Top Ten Peeves, Updated

Well. I seem to have hit a nerve, because there are a lot of readers out there who gleefully listed off their own pet peeves in historical fiction. Here are some of my favorites, all from readers here on Goodreads. I tried to give credit where it was due, but some comments were sent in by multiple people.

1. Fire metaphors in love scenes. Gary Wedlund brought this one to my attention, citing the frequent overuse of words such as electric, hot, steam, burning, fire, scorching, smoke, and blazing. I’m with Gary: sex might be terrific, but you should not need to keep a fire extinguisher handy.

2. Writers who won’t kill off their characters. (Renee, Canada) Especially common in fantasy novels, where the same band of wanderers goes questing away through myriad dangers, which get steadily less believable the longer all the characters keep sailing through without a scratch. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” packs a punch because he wasn’t afraid to kill off one of the Fellowship. George R.R. Martin took things a step further when he purged about ten characters in one bloody massacre at the end of his Storm of Swords. Bottom line: danger in fiction is not believable unless it periodically takes people down.

3. Plucky heroines (Erin, LA). The plucky post-modern heroine striding intrepidly through historical settings, loved and admired by all. I hate plucky heroines. Brave heroines? Sure. Intrepid, adventurous, brash? Sign me up. But “plucky” calls forth irresistible images of the beautiful girl who rushes headlong into ever danger, refusing all help because by God she is an independent woman who doesn’t need to be rescued by a man, at least until she’s tied to a stake by cannibals. I say let ’em eat her.

4. Unnecessary description (multiple readers). Writers who stop the action to tick off the physical details of every new character, writers who stop the action to describe the sunset, writers who stop the action at all with chunks of unnecessary description. The sun sets every night. No need to comment on the fact.

5. Product placement (Junkfoodmonkey, UK). Call it the “Sex & the City” syndrome–all of a sudden, stilettos weren’t just stilettos but Manolo Blahniks, and bags weren’t just bags but Prada bags. Of course if the heroine’s Jimmy Choo shoes or the hero’s Mont Blanc pen are going to be key parts of the plot, that’s fine. But otherwise I’ll paraphrase Gertrude Stein: a bag is a bag is a bag.

6. Mary-Sue heroines (Jayda, Georgia). A variation on the plucky heroine–she’s just as beautiful and innocent, but she never pretends to the slightest amount of spunk, and spends most of the novel clinging doe-eyed to her hero who responds by providing all the nick-of-time rescues and declarations of slavish love required to keep her frail psyche going. Among the examples mentioned was, ahem, a certain vampire-loving teenager with a rather extravagant name and a penchant for tripping over her own feet.

7. Guidebooks thinly disguised as fiction (Malin, Sweden). If I want to read a guidebook, I’ll go check out Fodor’s.

8. The notion that physical appearance reflects inner character. This one’s from me; I forgot to include it last time. But I think I’ll keep on postponing it; this will get its own post in a few days. Stay tuned.

9. Anachronistic language (multiple readers). Modern language from a non-modern mouth makes just about all readers blink. Though too much verisimilitude also seems to rub us the wrong way: I agree with Jenny from Milwaukee, who stated, “Any character says `Forsooth’ in a book, I’m outta there.” The lesson to be learned here: with readers, you just can’t win.

I’d put in a tenth, but I’m out of time. Thanks to everybody who got discussions going on this.

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