I'm in a reading slump lately. Let's face it, editing jobs and my critique partners have made me picky about what I read. Now, every October, I like to try out some horror novels. Plus some of my favorite authors have come out with books this fall. So I have a great selection in my To Be Read pile. Only every time I read one, I get disappointed. Why?
1. The main character can do no wrong. Start with a main character who's as down on his luck as you can imagine and then have good things happen to him. Can't go wrong, right? Yes, if you're me, it can. I'm sorry, real characters make mistakes. I've often said that good things shouldn't happen to characters by chance but bad things are okay to happen by chance. I'm starting to rethink this. Maybe the main character can create one problem during the book please? One unintended consequence? Because "everything he touches turns to gold" is pretty boring.
2. Plot strings that go nowhere. The main character goes to the library to research his haunted house. Ooh, good possible scene. He brings his son. For an unrevealed reason, the son is terrified and wants to go home. His mother picks him up because the main character is so engrossed in the town's history. Now go ahead and piss me off: have him discover nothing and never tell me what scared the son. Really? And I just read that chapter why?
3. Male privilege. In the end, all that mattered was the relationship between the father and son. Never mind that the daughter risked her life to save her father, or that the mother was the main driver of the plot throughout the book. Make sure the epilogue tight-focuses on Dad and Son. Who cares what really happened to female characters anyway? I'm tempted to blame this on J.K. Rowling but the trope is way older than Harry Potter. Do we really need most books that come out for the adult market to center on the father/son relationship? No wonder it's so hard to find a movie with a woman actor in a decent role anymore. (Yes, I know The Walking Dead will eventually go down this path too. It is horror's fallback plot. Just give me another season to enjoy it first, okay?)
4. Can you imagine the luck? Seriously, stop having good things happen to main characters for no reason. Or to quote Phillip J. Fry's book: "I am the greetest! Now I am leaving Earth for no raisin!" Like, can you believe that incredibly poor man your main character helped just happened to be a high financier lying low? And the next poor person your main character helps is an aristocrat down on her luck. You'd think there was nobody in the slums but the rich and famous in disguise. You don't want me to mentally compare your book to Phillip J. Fry's.
5. World rulers less world savvy than me. I'm not a military strategist. I'm not a politician. I'm not an international businessperson. But when your main character's opponent is one of those things, I expect them to understand the world they live in. If I feel like a blind person wouldn't have fallen for the feint and split the army, but the opponent's arrogance leads him into the obvious trap ... how did the person get to be in charge again? Oh, right, for the main character's convenience. Every time you read this in an alternative history book, you should have to do a shot. Two shots if the antagonist acts stupidly despite his advisors' dire warnings.
Actually, you have to do a shot for all these things:
1. Main character's loser friend turns out to be rich/powerful/important but hid it for flimsy reasons.
2. Main character hasn't done or said anything less than perfect by page 100.
3. End of book pushes aside female characters or kills them off.
4. Rich, variegated plot degenerates into father/son fawning relationship.
5. Valuable information falls into the main character's hands through no effort on his or her part.
6. Antagonist doesn't understand the basics of his important job and acts through arrogance.
7. Antagonist ignores his or her trusted advisors, leading to his or her defeat.
8. You close the book wondering if you skipped a chapter because you still don't know what happened to X (the library visit, the history professor, you fill in the blank).
Feel free to add to the shot list. Just don't blame me if you get drunk on horror novels this October.
-- Kate, Miss Perfecting the Pages