These are the little – or big – things that get under your skin and ruin, or nearly ruin, the reading experience. While I trust must of us bookworms have our own reading pet peeves, in this post I’m going to share my top six. (Just to note, these are all my opinions based on my personal reading preferences and aren’t intended to criticize readers who do enjoy these elements.)
6. Love Triangles
I don’t immediately hate love triangles provided they’re not the plot’s principle support structure. (By way of example, I think the love triangle in The Hunger Games works because the books don’t hinge on it.) However, what I don’t like is when a love triangle is employed as a lazy way of inserting tension into a story and for no other reason. I sort of blame Twilight for reviving love triangle-based plots as love triangles in and of themselves aren’t contemporary inventions. While romantic drama can be compelling, there are other methods of generating tension and raising characters’ stakes. However, I sense the love triangle is the most convenient to use and the most popular to market. But that doesn’t mean I’m always in love with it.
5. Aimless Narratives
Most fiction can be divided into two basic categories regarding plot focus – action-driven narratives and character-driven narratives. As long as characters are given something to strive for or accomplish by the story’s end, then however an author elects to get there – by either focusing on physical action or character life events – is fine. But what irks me is when a story has characters do random stuff that ultimately leads nowhere. Aimless stories, for me, are the literary equivalent of A Tribe Called Quest’s song, “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” where a bunch of friends go on a road trip, come back, only for one of them to discover he’s lost his wallet…and that’s it. One of the most damning lines in the song is “We had no destination/we was on a quest,” but to quote the Rap Critic, “If you don’t have a destination, you’re not on a quest.” In other words, if you don’t know where you’re going or where you want to end up, then you can’t be on a search for an elusive something or someplace. In the same way, characters in a story need to have an end goal to accomplish or reach, but they can’t do that if they’re given nothing to do that leads up to it. And if a story ultimately has no point, then I see no point in reading it.
4. Flawless Hero/Too Flawed Hero
This pet peeve is two-sided. A flawless hero is akin to the “special snowflake” trope, a character in whom there are no discernible flaws. It’s hard to emotionally or mentally connect with a character who makes no mistakes or who is always right as that doesn’t generate a cathartic reading experience; so, I cringe when I encounter characters who are too good to be true. On the flip side, a too flawed hero is one who commits atrocities more befitting a villain. A hero should be flawed but not so flawed that he or she becomes despicable. For instance, in Jane Eyre, the titular protagonist starts off as a cold-hearted young girl, but in time she matures and forgives those who wronged her. Jane is flawed but her growth as a character and change of heart make her relatable, and her flaws aren’t so grievous that they transform her into a monster. In stark contrast, Thomas Covenant of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series is a flawed hero, but his biggest flaw (and it’s a BIG one!) is that he rapes a female character, skirts justice, and only feels a little remorse later on. Again, some flaws are forgivable and cause readers to be sympathetic to the character, but other flaws are just too deplorable to be forgiven.
3. Clueless Characters
Stupidity for the sake of comedy is fine, so I’m not against goofball characters in general. But what gets under my skin are characters who are stupid, not for the sake of making readers laugh, but because they genuinely are dumb and quite possibly TSTL (“too stupid to live”). These types of characters are more frustrating than funny as, while it’s okay for characters to make mistakes, readers still expect them to use some common sense.
Two characters I despise for their lack of brains are Bella Swan from the Twilight series and Nick from Gone Girl. Bella makes rash decisions devoid of any ounce of common sense, even for a teenager. From intentionally putting herself in harm’s way to establish a telepathic connection with her beloved Edward, to insisting on being turned into a vampire on a commercial jetliner, Bella is not the sharpest crayon in the box. Nick, on the other hand, is a despicable soul who engages in behaviors that to everyone else (including the reader) make no sense yet he’s supposedly smart. While sometimes he feels guilty for doing dunderheadish things, more often than not he’s not the one who reaches this conclusion. It’s usually someone else who has to wise him up to the fact that maybe some of his actions aren’t good ideas (such as having an affair after his wife is presumed to be missing and he’s the number one suspect). Clueless characters such as these are a wet blanket on any story and can quickly turn even a mediocre read into a definite DNF.
2. Sermon Disguised as a Story
Stories are stories and sermons are sermons, and it’s best not to mix the two as sermonizing always sacrifices story. In my view, writers should seek to tell a story first and foremost, and a message (if any) will implant itself naturally as the story inherently reflects the writer’s worldview. I’ve noticed that the two biggest sermons writers try to preach are either some type of social justice message or a “religion is evil” rant. Concerning the former, the most effective stories for me are those that don’t wear their intentions on their sleeves. Rather than preach about injustices, writers should pen a good, compelling story that pits characters against said injustices and gives them an admirable goal to reach. Focusing more on the characters and less on trying to preach a sermon makes for a more meaningful story.
