Thursday, November 21, 2019

Bêtes Noires

Which cliches, plot devices, or characters drive you crazy in the books you read? Let’s hear some pet peeves.

Disclaimer: The following pet peeves are offered with good humor, not ridicule. There are countless exceptions to these examples, and I am guilty of many of these cliches in my own books.

Things that drive me nuts in books:

Names
Thriller tough guys named Jack, Dick, Rick, and Nick. What is it about monosyllabic names that end in -ck? Do those letters convey badassery? What about Maurice and Merriweather, Leslie, and Llewelyn? Then there are the “hard” surnames like Brick, Steel, or Stone. Oh, wait. Stone is okay. Whatever happened to the Farquhars, Finklesteins, Drinkwaters, and Lipshitzes of the world?



Victims
Good girls don’t die. Bad girls do. For some reason, many writers—and readers—want their heroines to be chaste as they’re chased through a novel. Sex has become a four-letter word. Somehow a female character who engages in the occasional dirty deed either has loose morals and/or she’s the next murder victim in the story. And her sexuality gives readers permission not to care about her. What the hell is that?




Sex
Which brings us to sex. Have you ever noticed in books and movies how unrealistic the sex is? It’s fast and dead serious and described in highest literary prose with throbbing metaphors that might tell us more about the author than the characters. No fumbling, awkward questions, or elbows in the eye. No falling off piano benches. In short, no fun. My rule of thumb is to remember that your mother is going to read your book. Write your sex scenes with that in mind and you can’t go wrong.


Uber Villains/Evil Geniuses
Unless your bad guy/gal drives for a certain ride-share company, avoid the uber villain. I can’t recall one of these cliches who ever had a compelling reason for being so evil. If it’s money they’re after, why don’t they use their genius to earn it honestly? It’s certainly possible, especially if you’re super smart and well-armed with an army of henchmen and a cat.











Ancient Secrets That Threaten to Destroy the World
If the Freemasons/Illuminati/Cabalists couldn’t manage to destroy the world two hundred/five hundred/a thousand years ago, why would they be able to pull it off now? And speaking of these plots, how is a handsome middle-aged professor/secret agent/linguist, saddled with a Bryn Mawr sophomore love interest hanging off his cardigan like an oversized watch fob, going to  stop Armageddon single-handedly?



Why Is There Never a Cop around When a Crime Is In Progress?
This goes for crime fiction as well as thrillers. Villains slaughter their victims by the dozens, often in broad daylight or on a busy thoroughfare, but it’s always up to the lone detective or handsome middle-aged professor/secret agent/linguist to end the carnage. No one who guns down eight people on Fifth Avenue ever gets caught. They always make good their escape. Car chases that end with the bad guy getting away constitute a sub-category of this pet peeve.



High body counts
When there are enough dead bodies to field a football team, you may have too many victims. Surely so many murders would make national news. And, again, where are the cops? Just going by the law of averages, a police officer would eventually be standing right there next to the victim, right?




Alcoholic main characters 
This one is such a cliche... Oh, wait. Never mind.











No one ever brushes their teeth 
I’m sure they do, but does anyone recall actually reading about it in a book? Characters in novels don’t go to the bathroom either.








Rogue Cops/Agents


Cop Boyfriends in Cozy Mysteries
A sine qua non of the sub-genre.



Serial Killers Who Pose Dead Bodies
I would ask who the hell has time to do this after they’ve murdered someone, but then I recall that you can never find a cop when you need one.











Serial Killers Who Taunt the Police with Clues
You’ve got to be one confident criminal to do this. It’s the equivalent of the hare spotting the tortoise a big head start.

Guns, Especially on Covers 
I’m a fan of the blunt object or fall from a great height.

Coincidences 
Use them sparingly. More than one can kill believability. But, if we’re to believe actuaries, coincidences happen. And they can be kind of cool in a story, provided you don’t rely on them for the conclusion.


As I conclude this rumination on pet peeves in fiction, I realize that if writers were to avoid all these cliches, there would probably be no stories left to tell. Because, in truth, I don’t mind any of these cliches, provided they’re handled well. I use cliches all the time in my work, maybe because they ultimately represent universalities. Use them carefully.





2 comments:

Susan C Shea said...

Laugh out loud funny! Jim, if you haven't been on a panel at a con with these, you damn well should be. I'd moderate just to hear you tick them off in front of a live audience. And underneath the laughter - truth. This post's a keeper.

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