Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Characters I'm (very) tired of

by Sandra Parshall
 
The TSTL (Too Stupid To Live) heroine seems to be vanishing from crime fiction at last, but she’s being replaced by somebody equally obnoxious: the “kick-ass” heroine – foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, and thoroughly unpleasant.

Both types are on my list of characters I never want to see in a book again. Along with...

Speaking of drinking, I’ve had my fill of alcoholic cops of both genders. A police detective who can’t make it through 24 hours without getting soused doesn’t inspire my trust, admiration, or patience. Active alcoholics should not be on the job, and in most real police departments they wouldn’t be. In fiction, they drink, pass out, make critical mistakes, and somehow rarely suffer for it. Female fictional cops who drink too much may wake up in strange men’s beds with no idea how they got there. When the protagonist is an alcoholic, the drinking becomes the story. I’d rather read about the crime-solving.

I’m also tired of depressed cops. Maybe I’ve been reading too many Scandinavian mysteries, but I’ve reached the point where I can’t get through a book about a detective who is constantly questioning whether life is worth living. If I saw one of these people on a window ledge, I’d be on the street below yelling, “Jump! Jump!” Get it over with already and spare the rest of us.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the depressed cop is the wacky sidekick, seen most often in amateur sleuth and PI novels. Sometimes they’re family members or friends rather than active participants in the crime-solving. Maybe such a character is meant to give a little color to an otherwise bland protagonist – a Kramer to the book’s Seinfeld. That approach carries a big risk: the wild and crazy secondary character may grab the reader’s attention and eclipse the protagonist. I’d rather see a little more effort put into making the lead character riveting.

Then there’s the badgering mother, so common in mysteries about female cops and amateur sleuths. The badgering mother’s only goal in life is to make her daughter “settle down” – which translates to: Give me a grandchild! The daughter is doing valuable work and is good at it? Who cares! If she hasn’t popped out a baby yet, she’s worthless in the eyes of her mother. What puzzles me is that most of these mothers, in books being published now, are part of the generation most profoundly affected by the women’s liberation movement. From the way the characters are portrayed, you’d never guess Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem ever existed.

I often see “older” characters presented in a way that makes me wonder why the author hates everyone over fifty. An old man leers at and makes lewd remarks about young girls, a middle-aged woman in a robe invites a young policeman into her house and her robe “accidentally” falls open, revealing a naked body that is, of course, wrinkled and disgusting. Divorced women are bitter, lead empty lives, and can’t let two minutes pass without ranting against the gold-digging little tramps their husbands left them for. Many of these sad souls spend their time peering through the curtains at their neighbors. Yes, these people exist in real life, but they feel awfully stale on the page.

I could go on, but I’d rather hear from you. What kind of character sets your teeth on edge and makes you want to throw the book at the wall?

52 comments:

The English Teacher said...

Alcoholic, depressed cops-- sorry, but I still love Inspector John Rebus. However, I suppose I wouldn't really want to read about any others of the same type.

Sheila Connolly said...

Let me add: the professional woman who leaves her high-powered job in The City to return to her quaint home town and open a craft shop--and then spends half her time running around town solving crimes. That's not the way to run a start-up business, even with wacky sidekicks to help!

Anonymous said...

Wow! I never thought I'd see the questioning of writing conventions on this blog. Must be an influence of the earthquake.

Greg

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

The suburban woman amateur sleuth who is necking with the chief of police or detective assigned to the case before the second body hits the floor--and let's blame the cop, who should know better. The psychopathic sidekick with a heart of gold: Hawk, Joe Pike, and others of that ilk. And my favorite pet peeve, the mental health professional, psychiatrist or therapist, who gets involved with a patient, former patient, or patient's family member. Reginald Hill committed that one in his otherwise superb new standalone, which I just read. Anon, not saying all of these conventions haven't been well done--just wondering if they've been overdone.

Stephanie Evans said...

The character who allows him/herself to be used as a doormat -- I see this character in golden age British mysteries all the time -- never in American. I want to give them a good hard shake.

LD Masterson said...

Any female professional who is so overcome by hormones when a particular male walks in that she turns into a stammering teenybopper. Also, the veteran cop, teamed with the brilliant young partner, who seems to serve no role beyond that of stable pony.

Janet said...

I was reading a book not too long ago when I realized that there was not one character to that point in the story who wasn't an alcoholic, an addict and/or suffering from some form of serious mental disorder. I did not finish the book to see if a healthy person showed up. On a much brighter note, I picked up my copy of "Under the Dogstar" yesterday and placed next on my TBR>

Marla M said...

Great thoughts. I couldn't help adding, "me too!," after each of your suggestions.

Sandra Parshall said...

