense of characterization is more nuanced than it could ever hope to be in the Twilight series, wimpy females still annoy me. Yeah, I get that not every female in the world is strong-minded and independent, but it doesn’t mean that I want to read about them.
It’s not just in books, either. Last night I was watching the movie version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, and it struck me how much the Christine character annoys me. She doesn’t make the connection between her “Angel of Music” and the Phantom. Then she waffles between Raoul and the Phantom. Gerard Butler was incredibly hot as the Phantom, murderous streak or no. I just couldn’t figure out what he saw in drippy Christine.
Gay Characters Who Are Only Gay
I’m all about inclusiveness. My fiction can include characters of different sexual orientations, it’s all good. But one thing that bothers me is when a story includes a gay character just for the sake of including a gay character. In the types of books I read, this person generally appear as the over-the-top male best friend, whose sole purpose in the story seems to be to use the world “fabulous” to excess and critique everyone’s clothing. I remember a young adult novel that was a particularly egregious offender, but I’ve definitely seen this in adult romance novels. Not to mention all the romantic comedy films that abuse this stereotype to excess.
This bothers me for two different reasons. One, I know a lot of gay people in real life. They are not “just” gay any more than a straight person is “just” straight. They are, surprise surprise, as complex and nuanced as anyone else. Second, as a writer myself, I object to unnecessary characters. If a character is a named, noted character in the story, he or she should be DOING something—not just providing color commentary.
I think one of the reasons I’m hesitant to write historical fiction—even though I love history and do read historical fiction regularly—is because I’m afraid of creating one of my own pet peeves: the dreaded anachronism. I remember reading one of R.L. Stein’s teen horror novels when I was a kid. The prologue was supposed to take place in 1960. One of the characters said he was supposed to be going to a Beach Boys concert that night. Too bad Stein didn’t count on the fact that I was an obsessive Beach Boys fan, and I knew for a fact the Beach Boys weren’t even formed until 1961. It tainted the whole book for me. (Of course, I realize that R.L. Stein hardly represents the pinnacle of horror fiction, but still.)
Wikipedia and Google are an author’s best friend. In this day and age, there’s no excuse for casual errors like that.
The Time Traveler’s Wife is one of my favorite books, and I’ve said so here on CC2K more than once. But one minor inconsistency always irritated the hell out of me: late in the book, the wrong age is given for a minor character. It made me pick apart other things about the story, like how in the prologue Henry says something about traveling 50 years into the future. Later in the book, Henry mentions that he’s never traveled into the future beyond his lifetime. It’s possible that this changed later in the story, but still. In a narrative as complex as this one, it’s understandable that there might be little inconsistences…but it still irritates the hell out of me. Even though I said The Time Traveler’s Wife is one of my favorite stories, this minor oversight is usually the first thing I think about when I think of it.
Editing, editing, editing—it’s important.
Writing that takes me out of the story
I am not a careful reader. I read fast, and I tend to miss things. So if the writing is bad enough to take me out of the story, it must be really, really bad. I like to think of writing as the ocean, and the reader is in a boat. Bad writing equals choppy water. And when I’m in choppy water, I tend to get seasick.