Before I began writing, I considered myself a fairly competent reader. What I mean by that is due to the critical thinking skills learned in junior high and high school, I felt comfortable reading a book and being able to pick apart what I liked and didn’t like. Simple as that.
This approached changed as I started writing and learning more about writing. This changed how I approached reading transitioning from employing two mindsets. Depending on what I’m reading, I’m either reading from a writer’s point of view, this is most of the time so I can learn, or purely from a reader’s point of view, usually for books I consider fluff and don’t want to ruminate on.
Because of this, I’ve picked up on certain patterns from my favorite authors employ. Some greatly annoy me, like trite plot lines, overused tropes, and various other tricks. Other patterns I’ve noticed are not limited to my favorite authors just stuff I’ve noticed in my overall reading selections.
One of my biggest grumbles is an author pulling a fast one toward the end of a book. An author whose work I really enjoy is Deanna Raybourn. She has a series set in Victorian times featuring Lady Julia Grey who works with her at times contemptuous husband to solve murders. I love these books yet I’ve noticed that in every one of Raybourn’s stories she has a tendency to throw in random subplots at the end. For example, in one of the Lady Julia Grey books, she is shot in the stomach and mentions as she is falling down that she’s worried about the baby. Um, what? When did this happen? There were no indications our main character was ever pregnant. No mentions of nausea, missed periods, corset being too tight, absolutely nothing. I’m not sure why Raybourn felt the need to throw this in there. It did nothing for the plot whatsoever. Unfortunately this isn’t limited to just Lady Julia Grey. In the book A Spear of Summer Grass , a minor character suddenly announces to the main character she is marrying another minor character because she had sex with yet another minor character which she regretted and this was her way to atone for that sin. Not that she loved either man. My first reaction was ‘So, what? Who cares about all these minor characters that I didn’t like anyway.’ It also didn’t do anything for that particular character’s development since she was essentially the same. It didn’t add to the main plot and if it was meant to commentate on societal expectations then it really didn’t need to be in there. We got plenty of that with the main character.
One of my favorite authors, Ken Follett, has a certain character trope that has popped up in quite a few of his books and that is the inclusion of a homosexual minor character. This isn’t bad and it’s great since he writes in a variety of time periods including various levels of society. Through those characters he is showing how homosexuality has been treated and expressed. The only time I thought it didn’t work or was necessary was in World Without End (a book I admittedly did not finish because it was a huge disappointment to me) because one of the main characters suddenly engages in a homosexual relationship when she enters a convent despite still being madly in love with her male lover. If this had been hinted at earlier in the book it wouldn’t have been so grating.
This next one is probably going to sound contradictory and perhaps it is, but it is a character trope that pops up in a good chunk of what I read. Naturally the burden is on me because I’m the one who picks books with this yet I do wish for something different. It’s the intelligent, plucky, usually bad-ass, lonerish female lead. I know why I’m drawn to those characters; a steady diet of strong, intelligent women who could take care of themselves without a man portrayed in many TV shows in the ’90s as well as in music and books. They were the answer to the other side of the spectrum of female leads whose entire world revolved around landing a husband, having children, and who weren’t allowed to possess a contradictory thought.
Now that I’m older, I appreciate seeing a different type of strong female. One that doesn’t have to literally kick ass like say Buffy the Vampire Slayer or who is a lone wolf. It’s okay to have a female lead fall in love. It doesn’t make her weak necessarily for wanting someone in life. It’s okay to have a female lead that isn’t necessarily blowing through the glass ceiling. It just depends upon the story.
Why the literary world can’t find some kind of consistent middle ground is beyond me. An example of a book I’ve read recently that I think tries to do this is Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall. Set in 1960s Mississippi, the protagonist is a nine-year-old girl who runs away from home to go live with her mother in Nashville. She hates her grandmother’s rules and rarely sees her father as he works on an oil rig most of the year. She hitchhikes and along the way a very fragile, frighten woman picks her up and takes her back to her home. This woman is married to an abusive tyrant and has no self-esteem whatsoever. Eventually she winds up accidentally killing him since he tried to kill the protagonist. She is devastated by this and wants to turn herself in. Eventually she is convinced not to but throughout the book she struggles mightily with depression and others around her have to work to get her to believe in herself and that she didn’t deserve the abuse she went through. By the end of the book the reader gets a sense that this vulnerable, some would say weak, woman is going to be all right.
I hope that by paying more attention to these patterns I can either avoid them in my own writing or feel free to experiment with a different type of character. With all the rules, advice, and sins of writing practically every book and, ahem, opinionated writer speaks about it makes me wonder how many well-known professional authors can get away with some of this. When an amateur writer violates the rules it supposedly reeks of weak writing. I guess the difference is if you are so-and-so making gobs of money for the publisher than you can get away with it.