English Teacher: I love Rebus too,and I'm sorry the series has ended, but his drinking problem wasn't his primary characteristic. He was a brilliant detective, and he knew drinking interfered with his work. He didn't make light of it. I like James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux too, but he's an alcoholic who doesn't drink anymore, and that makes him a stronger person in my view. If he starts drinking again, I don't want to read about it.

Sandra Parshall said...

Janet, thanks for trying Under the Dog Star. I hope you enjoy it. It has some unpleasant characters, but I hope I've avoided obvious cliches.

C. C. Harrison said...

Oh, Sandy, I am so with you on the alcoholic/depressed cop stories. You're right, the drinking and depression becomes the story. How boring. I don't mind the others you mentioned, not even the heroines you call TSTL. I think those fictional women who go up to the attic or down the creaky basement stairs to check out the strange noises are courageous. It's the wimps who run away screaming and where's the story in that? Good, thoughtful post.

Sandra Parshall said...

C.C., the heroines I consider TSTL are the ones who don't even KNOW they're in danger. When a character screws up her courage and takes action in the face of recognized danger, that creates suspense. (Police officers of both genders have to do that all the time, of course.) But when I'm screaming, "You idiot! Don't you realize what you're doing?" then I have to call the character TSTL. :-) All the writer has to do is lay a believable foundation for the character's actions, make her savvy enough to deal with the danger, and I'll follow her anywhere.

Kate Gallison said...

My idea of a protagonist too stupid to live is somebody dumber than me. Fortunately, That leaves a wide field.

Sandra Parshall said...

Publishers share the blame for the glut of cliched characters. All mystery writers joke that editors want "something different -- as long as it's just the same as what's already out there." Writers and publishers both need to stretch themselves and take a chance on fresher characters.

carl brookins said...

Jeeze Louise! Now I know why my books don't sell better than they do. None of these characters appear in my stories--unless already dead.

Sandra Parshall said...

Here's another one: the heroine's new boyfriend, who seems too good to be true, turns out to be (of course) the crazy villain. Anytime a female protagonist acquires a new love interest, I expect this scenario. All too often, that's exactly what happens. The same applies to the super-helpful, super-nice new neighbor.

barbara fister said...

The mafia members who show up in the final chapter to knock off the bad guy after the police failed to get a conviction. I have read so many books with that ending lately. Ugh.

I also grind my teeth whenever a dedicated cop has a wife who constantly nags him because he's either working too hard or in a dangerous occupation. I'm sure in real life spouses worry, but surely they know other ways to deal with it other than being a harpy.

Also - though it's less common these days - the friend who just happens to be able to hack into any system to retrieve any information. Deus ex machina indeed. (I always think of the psycho sidekick as deus ex macho.)

Sandra Parshall said...

Barbara, I detest the way the wives of policemen are so often portrayed. In real life, they're as much a part of the police world as their husbands, and I believe the majority of them believe in and support the work their husbands do. I haven't yet seen too many husbands of female cops who nag them, complain about their long hours, suspect them of sleeping with partners, etc., but that's probably coming in future books.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Sandy, Dave Robicheaux does fall off the wagon a time or two in the series -- though the way he deals with it seems to make him a more interesting character. But, as with Travis McGee, I want to scream at any woman getting involved with him "Don't do it! You'll die!" At least Dave's wives last a few books, unless McGee's poor girlfriends!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

This is great, Sandy! Why is the wacky sidekick often gay? Or the very obvious "diversity" character. It's so--klunky.

How about the horrible boss who turns out to have a heart of gold?

Sandra Parshall said...

You're right about the gay sidekick, Hank. It's as if gay people were born to be wacky sidekicks in novels. Why do I never encounter any of these wacky gay people in real life? When I think "gay woman" I think of Rachel Maddow.

Anonymous said...

Sandra, love your post and agree 100 percent! My pet peeves are the woman amateur sleuth who falls all gaa-gaa in love with the handsome but obnoxious man detective and the wacky, goofy parents who are mentally in la-la land but somehow managed to raise an intelligent, perceptive adult daughter. As for drunk policemen, how about a recovering alcoholic character? At least he's trying to reform.
Sally Carpenter
"The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper"
Oak Tree Press

Donna White Glaser said...

I'm with Liz Zelvin, but maybe that's b/c we're both therapists. I hate, hate, HATE when therapists are portrayed in books as ditzy, crazier-than-they're-clients airheads, or worse, as Liz mentioned, completely without ethical boundaries. Humph! Now I'll step off my soap box.
I have to skate around the alcoholic issue carefully b/c my main character is an alcoholic, although she's definitely in recovery and doing what she needs to do. I'm tired of the dark, angst-y drunks too.

Sandra Parshall said...

