Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Preemptive Character Turn-offs

Last night, our writers group talked about character descriptions in cover copy that would discourage us from picking up a book. What provokes those instant, “Blink” like decisions that make us think, I don’t want to read this?

One member said she’s not interested in reading about main characters from a lower socioeconomic level than her own. It’s not that she’s a snob; she just doesn’t want to get involved in the angst of people worrying about how they’re going to pay the bills at the end of the month.

Another member said he wasn’t interested in reading about a simple-minded hero; he never “got” the attraction of Forrest Gump.

I said I didn’t want to read about a tall, thin, young, blond, beautiful, rich, brilliant, athletic heroine. I simply couldn’t take having her in my face for 350-400 pages.

Other candidates for don’t-want-to-read-abouts: hairdressers, macho Special Forces jerks, priests or ministers, deformed or physically unattractive characters… Hey, we weren’t being politically correct here, we were being honest. One of our members writes Japanese samurai mysteries, and she has realized she unwittingly limited her audience simply because a lot of people don’t want to read about characters from a different, or at least an unfamiliar, race.

Of course, our little group is hardly representative of the general reading public. We could think of successful books centered around characters from each of our “turn off” categories. One of our members likes books about women struggling with their weight; two other members put such books in their don’t-want-to-read-about-it categories. So, how about you? What characters/descriptions of a hero/heroine are gut-reaction turn-offs for you?


Charles Gramlich said...

Characters whose sole purpose in a book is to satisfy the needs of another character or to "represent" a group to an audience. For example, the female character whose only job is to offer sex to the male character, or the male whose sole purpose is to romance the female character. Other examples include the black character (or any ethnic group) whose only reason for existence is to represent black people.

Kate S said...

Interesting blog and comment from Charles.

I prefer the imperfect characters over the "bestest at everything" ones, and hate the "tough" female characters who decide they don't need help with anything, but then make dumb decisions and worst of all, in the end some guy comes in to rescue them. Ugh. Unfortunately, too, you can't always tell from the back cover things will turn out that way.

Also won't read: people going through nasty divorces or stories about abused children. I worked with an agency that defended abused and neglected children in court and have seen enough in real life, so those are automatic no's for me.

nolasteve said...

To add even more peril to a writer’s characterization, John Connolly’s latest post on his site discusses the interpretation’s of the reader. He was criticized by a reviewer for featuring a “gay” character in his book The Book of Lost Things. The character was not written as gay, but the character’s concern for a male companion caused the reviewer to interpret him as gay.

I am not sure how one gets around this problem, or even foresees this sort of possibility.

Sphinx Ink said...

Sphinx Ink doesn't want to read about women who are raped or children who are abused. She has seen enough real cases of those crimes in her day job that she doesn't want to relive such traumas in her recreational reading.

On the other hand, she will read books in which the heroine/hero was raped or abused in the past, but who in the book's story seeks to resolve that trauma in some way, through life changes or through somehow bringing the perpetrator to justice. Perhaps the difference in Sphinx Ink's taste is because in this latter scenario, the heroine/hero is empowered rather than victimized.

Steve said...

I'm much more in touch with what makes me drop a book after 50 pages, since I've been doing a lot of that lately.

What makes me drop it from the back cover?

High fantasy with unpronouncable names (Whyghhlyff must take the Sacred Fflljn from the Mount of Grummvbn to the Kingdom of Qzlyghghn- I'm out)...

Special Forces jerks who aren't Jack Reacher...

Old women (or men, but they're usually women) figuring out who poisoned the vicar (though I do loves me my Miss Marples. It's just that the knockoffs come off as, well, knockoffs)

'young' characters who sound fake.
(if I wanted to put myself through that, an ABC after school special, or a 90210 rerun, would only take an hour out of my life)

Dropping the book after the first 50, much more what Charles said. And Kate, when perfect characters make dumb decisions.

Oh, and anything where the author seems to be, um, 'enjoying themselves' with rape/torture. I've yet to see one compelling example of why we readers need a blow-by-blow account. I write noir, and pretty bleak stuff at that. Terrible, terrible things happen, but never ON CAMERA.

It's so... EEeeeewwwwww!

PS Steve likes Sphinx Ink's use of the third person. Steve likes it very much.

cs harris said...

Yes, knock offs annoy me, too, which is why I was slow to pick up on the vampire trend--I just saw it as copying, and who would want to read that? I also avoid abused children, nasty divorces, sadistic serial killers (thank god those are finally going away--it seemed like that was all they were publishing in the 90's), and families in angst unless I have tremendous faith in the writer.

And that's just what puts me before I even start to read. I get annoyed and drop a book after 50 pages so easily that my writers group has given my name to the practice--they call it "proctorizing."

liz fenwick said...

If I see child abuse on the back cover then its an instant put down. Stupid women is the only immediate back on the shelf catagory at first thought.

I agree with Charles but like Steve I think that is something you find 50 pages into a book.

Beque said...

I don't want to read about insipid women, arrogant men, or evangelical Christians. Just a personal quirk. I also can't stand authors who refer to themselves in third person, which unfortunately means I can't read Miss Manners.

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