5 Books I Totally Hated (and Why)

The Twilight Series

People fall into one of two categories where these are concerned — they love it or they hate it.  Obviously, I hated it.

And not (just) why you might think.  Stephenie Meyer can form a sentence.  She can construct a plot.  My problem is that she took the MOST boring characters and the MOST boring plot and made them her focus.  Jasper took part in 1800s vampire turf wars.  Alice was deemed crazy and kept in a dark isolation room most of her life.  Carlisle was a preacher’s son who managed to completely tame his bloodlust after being bitten (because he’s just that awesome, not that he has some dumb power like Bella).  Rosalie was raped, beaten, and left to die by her fiance and his friends, but got her revenge Kill Bill-style after she turned.  Why can’t I read about that instead of the cheesy Harlequin romance that drags on 100 times longer than every other Harlequin?

And on the subject of characters, Edward is completely unrealistic.  “Oh, he actually acted like a vampire and killed people to drink their blood, but it’s okay, because he only killed bad people.”  Who is he, Dexter Morgan (and even he has made mistakes)?  And he’s a virgin after more than 100 years…yeah…

Emma

I feel like a traitor for hating this book since I love Jane Austen’s other books, but, to me, Emma was just a flop.  The titular character was whiny, annoying, egotistical, and completely oblivious to the facts.  I understand that this was kind of the point and she supposedly learned a lesson, but I couldn’t get past her flaws to find a trait that I liked or could even connect with.  My motivation to read it after that was based purely on the fact that I had to write a paper about it.

Mockingjay (SPOILERS)

Although the story of the Hunger Games trilogy was decent, I think that the actual execution fell flat.  It’s kind of the opposite of the Twilight series.  They seemed to get gradually worse, making the final installment the real disappointment.

Mockingjay and its predecessors suffer from the same problem as so many other YA novels — overly simplistic writing.  Obviously, you need to be on your reader’s level, but I’ve seen third grade chapter books with better sentence construction.  When your sentences are so basic that they sound contrived, it’s disappointing.  And when your descriptions are so jumbled and unclear that a college-educated writer can’t make sense of what’s going on, you have a problem.

The final issue I had with Mockingjay was that it tried to do too much.  The story against the Capitol was enough — don’t try to splice in issues with the government of District 13 along with it unless you’re going to set that up a little earlier.  Obviously, no government is going to be perfect and you can point that out, but if it’s so bad that the main character feels the need to assassinate the President to prevent her from taking power, then it needs to be a part of the larger story arc.  Otherwise, just focus on Snow’s evil, the decadence of the Capitol, the tragic bombings of the other districts, and the torture/brainwashing Peeta suffered.

And for the love of God, DON’T EXPLAIN YOUR METAPHORS.  Yes, Katniss is the cat with the red dot, going crazy for what’s dangled over her…but no person is quite that poetically self-aware.

Frankenstein

Pretentious.  Long-winded.  A total guilt-trip.  Excessively dramatic.  Confusingly written (a story within another narrative written down in a letter some third person is reading…?).

Madame Bovary

I had the same problem with Madame Bovary as I did with Emma.  The title character was so whiny and downright stupid that I was unable to connect with her.  I couldn’t even make a connection to the story because all the characters were either oblivious retards, simpleton peasants with no personalities, arrogant aristocrats, or user douchebags exploiting a weak-minded woman.  And unless you have some in-depth knowledge of French culture during the time period the books take place, a lot of the references that supposedly characterize Madame Bovary will just go right over your head (I certainly didn’t know that at the time, opera was considered plebeian entertainment on par with modern WWE).

 

Want to know about some books I really liked?  Try these past posts:

Reviewing Toni Morrison’s “A Mercy”

Terry Brooks: Sometimes the Magic Works

Read a Banned Book!

Why Are Characters So Important?

There’s an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants where he and Patrick find a magic pencil that allows anything drawn with it to come to life.  After horsing around with mustaches, fake money, and a parodic version of Squidward, SpongeBob comes up with DoodleBob — a poorly-drawn version of himself that speaks only in yells and grunts and ends up trying to take over.

Characters in a story are a bit like that, if they’re done properly.  You mess around a bit and then, before you know it, they’ve developed free will and run off screaming, ruining all of your well-laid plans for their story.

Good characters — the kind that are not only realistic, but are as multidimensional as real people — are the lifeblood of a story.  Characters drive the plot of your story and  they give the reader a reason to, you know, read the story.  Most of us avid readers can rattle off a list of our favorite characters, even if we haven’t read a certain book in years.  Some of my childhood favorites were Samantha Parkington from the American Girl series, Patsy, Margaret, and Hattie from various Dear America diaries; Mary-Anne from The Babysitter’s Club, and, more recently, characters like Ron Weasley, Isobel Fairfax, and Kinsey Millhone.

Characters stick with us long after the story fades away.  As readers, hey become our “friends” in a way.  As writers, they can be our best friends or sworn enemies, or anything in between.

Some characters come to us fully formed, with names and backstory and that weird little quirk that makes them unique.  Sometimes, we are given only a block of personality marble and we have to painstakingly carve out the character inside.  Often, we get to a point in the story where suddenly, we realize something we never knew about the character, but which makes perfect sense.  Characters keep us up at night and are a source of terrible frustration oftentimes.

If you have characters who are dull, flat, inconsistent, uninteresting, or that fail to make themselves useful and worth writing about, your story will fail to launch no matter how brilliant your prose or amazing your plot is.  That’s why creating good characters is so important, and the reason I refuse to pick up Madame Bovary ever again.

Some writers prefer to start with characters, while others come up with a plot and then build a character to suit it.  Either way is fine, so long as the two work together seamlessly.  I tend to work with characters first, building my plot step by step asking, “What would happen if Character X did…?”  Whatever you prefer, characters need to always follow some guidelines:

  • They should always be consistent.  It doesn’t matter if your character is a wimp, a hero, a whiny teenager, a corporate jerk, or a homeless man who sleeps in the back of McDonald’s, just keep him/her consistent throughout the story.  Wimps who suddenly jump in front of speeding trains to rescue kittens are as baffling as the corporate jerks who suddenly throw away their PDAs and hand out cash at a local shelter.  If your character is going to become a radically different person, it should happen after appropriately radical plot events
  • They should be multidimensional.   Characters need to be life-like, which means they need to have a more in-depth personality than, “short temper, loves classical music and red wine.”  The exact amount of character depth needed will be proportional to the story’s plot and it’s length, but you should have a good idea of the inside of your character as well as the outside — what does he love, what does he need, what does he want?  What fears or goals drive your character, what makes him get out of bed in the morning?  How would he react to common situations, such as being asked on a date, getting fired from his job, etc., etc.?
  • They should not fit a mold.  Nothing is worse than a story with a Mary Sue/Gary Stu, or someone so unbelievably predictable you have them figured out after the first three pages.  Stories are unique, people are unique, and characters should be unique, too.

Suggested Reading:

How To Create A Character

Make ‘Em Perfect – Give ‘Em Flaws