An alcoholic who is trying to stay sober is totally different from someone who continues drinking regardless of the damage it does. And I especially hate drunk scenes played for laughs. Drunkenness is dangerous. It's not amusing.

Patg said...

How about the protagonist whose parents have died: in a plane crash or a car crash.
When the author just has to get rid of parents that seems to be the only two options.
Patg

P.A.Brown said...

Aside from the TSTL, especially if they're young and blonde, I detest the overbearing mother or grandmother. Every time I run across one, I want the protagonist to stand up and tell her bossy mother to take a hike. Well, it would actually be stronger words, but I'll keep this PG. :-)

But seriously, these are always women who are supposed to be competent cops or PIs but can't stand up to a whiny, bossy family member. I don't care if it happens in real life, I want a strong character who can stand up for herself.

I hate to say it, but that may be why I don't read a lot of mysteries with female protagonists. I run into these weak ass characters who don't inspire respect.

Coco Ihle said...

Wow, Sandra, interesting post. I've probably missed some good writers because I don't care for alcoholic or depressed characters either. And I agree with you on the unfair portrayal of older characters. As for the others, I'm not so picky. In fact, one of my characters had a TSTL moment in my resently released book. Think I'll tiptoe out of my office now.

Rosemary Harris said...

Of course, any of these done well can make for a great book...but I'm pretty tired of the group of teenagers who go into the woods - and then they don't all come out! OMG! What happened?? And why does it take them 20 years to find out?!

Anonymous said...

I don't like unlikeable protagonists -- mean people. I also don't like the mysteries (t.v. shows usually) where they throw the gun down and finish off with a fist fight.

While I liked some of Inspector Frost, it was very uneven in several ways. We skipped most of Season 7 of Frost because he was so uncaring about someone's dead cat. Then it seemed a cat-killer with a rifle-scope aimed at cats was afoot. That was it for that season with us simultaneously.

Interesting discussion.

The Cat Bastet said...

Wow, I think all of my pet peeves have been mentioned but one:

What about the annoying cop who is always telling the amateur sleuth to butt out of police business? Yes, that's exactly what would happen in real life, or the persistent amateur sleuth would be arrested for interfering with an investigation. For some reason, this really bothers me in fiction. I want the amateur sleuth to have a legitimate reason to be there (be a PI or have some kind of plausible police connection). When that rightly annoyed cop character shows up I always groan “oh no, not again! I’m so tired of this!” It’s even worse when it happens to the same amateur sleuth book after book.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

I love this post...you are SO right!

How about the little kid that has the clue? Or the secret baby? (Oh, wait, I used that. I'm in a time out with Coco, I guess...:-))

Sandra Parshall said...

Rosemary -- LOL! You'd think that scenario would be pretty uncommon, but it keeps popping up. (Folks, the kids in the woods thing has been done. Give it a rest.)

Amateur sleuth novels have a built-in credibility problem -- I mean, how many booksellers and knitting clubs actually go around solving murders? -- so you if you're going to read them (or write them), you have to let go of reality. You won't find reality in those pages. I have to really work at finding plausible ways for my protagonist Rachel to be involved in Tom Bridger's investigations. I worry all the time that I'm not making it believable. I'm not ready yet to surrender to the "it's fiction -- anything goes" way of writing.

Austin Carr said...

How about the sick, disgusting loser who murders somebody even sicker? Maybe I've been reading different stuff ...

Gerrie Ferris Finger said...

Precocious kid detectives. There are a couple of popular series that aren't YA. Nor am I fond of animals detectives. Since these are popular, it's me who's out of step. Oh well...I'm not fond of YouTube kid singers, either.

Anonymous said...

Sandy, not exactly a type of character - annoys me - but the style many current writers use when they give the reader a creepy insight into the mind and thoughts of a nasty villain, who we don't know and can't care about - and then finally reveal who he/she is - and we still don't care about that creep!! Thelma

Nancy Lauzon said...

So true, excellent post. I read mostly amateur sleuth mysteries, and I'm getting very tired of 1) characters who are newly separated or divorced from their husbands. Enough already. Also 2) boring characters. They're not memorable in any way. They could be anyone I meet on the street. What gives with publishers these days?

Anonymous said...

I agree. These characters are getting old. Yet TV seems to still be putting many of them out there, especially the "Kick-Ass" woman with the new show starring Maria Bello. Looks stupid.

Richard Brawer
www.silklegacy.com

Dana Stabenow said...

I am sick of dumb investigators, pro or am.

Like the one who's necking in a parked car on a lonely back road in the same area where she's looking for a serial killer whose victims -- you guessed it -- are couples necking in parked cars (and no, it's not a trap, it is or is meant to be overwhelming sexual attraction). Or the detective investigating the sexual mutilation and death of a child not realizing until the very last minute that child abuse by the stepfather is involved.

