Sunday, December 18, 2011

Literary Devices I'd Like to Put on the Naughty List

Most fiction is based on stereotypes. Stephen King has admitted to using them as a template and fleshing them out as he writes the story (though I would argue he's not working so hard at that these days). But King isn't the only offender and the list of clich├ęs (old and new) grows ever longer. Here are the latest ones to make my hit-list.

Hiding Information From the Main Character "For Their Own Good."

This is one that has been around forever. I can remember reading "Pawn of Prophesy" by David Eddings and, though I loved it, I could never understand why keeping Garion in the dark was somehow protecting him. I still don't understand the logic. Recently I tried to read a YA novel that drove me nuts with this. The main character kept running toward the things she should have been avoiding simply because everyone was keeping a deep, dark secret from her. That wasn't the only thing wrong with the book (by a long shot) but it was a huge irritant. Harry Potter is also a big offender when it comes to this. I understand the need to parcel out information to keep the mystery alive, but it never made sense to keep Harry uninformed in my opinion (I understand the Voldemort-has-a-psychic-connection-with-Harry thing, but that was a later contrivance). I didn't like "The Order of Phoenix" the first time I read it for this reason-- though I have developed an appreciation for it upon rereading.

The Overly Evil Villain

Casual cruelty seems to be the thing in fiction these days. Once upon a time the stereotpyical villain would rub his hands with glee or twirl his mustache. Now they randomly shoot their henchmen and murder anyone else unlucky enough to cross their path. Curiously a lot of villains I've run across lately look a lot alike too-- dark hair, widow's peak, aristocratic looking etc. I also see this in the female villains too-- only they tend to be exceedingly vain (like Snow White's stepmother) and/or use their sexuality to manipulate others before they start with the random violence.

Large Doses of Sarcasm

This is a big thing in paranormal and YA fiction. It's probably the main reason I have a huge DNF (did not finish) pile of books. If we're dealing with a YA protagonist the set-up usually involves a kid that has lost a parent, moved around a lot, and/or been relentlessly bullied at school-- naturally they have developed a defense mechanism based mostly on sarcasm. In the paranormal genre it's frequently the female lead that feels the need to deliver a host of snarky one-liners, usually to her oh-so-gorgeous male would-be love interest. I complain about sarcasm in popular fiction a lot these days, but the overload of sassy characters is making the genre incredibly repetitive and I will probably harp on this until someone comes up with some new ideas.

Too Many Redheads (see picture above)

Only 1-2% of the worldwide population has red hair, but they are far more plentiful in the fiction I read. What I find to be really interesting about his phenomenon is that fictional redheads, especially the auburn variety, are written as being the most irresistible and universally "fiery" women in the world-- especially if they have green eyes (My mother-in-law is a natural blue-eyed redhead, but you never find those in popular fiction-- I've looked). Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against redheads but the desire to come up with a unique character has made this flame haired beauty a real commoner in the fictional world.

Using the Generic "Special Forces" or "Black Ops" Soldiers as a Group of Heroes/Villians Without Any Military Knowledge Whatsoever.

This kind of started out as something you'd see when watching a cop-drama, especially before the "CSI" days. And, as much as I like "Castle," I know the show is entirely unrealistic. Now the Armed Forces are getting the same treatment. I strongly objected to the way the CIA was portrayed in the book Blood Oath by Christopher Farnsworth but it seems that I am going to have to live with a certain amount of frustration as writers attempt to create their version of "special ops" characters when it's clear they don't have any idea what "special ops" means in the real world. I'm no expert but I do know that college boys with no combat training are not drafted into top-secret military positions because they're related to someone who was murdered by someone being hunted by the military-- as was the plot in Hunting Lila by Sarah Alderson (an utterly ridiculous book that I will have to address sometime soon). YA fiction and paranormal fiction are huge offenders here as there are always "special" units of all kinds that are created to deal with paranormal threats. I think a certain amount of license is warranted, but logic is not something that can be dispensed with altogether.

The Stubborn, "Unconventional" Hero

This crosses all genres. It could be Dirty Harry or Captain Kirk, but we can all think of a list of rule breaking, rebellious heroes that offend their bosses and get thrown of their case and/or mission only to stubbornly continue investigating and, despite not having any official resources at their disposal, save the day. I can't say I universally hate this one because it can be a very satisfying journey through this stereotype; but it has completely lost its punch because it is so predictable.

Dishonorable Mentions:

  • Magical objects (rings, swords) that must be found to save the world. 
  • Manic pixie girlfriend who "saves" the uptight protagonist from his dour self. Or good girl is the only one who sees the good in the bad boy. 
  • The absent/disinterested parent that only exists to provide the main character with a home. 
  • The quirky best friend. 


Nicola Morgan said...

