It’s Adopt a Peeve Day here, so I’m throwing one out for you. You know, just in case you didn’t have enough of your own already.
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve taken on some new responsibilities. I’m editing at a couple of web sites where people post their original fiction. There are many fine writers out there. I’m really enjoying getting to know their work. It’s also helpful for my own writing. I can always tell when something is what I consider “good,” but often I’m not sure why. It’s not about whether a story is interesting or intellectually stimulating. It’s not about the pacing or the characterization or the unique voice of the writer. Those things matter, certainly. But there’s always this something underneath it all that can make or break a story. Each time I read a new story, I understand a little more what separates the amazing from the significantly less so.
That aside, there are definitely a few things that just plain irritate me from minute one. If I spot one of these problems, it won’t matter how awesomely awesome the rest of the story is. I won’t be able to stop myself from reading it in Cringe Mode. I can deal with spelling and grammar errors, as those can be edited out. It’s the Sucky Writing Technique that bothers me.
So I’m offering, as a one-time deal, the following peeves for your consideration:
1. Writers who don’t use their characters’ names.
This can take many forms. Sometimes, it’s a blatant refusal. The writer simply uses pronouns instead. This seems to be most common when the writer is young or inexperienced. (I don’t mean inexperienced as in, “not published”; I mean as in, hasn’t written much of anything, even as a hobby.) I’ve read entire stories where the main character (MC) is referred to as “he” throughout. It’s damn distracting. Even when the MC is the only person of note in a given chapter, there is something off about never seeing his or her name in print. It always seems as though the writer is shy or embarrassed about the character names he or she has chosen, or even the character him- or herself. That or the writers fancies this style to be poetic. Trust me, it’s not.
Another (equally annoying) version of the no-name thing is when characters are referred to by some physical feature: “the blonde”; “the blue-eyed girl”; “the tall man.” This is perfectly acceptable when the person in question is a stranger to the reader (and usually to the MC). For example, if a detective is under cover in a bar, he might keep his eye on “the blonde,” who has been acting suspicious all night. A mother watching her son on the playground might take note when “the blue-eyed girl” offers him half her peanut butter sandwich. Someone waiting for a blind date might wonder if “the tall man” who just walked in is the date. But if the blonde, the blue-eyed girl, or the tall man are established characters, especially if they have main roles in the story, it’s just plain silly to describe them this way. That detective probably wouldn’t refer to his partner as “the blonde.” If the blue-eyed girl is her daughter, the mother doesn’t refer to her by her eye color. If the tall man is in a relationship with the MC, the MC would call him by his name.
2. Writers who switch point of view (POV) in the middle of the action.
This drives me nuts. Wait, I have to say it again. This drives me absolutely freakin’ bonkers! Although I don’t prefer it, I understand when writers choose to allow the reader full omniscience. I think it’s better to keep to a single POV, but that’s personal preference. This peeve, however, is something else. This is reading the thoughts and feelings of one character and then…all of a sudden, you’re in someone else’s head.
Tragically, J. K. Rowling is guilty of this in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I know, I don’t want to think ill of one of my favorite authors either. Sadly, it’s true. The series is from Harry’s POV throughout, with a few exceptions (mostly prologue-style introductory chapters in later books). Even those aren’t bad, since they are separate chapters and always occur before the main action of the book starts. But in Sorcerer’s Stone, it happens right smack in the middle of a chapter. (For the curious, I don’t have the book on hand and can’t give page/chapter, but the scene in question is in the middle of Harry’s first quidditch game. It switches from Harry’s POV to random omniscience.) Fortunately, I think it’s an isolated incident.
Unfortunately, it’s not an isolated incident for some writers. Some people literally switch mid-paragraph. It gets confusing, trying to figure out whose thoughts I’m reading. For the love of all that’s literary, please don’t do this to your readers. Trust me, the best writing leaves some mystery because the MC doesn’t know what everyone else is thinking, and therefore neither do we. Frankly, I’m glad we don’t have to slog through everybody’s brains in most stories. Can you imagine how long Harry Potter would have ended up being if we’d been privy just to what Hermione was thinking? Seven books wouldn’t have been anywhere near enough!
What writing peeves would you like to add to the list?