Investigators aren't supposed to theorize ahead of their data, true, but experience is a wonderful teacher, or it is if the investigator is paying attention, and why write them if they aren't? If the investigator can't or won't learn, he or she should be the first victim, instead of trying to convince me they are the hero. And the bloodier and more painful their death, the better.

Wow. Thanks for letting me vent, Sandy.

bookworm said...

I agree totally with you. However I have to point out that if we were to dispense with all of these hackneyed characters/protagonists the publishing business would fall apart. IMHO there are way too many "authors" and I use the term loosely who sort of develop a character and then rely only on the quirkiness/disfunction/one dimensionality of said protagonist to flesh out the mystery. So disappointing and so very trivial.

Janet said...

I have stopped reading 2 or 3 series because the craft/bakery/book shop owner in the small town accuses everyone in town, one after another, of being the murderer. He/she then behaves toward those accused as if nothing is wrong. The "I thought you were a killer yesterday, but let's have lunch today because now I think someone else is the killer" plot. I mean, really....

Anonymous said...

For me, it;s the amateur who thinks she's (always a she) smarter than the cops, and gets information the cops don't have and keeps it to herself.

Janice said...

Sick to death of precocious kids. Period. The only person who got the kidness of a kid right in the last few years is the fellow who wrote Christopher in "The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime".

Anonymous said...

I agree with all of your comments. No room for depressed, alcoholic, drug abusing cops in today's real world.

genitiggie said...

The cop whose boss appears to be completely stupid and blocks any sensible approach to the investigation. Please, he/she (can't think of a she, but there muse be one somewhere) didn't get fired for incompetence on the way up the ladder. Again, can be done well, but seems to be done far too routinely. Must the detective be alone because he/she is distrusted? What about because they are respected for their competence?

Poodlebugz said...

I'm getting jaded about mystery series that seem to be seem to thinly hinge on the amateur detective's occupation, complete with recipes, patterns, etc.

Don't get me wrong--I do enjoy mysteries where the protagonist has an interesting job, and I can learn something about said profession or get a recipe or two. However, it seems like there is a factory churning out little cozy mysteries with all the faults mentioned in this blog/comments, including inappropriate make out sessions with the police detective, and loosely hanging the story on the main character's occupation, complete with cutesy titles and "First in an exciting new series" taglines.

I'm totally waiting for something like "Dust to Bust, the first in an exciting new series on vacuuming!," with the protagonist being an underground vacuum cleaner racer.

Karen Olson said...

In response to Poodlebugz, yes, there are a couple of publishers who make their living on this type of "hobby" amateur sleuth mystery. I've written four in a tattoo shop mystery series, which is so ridiculous if you think about it. But I have tried very hard not to fall into the traps described here, even though sometimes it's just inevitable. The nature of the beast, so to speak. And when my publisher asked me to write a proposal for another series with a restaurant critic protagonist, it got turned down because I was told that I "can't write cozy enough." They probably didn't like the 50 something successful single mom in New York City protag I created...since they went with another proposal with yet another much younger female character who has man problems in a small community. Sigh. Talk about cliches.

Sandra Parshall said...

Karen, your journalism-based series was terrific. I was sorry to see it end.

Camille Minichino said...

My pet peeve - well, pets.
Using them to show a character has a soft side just doesn't do it for me. Show the character being nice to a person, please.

Adults talking to pets -- I'll leave it at that.

Mike Dennis said...

1. The wacked-out Vietnam vet.

2. The "crusty but benign", noble WWII vet.

3. The wife/girlfriend of a sensitive musician/writer/artist who constantly nags him about getting a "real job".

4. The wisecracking pre-teen (who REALLY needs a good rap on the head).

5. The black guy who's the demolition expert in a commando team, and is always the first one to get killed.

6. The corporate CEO who is totally evil, along with his ultra-showy wife.

7. The crusading newspaper/TV reporter.

8. The Italian/Jewish mother from hell ("Here! Take this knife! Kill me now!")

Casey said...

Sigh...... I guess I'll just have to give up reading mysteries. But before I leave, two of my peeves (I have several but many have already been mentioned) are: (1) functioning the safety on a revolver or loading a semi-automatic with a clip; and (2) giving me endless descriptions with each and every street name while driving to a destination that takes longer to read than the trip probably did. ('scuse the grammar, please)

Casey said...

Can I take back my peeves? I just realized they are off the TSTL topic.

Dana Stabenow said...

@Mike Dennis, who wrote "6. The corporate CEO who is totally evil, along with his ultra-showy wife."

I can't ever remember reading a corporate CEO good guy (outside of Nevil Shute, anyway). There's a story idea right there.