Love it! Very true. And I'm afraid I've fallen into the fiery, fiesty, green-eyed redhead stereotype trap myself.

TheMoose65 said...

It sounds like you find many of your offending traits in paranormal and YA fiction. Maybe you should give them up for awhile. :P

SQT said...

@Nicola-- I do cliches too. It's not until later that I realize I need change some things.

Moose-- I have a real love/hate thing going on with those. YA is really irritating me lately and I am generally taking those titles off of my TBR list. I haven't given up on paranormal fiction yet. I still have hope.

M. McGriff said...

This is great! I totally agree, especially with the too many red heads and the special ops point. I have family in the military as well as a dad who is a war historian and when I see plots like the one you mentioned I'm like, "No way that could ever happen! LOL" As for the redheads, yeah I'm a little guilty of that in my WIP but I try not to have their personality correspond with their hair color.

Linds said...

Being a redhead myself, I usually try to put someone with red hair in a story, even if not a main character. Though why they *must* be fiesty is beyond me. It reeks of much older stereotypes involving devils and witchcraft.:P

The rarity of blue eyed redheads in fiction always escapes me. It bugged me as a kid, because all the redheads had green or brown eyes. Even the American Girl! Disney's Ariel was the closest thing I could get (and I still say her hair is red, not auburn, so a part of me thinks it doesn't count). Which is why I'm more than a little psyched about Pixar's Merida, who actually has auburn hair and blue eyes. The little kid in me did a little dance when I saw that.

I agree that withholding information from the main character for no good reason except to push the plot is frustrating (unless it's done in a way that isn't completely silly, like in a mystery or a thriller).

The flipside, when the main character as a narrator purposely withholds information from the reader, can be really interesting. If done well, it can make for an awesome surprise. Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief is a great example of his. It falls between childrens/YA but its a good read.

Blodeuedd said...

Lol, oh I hate the hiding of info. it bugs me every time. And then when the person need it they do not know..well they would if whoever knew would have told them. Sigh.

Never thought about that, but yup, many redheads

Charles Gramlich said...

King's use of stereotypes in characters has driven me crazy over the years. Koontz does it as well. Look at his use of dogs. I think we all get tired of certain themes or concepts that suddenly appear in just about every book. Eventually the tide will turn and some new set of "predictables" will develop.

Allison said...

haha love these! They are so true. Although, I happen to like the cliche of the quirky, best friend :)

Allison (Geek Banter)

SQT said...

@MMcGriff-- The military/cop stuff never used to bother me, but I'm older now and also have family in the military, so the inaccuracies drive me nuts.

@Linds- I've seen a lot of enthusiasm building for "Brave," can't wait to see it. It wasn't until I had a redhead in the family that I began to pay attention to the stereotypes. I don't know how much they bother my mother in law, but I'm sure it gets old. We have a lot of freckles in the family and yet that rarely seems to get mentioned either.

@Blodeuedd-- I think there are ways it can be done, in fact I'm sure it can based on the skillful storytelling done by my favorite authors. It's when the "for your own good" thing is trotted out that I get annoyed.

@Charles-- I liked "Watchers" but the anthropomorphic dog has become a Koontz mainstay and he doesn't do it as well as he used to. And you're right, as long as fiction comes in trends there will always be new tropes for me to criticize.

@Alison-- Sometimes I do. The computer nerd sidekick is still cute sometimes but I have yet to know any of these "colorful" types in real life.

Michael Offutt, Supra-Genius said...

Nice rant you got going on here. I agree with everything that you've said. If I were to guess, I'd say that a lot of this can be blamed on agents who look for more of the same when representing books.

SM Johnston said...

I agree with most things on your list. I just want to comment on HP (I'm not a mad fan who is going to rip into you).

I find a lot of adults underestimate children and teens. They do tend to keep them in the dark on hard matters, especially when there's lots of other things to deal with. Yes it was an annoying part of the book, but to me it was still believable.

SQT said...

@Michael-- I'm sure that publishing houses are looking for stories that are on-trend, regardless of quality (unfortunately).

@SM-- Totally agree. I remember, as the youngest of four kids, being kept in the dark on almost everything. I understand where it comes from. But as a literary device I don't think it's thought out well in most cases.

Take Harry Potter as an example. Most kids aren't going to be the prophesied "one" that can save the world. They aren't going to show, by the time they are 11-years-old, that they are capable of great things-- but Harry does. If I were an adult dealing with a child of extraordinary circumstances like that I suspect I would alter my preconceived notions of what that child is capable of understanding and at least prepare them a little bit. I've read fantasy where the young one is at least trained in some fashion, not just thrown to the wolves. But then, as much as I like HP, I was frequently annoyed by the incongruity of adult behavior going on.