Let me start out by saying that this is an entirely subjective post. If anyone looks up their favorite book on Amazon or Goodreads, they’ll probably find a few one and two-star reviews, because everyone’s taste is different. So as a reader, I don’t claim that my opinions are at all universal.
That said, I’m a voracious reader, and a fairly forgiving one, I think. If your book has strong characters and moves along at a nice pace, I’ll probably ignore all kinds of things that might turn off other readers. But I do have some lines in the sand.
1. “I’m leaving you for your own good.”
This is a twisty way for the writer to say, “I don’t know how to create story tension after these characters to get together, but I don’t want one of them to look like a jerk.” But the thing is, there are really only two interpretations for this unfortunately common trope. The first interpretation is that one of the partners is taking agency away from the other and infantalizing them by saying they can’t be trusted to make good decisions for their own well-being (in which case, they’re a jerk). The second interpretation is that one of the partners is afraid and wants out of the relationship, and justifies it by lying to both themselves and their partner to appear more noble than they are (in which case, they’re a jerk). There is no real way to pull this trope off without someone being a jerk, and at that point, I stop rooting for the relationship altogether.
2. Token in Trouble
This is a fairly difficult one for some writers to navigate, because we don’t really receive any kind of education on social power dynamics if we don’t seek it out or experience it personally. But the basic premise is that you have a single minority character in your story (racial minority, LGBTQ, person with disability, etc., a.k.a. the “token”), and that character’s role seems is to die, be traumatized, or be placed in danger in order to motivate the non-minority main character. (This includes the main character defending the minority character from bigots as a shortcut to show they’re a “good guy”). It reduces the minority character to a prop, and is a form of objectification.
In comics, this became known as the “girl in the refrigerator” trope, where a girlfriend’s tragic death or trauma serves as the backstory for a male superhero. For LGBTQ characters in film, this trope is known as “bury your gays,” because LGBTQ characters in film and fiction are so often killed to forward the plot or motivate the cisgender, straight character.
The reason this is problematic is that there is so little representation of some groups in fiction, that even a single negative depiction has an outsized impact on how we think about those groups, and how readers in those groups think about themselves. Writers, please let your minority characters live, have a life and motivations outside of their identity (or the main character’s life). Maybe they can even have a happy ending or heroic moment. And if your only minority character turns out to be the bad guy, you need to seriously re-think your book and the message it sends to the world.
3. Mary Sue and Gary Stu
Generally, a main character is a main character because something interesting is happening to them. Otherwise, there’s no story, right? In that respect, they’re special. But make me believe your character is a real person, and not just an embodiment of specialness. A real person isn’t perfect or good at everything they try to do. A real person doesn’t have every single person they interact with fall in love or lust with them. If your character’s only flaw is that they’re a little physically clumsy, they’re not relatable as a real person. Give them some real flaws, with room to grow as the story develops. Give them some platonic, or even indifferent relationships. Allow other characters to dislike them for reasons other than jealousy or romantic rejection.
On the flip side, let your bad guy have some positive traits other than killer abs and a pretty face, or attraction to the main character. Let them be people, too. Your story will be better for it.
4. Deus ex Machina
The general rule is that “convenient” things that hurt the character increase tension, and those that help the character decrease it. If the gods in your high fantasy novel swoop down and intervene in every life-or-death conflict in your book, we’re going to stop being concerned that your character is actually going to die. If the evidence just falls into your detective’s lap, we’ll think the case was too easy to solve, and not worth telling about.
This can go too far the other way, of course. If your character is nearly killed twice a book over ten books, it gets a little exhausting and we start to wonder about whether they really care if they live or not. Let them learn from their adventures, and one of the things they should be learning is caution and use of resources.
5. Cheap Stereotypes
The first bad review I ever left for a book involved a mumu-wearing fat character who was lazy, stupid, clumsy, and obsessed with food. Her love interest was played up for laughs, because the idea of a fat person having actual feelings was hilarious.
The second bad review had a single person of color in the entire book. It was an Asian woman who played the loyal family servant, was sneaky and untrustworthy, and turned out to be the villain.
These were books written in the last ten years, but the stereotypes belong very far in the past. The problem is that these kind of stereotypes are harmful to readers. Minority representation in fiction is already sparse, so stereotypical, negative portrayals that reinforce prejudice have an outsized impact. They affect how people think about these groups, and how these groups think about themselves.
While not everyone can afford a sensitivity reader, the Internet is a rich and easily accessible resource on stereotypes. Many marginalized people have put in time and effort into articles, blogs, and discussion forums on stereotypes, harmful language, and how they would like to be depicted. A quick google search for “how to write about XX characters” will give you at least enough to avoid putting your foot in your mouth. If you are writing a marginalized character whose identity you don’t share, however, put in the extra time to really get it right.
Why Should You Care?
In a phenomenal book, I might cringe at some of these and keep reading for a little while, with considerably reduced enjoyment. In a less than phenomenal book, I’ll just put it down. If it’s egregious enough, I’ll cross the unspoken line of mutual support for writers and leave a bad review. Is this fair? Maybe not. But every minute I take for reading is a minute I take from writing or other things I enjoy. So I choose to not waste that time. And trust me, so do many other readers.
What’s your line in the sand? What makes you put a book down?