What Character Development Do YOU Hate?

Blog me MAYbe WednesdayMay I ask something about you?

What sort of character development do you hate? 

Or perhaps, the character development, when done really terribly, that makes you cringe, and you can’t decide if you’re entertained by the suck happening on the page or just really, really horrified. I recognize that most characters, even those semi-cliched ones, can be done really well. Interesting, unique elements can be combined with more common ones to make a new story, and a great one at that. But sometimes, that doesn’t happen and you’re left with a reading experience that just grates your nerves in ways it might not others.

Last night I began reading 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James because I borrowed it from a friend. I originally had no intention whatsoever of reading this book, but then I found the 50 Shades of Suck tumblr. I am so amused by that commentary-on-suck  that I kind of thought I’d be more amused than bashing-my-brains-out. Instead, I haven’t found a single redeeming quality, and I’ll probably skim along until the first “mature audiences” scene to get a full scope of the book because why else would I read this?  and then give up for good.

The thing, though, that irks more than all of the other things in 50 Shades of Grey (and I find everything irksome) is the character-development so far (I’m 54 pages in). It’s maybe the #1 thing to annoy me, and thus today’s BMM question. Here it is:

Ana Steele is plain Jane boring, with all these flaws (she’s clumsy! she has poor taste is clothes! she cannot tame her hair!), and obviously this is why mega-hot-super-rich Christian Grey won’t go out with her; but of course, Jose and Paul, the ONLY OTHER MEN in the novel and consequently her good friends, they’re in love with her, and they always ask her out, but she always says no; but why oh why can’t she find a boyfriend! why must she be so plain and boring and awful that no men like her? (Seriously, she asks that pages after talking about how Jose really, really likes her.)

The central struggle in the first 4 chapters is that Ana is… unattractive and boring? and woe is her! I don’t know. Fifty pages in, the plot is driven by this character development.

Of course, this is a character arc I’ve seen plenty of times in fiction — in both young adult and adult fiction, and in all genres. I’ve seen both male and female characters suffering from this debilitating self-awareness of how not-perfect they are. And I think it’s even completely OK for characters to have a debilitating self-awareness of imperfection because of course real people do, too! My problem is when it’s done so garishly that it actually insults real people who are insecure — it’s like I can hear the author saying, “Oh, I know, if I make her exceptionally un-perfect, then everyone will either connect with her or pity her.”

To me, that’s just insulting. To everyone involved — readers and characters. There are really good ways to make this sort of character-driven beginning strong and important, and real and fleshed out; there are interesting ways to develop insecurity and flaws and strengths into an influential character — and when done well, this is my favorite sort of character to read about.  But when an author gives me the flat-lined version, I can’t ever seem to forgive them for it. Perhaps because I love the well-done stories so incredibly much.

So now I really want to know your thoughts — what character development really just drives you nuts? It can be small things, or large things, or you can give examples (I obviously called out E.L. James here) but do so constructively. Please leave your answer below & let’s get the discussion started!

Also today I posted for Blog Me MAYbe on NA Alley — Do you use any books of writing craft? Please check it out & join the great discussion going on there. So many great recommendations!

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11 Comments

  1. One that springs to mind is when a character is supposed to be the hero and the good guy, but through his actions just ends up coming across as a jerk or oblivious to the true situation. I really really hated Dick in Tender Is the Night, since he was such a jerk to Nicole and actively contributed to their already troubled marriage’s downward spiral. Then again, I feel F. Scott Fitzgerald is a rather overrated writer anyway. I honestly felt more sympathy for Nicole, who was supposed to be the crazy, unreasonable one.

    And of course, it goes without saying that I hate the characters “Dr.” Beatrice Sparks creates, one-dimensional people who are supposed to be teenagers, yet talk, think, write, and act like they’re five years old, and not the product of their supposed generation. I’m embarrassed I ever believed these were real teens’ journals and not books she’d written herself.

    • Well, I don’t think Dick is supposed to be good or ever perceived as good by the reader. He’s an anti-hero, and of course one feels sympathy and pity (the good, literary kind) for Nicole. Of course, Fitzgerald is one of my favorite writers, so I’m going to happily disagree with your critique that he is over-rated. What I love about Fitzgerald is that he doesn’t write “good” characters, and he rarely has heroes. He gets at the truth of the horrible that lives within people, and while I will admit he can really overstate the troublesome things in his novels (“Look, here, this character is being bad, see!”) and it does bother me at times, it doesn’t work against Fitzgerald for me personally. I think the man has written some touching and beautiful prose, and I adore him endlessly.

