Hello and happy Wednesday!
Last week, I wrote about my favorite story tropes to find in fiction. On the list were things like tournaments, bantering friends, and villain redemptions. You can find that post here.
While I was writing about things I enjoyed, I thought of some story elements I don’t like. Things that will at least annoy me, and possibly even cause me to close the book. Things I’d really like to see vanish from fiction. My pet peeves of story.
Most of the time, I don’t have very strong opinions about books or movies. At least when it comes to negative aspects. There are very few stories that I actively dislike, and even when there is something I don’t especially care for, I won’t rant about it. I’ll probably acknowledge it if the opportunity is right, but not much beyond that.
However, there are a few things that bother me enough to talk about, and today I thought I’d share them. Everyone has different opinions, and I hope to hear about your less-than-favorite things to see in stories, as well!
“What Else is There?”
I’ll start with the pet peeve I mentioned in last week’s post, and that has to do with romance. I’m pretty neutral when it comes to romance in stories. I don’t have anything against it, and I also don’t seek it out. If it’s well-done, I enjoy it, and if it’s not…well, then I definitely don’t. And there are actually a lot of things that count as not well-done for me.
What bothers me most is when a romantic relationship develops for the wrong reasons. I think of the 1994 animated movie The Swan Princess as an example of this. In the beginning of the movie, two royals from different kingdoms agree to betroth their son and daughter. Through the years, as they grow, Odette and Derik despise each other, as young boys and girls tend to, when forced to spend time together.
However, as Odette grows from an awkward young girl to a beautiful young woman, Derek’s feelings change. Suddenly he’s eager to spend time with her. One night he proposes to her, praising her beauty. Odette seems pleased, then asks him why else he wants to marry her. After a sickeningly long pause, in which those around try to warn him, Derek slowly answers, “…what else is there?”
Odette is not pleased. And neither is anyone else watching the miserable display. Now, I really don’t mind The Swan Princess, and this scene in the movie allows for some fantastic character growth later on. But it’s a great example of something I don’t like to see in fictional – or real! – romances.
In order for me to root for character relationships, I need to see why they are a good match. I need to see them actually get to know one another, actually care for one another, and actually fall ‘in love’, not just be attracted to one another.
Along those lines, I can’t stand when one or both of the characters treat the other horribly. I will not consider it a victory when two characters end up together and their interactions toward each other are less than admirable. I’m not saying I expect them to be perfect – far from it – but they need to be trying. The “Well, I’ve got them now, so I can treat them like trash” attitude is one of the quickest ways to alienate me from the story.
And last but not least, I much prefer if romances are slow in coming. Show me the characters getting to know one another for a while, before you show them pursuing romance. How often do you feel you want to marry someone after seeing them once? Not often, I’d imagine, and yet I’ve seen it in too many stories to count. Real life isn’t so fast, so I prefer if fiction isn’t either. Real love takes time.
“Distressed Damsel or Warrior Woman?”
Another thing that has always bugged me is when a main female character is an extreme. Growing up, I saw a lot of the ‘damsel in distress’ characters; women or girls who were pretty, but helpless and not very bright. That bothered me, mostly because I’ve grown up around women who are incredibly beautiful, strong, and intelligent. I could never understand why fiction should be so different from real life.
More recently, there’s been an explosion of the opposite end of the spectrum. Suddenly it feels like the world is saying that the only way to be strong is to look and act like a man. But that’s not true. Women are strong and brave and amazing in their own way. They don’t need to be invincible warriors with crazy physical strength, refusal to show emotion, and a knack for making all the men around them look foolish.
Either extreme upsets me greatly. I’ve yet to meet a real women who fits either one, and I really wish there were more female characters in fiction that acted realistic. I want to see female characters that accept and embrace their femininity, and are therefore strong, caring, clever, and talented in all their own ways. Real women are nuanced, and usually a lot more balanced in how they act. I’d love to see that in fiction.
Actually, an example that I love is Rapunzel from Disney’s 2010 Tangled. I really appreciate the spin that was put on the typical helpless blonde princess. Rapunzel is sweet, naïve, and unafraid to show her real emotions, and she’s also clever, determined, and talented. She definitely needs help, and when it comes, she accepts it gladly, but she also doesn’t hang in the back and let others do everyone for her. She does her own fair share of the work. She’s one of my favorite fictional characters.
While I respect that every character is different, just as every human is different, they should always be nuanced, developed, and realistic.
“He’s dead. Why…?”
Another of my fiction pet peeves is shock-value violence or character deaths. What I mean by this is when a major character is suddenly killed off, or a building blows up, or a agonizing plot twist appears out of nowhere – only there’s no good reason for it.
Now, I’m all for conflict, disasters, and plot twists that make me gasp. But not when that’s the only reason for them. In other words, it bugs me when an author decides to kill off one of the favored characters or blow up a bus full of children, just to get a reaction from the audience. To me, that’s not gripping, it’s irritating.
If that side character I love is going to suddenly get hit by a car, or executed by the villain, there better be a good reason. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Maybe they really are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it should have an important bearing on the plot and the protagonist, and not just be the author gleefully throwing knives at favorite characters to upset readers.
They’ll definitely upset me. Only it will not result in me enjoying the story or recommending it to others. Instead, it will probably lose my respect for the book, movie, or TV series.
Show me how the disaster flows naturally from the plot and I’ll accept it, and likely agree that it’s good for the story. But I’ve never cared for disasters or violence thrown in just for shock-value. Which is probably why I don’t usually care for mainstream action movies.
“There are Children Present!”
Along those same lines, the fastest way to make me close a book or stop a movie is to use foul language. Swearing, in any form, is a huge pet peeve of mine. It’s not necessary, it doesn’t add anything but nastiness to a story, and it prevents me from enjoying it thoroughly.
I think it’s very sad how cautious families need to be now, when trying to find a story everyone – even littles – can enjoy. Too often, my family has started a movie and been very disappointed by the vulgar words sprinkled throughout the otherwise perfectly good story. It’s like finding a diamond when we find a well-written and entertaining story that is also completely clean.
I’ve heard multiple arguments for how language makes it ‘realistic’ or ‘more tense’. But I just don’t think it’s necessary. There are far better ways to show a character is upset than by spouting off swears. No one will ever be jarred from the story by lack of vulgar language, but a lot of people will when it’s present. If someone truly wants as many people as possible to be engaged in their story, why alienate a large audience by fouling it up?
This goes for other non-child appropriate content as well. Whether it’s excessive violence, gore, explicit adult scenes, or ‘just’ language, I’m not a fan. I understand wanting stories to be realistic, because unfortunately, those things exist in real life. But for me, it all comes back to Philippians 4:8, and not allowing my mind to dwell on things that are impure.1
Not all stories should be about unicorns and candy corn clouds (should any of them?), but it’s definitely possible to produce good, impactful, and realistic stories without using any, or at least excessive, impure content. I’d personally love to see way more of those clean stories.
Well, those are four of my biggest pet peeves in fiction. When a book, movie, or show uses any of these, chances are I won’t be sticking around to finish it. And when a story is miraculously void of them and has a good plot, I’ll probably watch or read it numerous times.
What are YOUR least-favorite things to find in fiction? Go ahead and let me know in the comments below. I look forward to hearing from you!
1. ‘Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.’ – Philippians 4:8 NIV