Concerning the castigation of religion, it seems to me that any time religion is utilized in a story and it’s intended to be the “villain,” it’s almost always a form of Christianity. But that’s a horrible way to define an entire belief system. This is my biggest problem with the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman. I give The Golden Compass a pass because if you ignore the religion-bashing that comes later on, it’s honestly a fun adventure story. But The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass are nothing shy of anti-Christian propaganda. In contrast, Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu shows both sides of the religion coin as it paints a patriarchal Christian sect as flawed in terms of doctrine but contrasts it with Christian characters who live out correct Biblical teachings and a Christian church that correctly interprets and teaches Scripture. However, this is demonstrated through characters’ actions and interactions with others, not through long passages of exposition (read: sermonizing). When writers opt not to to preach a sermon or seek to demonize religion, they’re showing readers respect as their characters’ actions speak for themselves and, thus, readers exercise the right to draw their own conclusions rather than being spoon-fed a takeaway “moral.”
1. Dumped-in Diversity
Diversity is all the rage these days it seems, but I immediately go on high alert when an author touts how “diverse” his or her book is, slathering #WeNeedDiverseBooks or #OwnVoices all over the marketing because, for me, there’s a difference between a genuinely diverse book and a book of tokens. A diverse book puts another culture or ethnic group at the forefront and examines that group’s culture as inherently part of the story and, thus, doesn’t call attention to it. But when an author sprinkles “diverse” characters into a story – essentially employing token characters – that’s what I call dumped-in diversity as it’s inserted solely for the sake of appeasing a particular reading audience. In the end, usually the element making these characters “diverse” has no real bearing on the plot, so it feels like it’s there just because.
By way of example, Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees is set in the segregated South and features a White child being raised by three Black sisters. This novel doesn’t club readers over the head by touting how diverse it is; instead, the story showcases characters who just happen to be Black and White – no fanfare needed. What makes this a genuinely diverse book for me is that the characters’ backgrounds and cultures tie in with each other, their lives, their interactions with other characters, and the story as a whole. The Black (and White) characters aren’t tokens and no social justice message is preached as the characters take center stage and any messages about racism and the like are left to unfold organically in the background, respecting readers’ right to read as much, or as little, as they want into the story.
In contrast, Lady Midnight by Cassandra Clare inserts a plethora of “diverse” characters but their “diversity” never comes into play in terms of the actual story. One character, by way of example, is a Hispanic female Shadowhunter working among non-Hispanic Shadowhunters in a predominantly non-Hispanic cultural backdrop. But her background and culture are never relied upon to show how she approaches her line of Shadowhunter work as opposed to her non-Hispanic counterparts or even how she engages other people aside from occasional smatterings of Spanish to cement the fact she’s an ethnicity other than White. In the end, she becomes a smart-mouthed Latina stereotype and nothing is done in terms of trying to explore why her background is even remotely important to her interactions with others or her environment.
Other times, “diversity” is so blindly inserted that one would be hard-pressed to even determine what’s unique or different about the “diverse” characters in question. For instance, the lead female character in Fate of Flames by Sarah Raughley is supposed to be Black, but until reviewers pointed it out, I honestly couldn’t tell as nothing in the way this character conducts herself, talks, relates to others, etc. makes her “diverse” other than her skin color isn’t white. That’s not true diversity: that’s just “diversity” dumped in to appease certain readers who would be up in arms if the lead character was White. Similarly, I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest randomly inserts a gay character for no decipherable reason other than to assert the book is now “diverse” because it features a token gay (though I, personally, don’t consider the inclusion of gay or similarly classified characters as qualifying as “diverse”).
Therefore, dumped-in diversity is my number one pet peeve because, much like trying to use a story to preach a sermon, these narratives try to appeal to readers by touting that they’re hip to the whole social justice/”diversity” scene when really all it’s a cover for is a thinly veiled lecture about inclusion, tolerance, acceptance, etc.
I, personally, don’t feel we need “diverse” books. What we, as readers of all ages, need are stories with heroic characters who display, not so much “diversity,” but classic virtues such as integrity, compassion, courage, hope, and selflessness that cross cultural lines. These, more so than having social justice sermons crammed down our throats, will have a far more lasting impact on personal character and make for far more meaningful, edifying reads.