      I do, agree, though with those teen characters where writers write them as if they are complete idiots and immature and, yes, five years old, though I think those same writers would just coo over a five year old.

      I think all characters begin a little flat — at least, I know mine do — and the task of the writer is to keep digging, to get way beyond the surface, and to pull out what’s deep within them. That’s hard to do, and scary to do, because it’s something no one even wants to do with their own person and it’s something we can’t do, really, with anyone else.

  2. I second everything you just said. I haven’t read 50 Shades, and I don’t believe I will. But overly or flatly insecure characters irritate me like no other. And so do characters that are super plain jane (especially like what you described).
    My other peeves…
    The opposite where the character is so incredibly unique and perfect with no flaws.
    The woe is me character.

    And, just for you even though this is only slightly related to character development…love triangles!

    • I think my favorite thing about you is your dislike of love triangles, but in our years together, I think I’ve come to know what you mean by “love triangles” and come to realize I’m a bit the same way. I can stomach them better than you can, though, that’s for sure.

      But what I’ve discovered about “love triangles” is that I enjoy them when their “triangle”-ness isn’t about a single point on the triangle, per say, but an accurate depiction of how romance and feelings and lust can change a person and persons. Because I think we’ve all found ourselves in a “love triangle” moment — and I prefer triangles that make connections beyond just the “these two characters like this one character.” And I really enjoy much bigger geometrical love shapes — love octagons and such.

  3. I stopped reading Fifty Shades after the first line. It’s ironic because I recently stated that first lines are overrated because no one really decides on a book after reading the first line, they at least give it a page, right? It was “I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair–it just won’t behave…” and then I was done. I guess I can say I skimmed the rest of the first page, and it was mostly about her hair. Bad hair days are not in my top ten list of concerns, so I guess I just don’t get it. 🙂 I’ll probably give Fifty Shades another shot. As a writer, I want to sell well, so I like to read the bestsellers to see what it is they’re doing that’s working. Sometimes I think it’s dumb luck though.

    • I think very little of its bestseller status is hinging on the writing — the writing is absolutely horrendous. I think the “mature content” is what is selling, which is hilarious because when I would ask people about the novel they never, ever mentioned the sex plot line which is integral to the whole novel.

      I do think it’s important to read what’s popular, though, and even more important to read what we don’t necessarily like so we can contribute to the conversation in meaningful ways. Nothing gets under my skin more than people bashing a book and then saying, “Well, I’ve never read it, but…” At least I’ll be able to say, “I tried to read it, and this is what I thought about what I did read, and this is why I stopped reading.”

    • I attempted to read it awhile back. I downloaded the sample on my kindle, read the first page, turned the kindle off and have no interest in returning to the book.
      For me, it was the hair issue combined with the mirror. Nothing gets me quite as disgruntled as characters looking in a mirror and describing what they see as the beg of a novel. I can tolerate it if it’s actually important and happens later in the novel, but even then it has to be done well and have a serious purpose.
      So I totally get what you mean, Sharon.
      L

  4. I didn’t even know you were going to touch on Fifty, but as you know, I have my own Fifty Shades reviews going on, which is the ONLY reason I finished the damn thing. What you mention is why I hate the book most of all. Beyond the bad writing and sad excuse for a plot, I hate Ana’s character development. She spends so much of the book wondering why ANYONE would like her, and then you, as a reader, start wondering the same thing. She has low self esteem, and beyond her ability to fall down a lot, and talk about the voices in her head a lot, she has no personality, no redeeming qualities and nothing that would make you want to root for her.

    GAH.

    • I don’t think I can even do what you’ve done and finish the thing! But I am determined to get to the first bit of “mature audiences” content. I just love calling it that after finding the very small print disclaimer for it on the back cover.
      I like what you say about her always wondering how someone likes her, and then as a reader you’re stuck thinking, “But seriously, why does anyone like you?!” I realize a character need not be aware of their own saving graces, but they should have them and the reader, at least, should be able to work them out.
      Oh, and I cannot stand that she thinks in Italics. I am not so aware of my normal running commentary — and also, my brain can exist in a moment without thinking. She never stops, ever. She is constantly chattering, and that adds in quite a lot of content that could have been left out. Sometimes you don’t need to get her from home to work… she can just be at home and then be at work. I don’t need her narrating her steps.

  5. I haven’t read Fifty Shades…it’s SO annoying when all the main character does is complain about their lack of beauty or grace or whatever. Like in the Twilight movies, Bella is such a downer. I like heroines that have self-doubt but they’re tough, and then they come to the realization that they have self-worth. Kind of like Ellie from Angelfire (which is YA, but, ya know…) or even Harry Potter, haha.

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