Jess and I have decided to try out a new feature here at AV. Once a month, we’ll be posting a discussion question centered around some of the topics we’ve always wanted to talk about here but either haven’t had a chance to bring up in reviews, or want to focus on outside of reviews. And of course, we’d love for everyone reading to jump in with their own answers in the comments.
So without further ado, here is our first question: Which tropes do you hate the most when you run across them as you’re reading?
Jess: Well, as I’ve noted before, I will immediately close any book that has no significant female characters. I think we’re all also aware that I’m not a fan of supernatural romance, though that’s more of a genre than a trope. Anything that villifies teenage girls (most common in books aimed at little boys – think Phineas and Ferb-style humor) makes me see red. I don’t like unearned power-ups (“Lo! By touching the Orb of Odin you have gained the knowledge you need to defeat the dragon!”) or unnecessarily cryptic mentors (“I could tell you you’re the Chosen One, but I won’t, because then the book would be over too soon”).
But one of my biggest pet peeves is something I’ve seen with increasing frequency since the successes of Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket: “wacky” child abuse. Look, let’s call a spade a spade. Harry is abused by the Dursleys. The Baudelaires are abused by…everyone. But Rowling and Snicket are able to hit a really delicate balance of making you feel bad for the protagonist(s) while keeping their suffering kind of unreal and funny, especially in the lighter early books of both series. The Dursleys are funny, so their emotional neglect of Harry doesn’t initially come off as horrifying. The Baudelaires are asked to do things so ludicrous it doesn’t read as upsetting (i.e. a pre-verbal infant working in a lumber mill).
Too many books have attempted to copy that and instead landed on “…That’s not okay.” (The Sisters Grimm, chained to a radiator by a foster parent, spring to mind.) To pull this sort of thing off, you need to have a) really funny prose, b) a slightly unreal “real” world, and c) a sensitivity to what reads as believable child abuse, so that you can avoid it. Not nearly enough books have all three, and feeling like you need to call Child Protective Services is not a good way to start a fun adventure novel.
Becky: Oh man, Jess totally hit on one of mine, which was the wizened mentor thing. “Yes, young protagonist, I know you have a lot of questions, and I will answer them all…when the time is right.” Yet the right time is never before the protagonist almost gets killed because s/he doesn’t know what’s going on. It irks me because it’s just so sloppy. If your story would fall apart if someone gave the protagonist a primer on who’s trying to kill them and why, then you need more there there. Withholding exposition for no reason is a totally false way of creating suspense.
Here’s another trope I’ve come to hate, thanks to some prominent cases in the last couple of years: big final battles where a whole lot of people die to up the drama and angst. During HP7: The Campenating, a handful of characters died in the background – but it was so background that I actually didn’t realize Lupin was dead until his ghost showed up. Mockingjay was an offender, too. Come on, after building up Finnick so much, you’re going to kill him offscreen as Katniss scrambles away? Bah. Humbug. There are plenty of ways to create drama and angst; wholesale slaughter can be one of them, but it can also make things lose emotional impact instead of giving them that emotional gutpunch you’re going for.
So those are our worst offenders. What tropes do you hate?