I’ve recently been reading a series – or maybe more accurately, a serial novel, by Charles Stross, whom I admire. He could write a preface to a phone book and I’d enjoy it, but in this particular instance, I’m finding myself becoming annoyed. He’s triggered my three main pet peeves of novel writing, so I’m probably done for now.
The Endless Series
I like stories that wrap themselves up in a single book. I enjoy multiple novels set in the same universe, chronologically (see: Vorkosigan, Miles) but I’m not crazy about never-ending story arcs. In some cases I can tolerate trilogies if there is some story resolution within the larger arc, giving definition to the individual novels, but I can’t think of a longer series I’ve enjoyed. In a sprawling series, I dislike the proliferation of characters at the expense of character development, the lack of forward momentum on the plotline giving a “perils of Pauline” feel to the story, and the introduction of more questions than answers into a story (see: Wheel of Time series). I especially detest the cliffhanger ending; the lack of resolution actually has the opposite effect on me, I’m much less likely to buy the follow-up novel because it makes me highly annoyed with the story and the author.
Diverging Points of View
When writing a sprawling series, it’s very difficult to tell a story of broad scope and scale through a single hero’s point of view. As the story grows more complex, and groups of characters split, divide, and go their own way, the point of view splits, divides, and follows different groups of characters, interwoven throughout the book. (see: Clancy, Tom) This creates multiple interlocking story lines that are interdependent upon each other, that converge and impact each other, and that affect each others’ pacing. When used sparingly it can be effective; when overused it can kill a story. All too often, if there are too many groups of characters that the reader is not sympathetic to, or story lines that are faltering, it drags the whole story down with it – plus, the author can create a sense of chaos by trying to follow too many different points of view simultaneously.
The Mary-Sue Heroine
The Mary Sue is a term originally coined in fan fiction but extended to regular fiction to describe the hero or heroine who is too perfect to be possible in the universe at hand. It’s used to describe an over-the-top and clichéd character whose features, such as exotic hair and eye colors, mystical or superhuman powers are greater than those of the other characters. This character often has exotic pets, possessions or origins, or an unusually tragic past, often glaringly out of keeping with the inner consistency of the universe. The character is often improbably lucky in romance, adventure, battle or popularity, and the rules and customs of the universe bend for him or her. (see: Wright, Jim) In this particular series, the main character is believable, but a couple of the supporting heroines keep developing Mary Sue type qualities in deus ex machina ways. “Oh, we need X talent? Oh, in spite of what it seemed like, she has the talent, she’s had it all along, she’s just been a covert operative hiding that capability.”
What are your reading pet peeves – what makes you so annoyed that you are not likely to finish a book, continue a series or continue buying from an author?