Friday, June 21, 2013

Character Assasination

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I've realized recently that I have a problem.  Here's the confession:  I am extremely judgmental of fictional characters.  It's a tough admission to make but it has recently become obvious to me that not everyone reacts as negatively as I do to the foibles of the characters inhabiting their favorite entertainment, whether it be books, TV or movies. A too perfect or dull character can quite quickly ruin a story for me even if there are many other aspects about it to like.  I become shrewish and overly critical and I don't like it.

It goes without saying that for me characters are the heart and soul of any piece of fiction.  Obviously there are many other elements that are important but if I do not like or can't at least relate in some way to a character, I will not like it.  On the flip side, having a good character or two while everything else sucks will not save a book or TV show.

And I don't have to love a character or even entirely like them, but they have to be well-developed in a realistic way - I need to see something recognizable in them.  Some recently read books that I liked very much despite their less then loveable characters are House of Mirth and Gone Girl.

I also have noticed that I am much harsher on female characters than male which, being female, makes some sense.  To paraphrase Darcy in Pride and Prejudice I tend to be very severe upon my own sex. And for much the same reason Elizabeth is coincidentally - these so called accomplished ladies are hard to believe.

So what kind of characters or character traits make me gnash my teeth?

1) The Mary Sue: The link will take you to a more detailed description of this trope but to quote the general gist:
  "...original female character...who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment. She's exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She's exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her "flaws" are obviously meant to be endearing."
Particularly in certain genres (romance, young adult, fantasy), I think one of the hardest jobs an author must do is create a realistically likeable character who doesn't irritate or annoy but who also doesn't fall into the Mary Sue trap.   The fact of the matter is, these type of characters are boring and by virtue of being a Mary Sue, can have no real depth.  I'd rather read the story from the misunderstood wicked stepsister's perspective than Cinderella's.  One annoying way authors frequently try to create sympathy for Mary Sue type characters is by giving them "the tragic past" but since they have no resulting flaws in their character, it has virtually no meaning and imparts no depth.  But I seem to be in the minority, because there are several popular books or books series out there that have a serious case of the Mary Sues.  Or perhaps folks that are generally annoyed by these types of characters, avoid reading the genres where they seem to proliferate.  Sigh... but I LIKE a good romance and young adult adventure, dammit.  The real answer, I think, is that most folks are more tolerant than I.

Example of popular books/Series and the Mary Sues that ruin them for me: Sookie - Sookie Stackhouse Series by Charlaine Harris, Daughter of Shadow and Bone by Laini Taylor, and to be fair and throw a Gary Sue in there Atticus  - The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne...and also Granauile from the same

Romance/Yong Adult books that could have but didn't: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, The Native Star by M.K. Hobson, Lucy  - The Drake Chronicles by Alyxandra Harvey

2)Women who are Irrisistible to Men (and a little bit vice versa):  These women inspire deep, passionate love in all men that encounter them and often have multiple love interests. Lots of overlap with the above.  Some examples where it bothered me:

Evie - The Diviners by Libba Bray, Sookie - Sookie Stackhouse Series by Charlaine Harris, Anita Blake  - Anita Blake Series by Laurell K. Hamilton (this one is especially egregious because Anita is a great character in the first 3-5 books of the series and then turns into a guy magnet), Karou in Daughter of Shadow and Bone by Laini Taylor, Katniss  - The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, Tris  - Divergent by Veronica Roth

3) Elitist Bourgeosie Intelligentsia:  I don't have too many examples of this and it often won't ruin a book for me.  I feel like a lot of them take place in New York City.  And I may not like them because they make me feel dumb and yokely.  Maybe. I.E. my motivations on this one are likely unfair and 100% my own damn problem.  Where it bothers is when the characters are quite smarmy, full of themselves and also super whiny.  This would have been why, despite a great story line I wasn't a big fan of The Magicians by Lev Grossman.  Other places where I noticed it and it occasionally annoyed but didn't impact my feelings for the book too much:  The Time-Travelers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, The Flavia deLuce series by Alan Bradley (Flavia knows shit she just really shouldn't know - it's like she has seen and remembered every movie ever made up to the fifties, heard every piece of music, read every book etc... - however I love this series!), Beginner's Greek by James Collins.

And here's where I argue with myself.  There are some characters who I very much like which I think some might say fit into one of the above categories.  What makes them different - why do they not annoy me?  I'm not entirely sure but I'll take a stab at it.  A few characters that have been mentioned to me as falling into the same group as above:  Maisie Dobbs in the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear, Seraphina in Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Rose Tyler from Doctor Who.  I can see where Maisie Dobbs can be seen as a Mary Sue especially in book 1 where we meet her.  I think she sheds most of those characteristics in subsequent books and is quite clearly emotionally closed off and unable to really connect with others in any meaningful way.  And I think both her and Serphina are both more palatable to me for one simple fact - they are both quite clearly introverts so they speak to me in a way their extroverted brethren don't.  For Rose Tyler I would argue she's not a Mary Sue.  She is most certainly not perfect and she is singularly untalented.  She's often immature and while clever is not intellectual in any way.  She's young and has heart and compassion which is what the Doctor needs and which is why part of him becomes smitten by her.  When she does amazing things it's because she's been possessed by a spaceship.  Not a Mary Sue.

There are many more examples I could come up with (ahem...Twilight...ahem) but these are some of the most recent and/or egregious for me. So how do most readers accept and even embrace characters like this?  Is it perhaps a different way of wanting to relate to the characters?  Without a doubt I can say that I would not want to be any of the characters mentioned above, I can't imagine them as anything other than, well, other.  Maybe most people don't have this problem relating?  And then there are the folks who recognize that the character(s) is annoying but it does not impact their enjoyment of the rest of the fine elements of the story.  How do they do this?!

So does anybody have the same problems as I do and let characters have the power to ruin their fiction? What are your thoughts on this? Is there a way to read differently so that one rotten egg doesn't spoil the whole barrel?   And most importantly, which characters do you loathe and why? 

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