Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Fiction Pet Peeves

I've been reading an awful lot of books lately, largely courtesy of the fact that I've just become a member of the local library. Hooray! Anyway, as it happens, a large number of these books have been great - and some have reminded me of my fiction pet peeves. As most of us are readers here, I expect you all know what I mean. Those tropes or tics that drive you crazy.

So here are three of mine.

1. Stupid characters

It's worth noting here that by 'stupid', I don't mean characters who are daft, or silly, or intellectually challenged, or just plain ordinary-in-terms-of-intelligence. These can all be charming and wonderful characters. I mean characters who are stupid. You know? The kind of stupid that makes you want to shake them and scream HOW CAN YOU BE SO STUPID?! in a non-endearing and non-fun way.

Example: in a book I recently started (which will go nameless because I'm not being entirely positive about it), the narrator actually put me off reading any more of the book. He was stupid in a bad way. He was specifically told, by a character we know to be sensible and good, not to do a certain thing and he was also told why. Five pages later? He does that very thing, and puts up only a token resistance. I'm sure this was a plot device, but it did nothing for the character's appeal. It just made me think 'I'm going to end up reading 400 pages of this guy doing stupid things like this, so no thank you'. Which was a shame, because the book was intriguing, quirky and unusual in premise - all things I love!

2. Ridiculous misunderstandings

Now I know the Misunderstanding is a feature of fiction as old as time, Greek myths and, you know, dinosaurs. I'm okay with misunderstandings. I even enjoy them when they're done right - in Harry Potter, for example, we frequently see characters tricked into believing something that isn't true.

What makes me grind my teeth and throw a book at the wall is the Ridiculous Misunderstanding. The one that is so far-fetched, or could so easily have been avoided, that it just leaves you feeling disgusted. Romeo and Juliet being a case in point. Or, worse, a book I recently read that I loved apart from the section with the Ridiculous Misunderstanding.

Boy sleeps with Girl. Both have been in love with each other for ages now. They're happy. Girl goes home to tell her fiance she can't be with him. Boy sends Girl a lovely necklace to show her how much she means to him. Girl receives necklace and thinks 'wtf? This means he's casting me off with a farewell trinket!' and is heartbroken. Does Girl bother to ask Boy what the necklace means? Does she even talk to him about it? No, of course not, because Misunderstandings are Cool. To make things worse, Girl then sends a message to Boy, through a friend, to say 'I am sailing to America with my fiance now, goodbye' and Boy thinks 'I've been used'. Does he chase after her to find out what the hell is going on? No, of course he doesn't, because Misunderstandings, dear readers, are Cool.

I could have broken something, I kid you not.

3. Deus ex machina

Latin for 'God out of a machine'. In other words, when all seems lost, an implausible and amazing coincidence or plot device appears to save the day. As a writer, I know that sometimes these are hard to avoid. Sometimes you really do need an amazing coincidence or a startling plot twist. But when an entire Final Battle is punctuated with them (I'm looking at you, JK Rowling, though I do love you apart from this tiny thing), it gets a bit much.

What annoys you in fiction? Do you share my pet peeves or do you disagree?


  1. Yes, I agree with you on the stupid characters... But I guess my dislike is more of the writer.
    Whenever the answer to "why did the character do..." is "to keep the plot going", you know there's an author who needs to meet their character in a dark alley.

    Ridiculous misunderstandings are ok by me so long as they don't take themselves too seriously (eg Molière), or so long as they have any degree of credibility. Outside of those circumstances... Well, the word narrative crutch comes to mind, alongside with bad story telling.

    One thing that not so much annoys me as disappointments me, is when a character is limited by the author's shortcomings. A character couched as a specialist in a given field fails to find the simple solution to the problems using his/her skills because the author isn't a specialist in the field and therefore didn't think of it; so instead you have a convoluted solution that the author is probably very happy to have thought of, but is kinda disappointing.

  2. That's true. I guess that's where research is key, because while it's unrealistic to become a specialist in every subject your characters know, it's still important to know enough to make that character credible.

    "Whenever the answer to "why did the character do..." is "to keep the plot going", you know there's an author who needs to meet their character in a dark alley." - Ha, that made me laugh! Very true, too. May I never be one of those authors! :-)

  3. Oh, I hate when people do that. If I wanted to read about stupid characters, I could just watch Fox News. Great post.

  4. I completely agree! Those three things drive me nuts, too. This is why I don't watch soap operas. When you put together a bunch of people who act stupid for no reason or have inconsistent characters, add the inability for them to understand one another at all even when things are obvious, and then toss in giant coincidences or nonsensical twists, all you get is a string of nonsense without engaging characters OR engaging plot. I might as well read the dictionary.

  5. But the crazy thing is, as you've noticed, a lot of books with garbage characterization and plot get published! Maybe editors are just so happy to get a submission that fits their genre and is grammatically correct, they figure some schmo will buy it if the cover looks good. I have been that schmo.

  6. VPLs - no not that - visible plot lines. TV is the worst offender. If a character sneezes in the first five minutes you just know that it's relevant. This is why I tend to steer clear of crime novels because these are hard to do and not show the structure. I feel like I'm reading with x-ray glasses on.

  7. Hi Sangu - The first and second one are both the absolute worst. I cannot/willnot tolerate those types of books. They drive me crazy! CRAZY. Totally agree.

    ps: I passed on the writing game to you.=D

  8. Ridiculous Misunderstandings either in films or in literature...grrr, hate them! Very perceptive post, my dear. xxx

  9. I HATE ridiculous misunderstandings! The problem is they're so common in books. When I can figure out a simple, easy, and painless way to solve the misunderstanding that the character never thinks of, it really frustrates me. *sigh*
    Great post. :)

  10. Ridiculous Misunderstandings are the worst! Good job on calling out Shakespeare on it, too. That gave me a chuckle.

  11. Stupid characters annoy me in books and in movies. Misunderstandings also brings to mind plot contrivances and when bad things just repeatedly keep happening to a character.

  12. I don't mind when characters make mistakes and grow from them, but when the stupid choices are blatant and feel forced (oh, this is the "dumb" character, time for more dumbness, hahaha!) that drives me nuts.

    I guess stereotypical characters, in general, annoy me, because they seem so one-dimensional. I like my heroes with a little tarnish and my villains with some complexity.

  13. A nice list you have here! I totally agree with most of your points, it really annoys me! Ridiculous misunderstandings should be resolved quickly or in my case, not so confusing to the reader. I wrote a post about my own fiction pet peeves, it includes some additional ones that you may not have talked about but I hope you will read and tell me what you think :)