Friday, November 22, 2019

Tokens, mirrors, cell phones and magnificent breasts - Now that I have your attention...

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

What a week it’s been. My new novel, Death in the East was released in the UK and Europe last Thursday and I’ve spent almost every minute of the intervening week on planes, trains and taxis, running from one event to the other. I’ve been from a rain-soaked Milan to a freezing cold Edinburgh and, it feels, almost everywhere in between.

My new book. Please buy it, cos my kids need shoes.

Right now, I’m sitting in my mum’s apartment in London after spending the night on the Caledonian Sleeper down from Glasgow. It’s the first time I’ve done it, and I feel the word ‘sleeper’ is a bit of a misnomer.

So far, the tour’s been both great and gruelling, and there still a few more days of it to go, but right now I have a few hours to relax: jus enough time to tell you about some of  many, many things that annoy me in books.

I’ve read the posts of my fellow bloggers and found myself laughing and nodding in agreement, and also holding my hand up and owning up to the fact that I’ve been guilty of a lot of the transgressions that they highlight, for which I’m truly sorry.

What can I add to that extensive and accurate list?

Number 1 - Look at me! I'm a straight white writer inserting token minority characters (who are exactly like my straight white characters!) 

The thing that upsets me more than anything else is poorly drawn token characters from minority groups, who often seem to play no real part in the story or are just straight, white characters who’ve been ‘blacked up’ or ‘gay-ed up’ by the writer as a way of signalling how woke they are, without doing their research into the culture which their two-dimensional token character is meant to come from. The most egregious case I recall was that of an author introducing a character as ‘the Hindu’ (despite the character's religion having absolutely nothing to do with the plot - I’ve never seen that writer introduce a character as ‘the Christian’) then a few paragraphs later giving ‘the Hindu’ a Muslim name, and then, on the next page, giving him a Sikh turban! 

Ice Cube sums up my feelings on the matter

I stopped reading at that point. I don’t care how brilliant the plot is, or how praised the author, if they can’t be bothered getting the most basic facts about their characters right, then they don’t deserve my attention. That’s not to say a writer should only write about characters of their own ethnicity, religion or sexuality – far from it – it’s just that when you do it, make sure you do it well and with sensitivity, and don’t fall into lazy, cliched stereotypes.

Man, it felt good to get that off my chest! What’s next on my hit-list? I’ll tell you:

Number 2 - Lead characters who look in the mirror in chapter one and describe themselves for the reader’s benefit

You all know what I’m talking about. 
‘Lance Strongbow looked in the mirror. His blue eyes sparkled and his blond hair tumbled over muscular shoulders…’
Sod off Strongbow, and sod off the author who wrote you. Far too often authors feel they need to describe every detail of their protagonist in the first few pages when actually, most of the time, they should be concentrating on the story. Even when it is necessary to describe the character, the looking in the mirror as though they’ve never noticed themselves before, just p's me off.

Which leads me nicely on to my next pet peeve: 

Number 3 - Breasts

Male authors describing female characters and spending far, far, far too much time describing their heaving, voluptuous, pert, perky, [insert male fantasy adjective here] breasts. What is this fascination with breasts? Actually, that’s rhetorical. I know the fascination, but do we need to lay it so bare on the page? What’s worse is when the male writer puts his female character in front of a mirror and tells us how amazed/proud/saddened she is by her own breasts! I think there’s a special place in literary hell reserved for these authors. At the very least, they deserve a slap.

'startled breasts' - one of literally a million examples of men writing badly about women


Right. I’m getting angry now. One more and then I’ll lie down.

I could go for gratuitous sex scenes or gratuitous violence or serial killers who seem to be more creative in their mutilations than Picasso, but my colleagues have already highlighted them. So I suppose I’ll have to go for this:

Number 4: Dead cell phones

The hero or victim’s mobile phone that dies, is left on the sofa, loses coverage at the worst possible moment, generally two minutes before they enter the abandoned building/deep dark forest where axe wielding murderer/serial killer/certified public accountant-gone-rogue is lying in wait. 

Now I understand the issue. So many wonderful literary deaths and ingenious plot twists would be demolished if Jessica Fletcher simply received a call from her colleague telling her ‘Don’t go into the derelict fish processing factory! The mad actuary with the lopsided grin is waiting inside and he’s the one who’s killed half the pensioners in Cabot Cove because their extraordinary longevity has affected the accuracy of his life insurance tables!’ But of course, we need Mrs Fletcher to go into that fish processing factory, which is to say, the story needs it for tension. I just wish we could come up with better and more innovative methods of stopping those pesky phone signals.

Oh! The mad psychotic killer is in there, is he? Well thanks for calling!



Well that was cathartic. I’ve been on the road for seven days straight and I’m cranky, but having a rant has made me feel much better! I’ll just end by saying, please read my new book, Death in the East. I can promise you that the minority characters are well drawn, that the men don’t look in any mirrors and the women don’t comment on the magnificence of their own breasts. It’s set in 1922 and 1905, so there are no pesky cell phones to worry about, and there are not one, but two fiendish locked room murders to solve. Go on! You know you want to!

5 comments:

Terry said...

Right on! I remember reading Robert Parker novel and realizing by the end that he had described exactly one character--the secretary who showed for about five sentences, and it was just a quick sketch of her. I actually went back and looked through for other descriptions. Nada. It was brilliant. As for the breasts....

Brenda Chapman said...

It is cathartic to get those pet peeves out! Congratulations on the launch of your new book :-)

Susan C Shea said...

Excellent! Rant on, Abir. But if you're writing about your series characters in the new book, who are the minorities if the setting is India? surely that's the whitey whites?

Laffers7 said...

I enjoyed reading this lot, hope the tour is going brilliantly, Laffers!

السياحة والسفر حول العالم said...

very good, thanx
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