How To Make Me Hate Your Story

Working in the lab

Yup. Positive test for bullshit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was reading a new novel the other day when my Writer Sense started tingling, and I realized that there was something wrong with the book.

This is pretty standard for a writer. We judge the crap out of others because we’re so used to judging ourselves. We can’t help it. It’s an automatic reaction, like cringing when people write affect when they mean effect.* And usually I can figure out what’s bothering me quickly. Unlikeable protagonist? Seen it. Wooden dialogue? Done that. Just plain boring? Read it so many times I’m bored of that.

But this one was tricky. I rounded up the usual suspects, but none checked out. It had a decent plot. There were varied characters. There was a nice mix of action and drama and sex and bloody violence. I couldn’t figure it why I wasn’t enjoying the book. So I kept reading, running diagnostics on that fucker like it was an ICU patient circling the drain.

I was halfway through when it finally clicked: there was no agency.** None of the characters made a real choice, good or bad. Everything was presented as inevitable. Man sleeping with a married woman? Can’t help himself. Woman cheating on the husband she loves? Not sure why, but has to do it. Attracted to a girl you’ve only seen once? Irresistible force*** drawing him in. Even the guy who murders two people doesn’t choose to do it. It just kind of…happens. In fact, there was only one real choice made in the whole story, and it happened off-screen. That was what set the events of the story in motion. After that, it was all done.

Which is boring as shit.

What’s the point of having an entire cast of characters who don’t choose? They don’t have to make the right choice, but, goddammit, they have to do something. They can’t just be puppets. But that’s what these characters were. Someone else (the author) was pulling their strings, and all they could do was helplessly dance.

So what did I do? I put that book down, and in all likelihood, I’ll never pick it back up. Because the second I figured out what was wrong, I wasn’t interested in what happened to those characters. I left some of them in terrible situations, too. Kidnapped by monsters. Chased by cops. Losing their minds.

And I don’t care. If they’re not going to try, then I don’t give a shit what happens to them. Choose right, choose wrong, but don’t sit on the sidelines. They have to act, even if it’s to do something stupid. Or I’m going to get bored and walk away.

Because I can only read so many books in a lifetime, and I’m not going to waste one of those slots on a bunch of lazy victims.

*Christ, it’s like God’s fingernails on the chalkboard of the universe. If you do this, I’m coming for you.
** No, not the CIA. Agency in this sense means the characters’ ability to act upon and influence their world.
***Not boobs. That I could at least understand.

5 thoughts on “How To Make Me Hate Your Story

  1. I’ve left several characters hanging, too. I read a good deal of fantasy fiction and sci-fi. It CAN be really good, but when it’s bad…

    P.S. – You should have gone with “characters’ ability to act upon and AFFECT their world”. 😉

  2. I really want to like this post but I’m worried about my characters and whether they’re making choices (good or bad)… I’ll be back once I have made sure I will not anger you.

    • Nah, it’s cool. On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog if your characters aren’t choosing.

      On the other hand, I do relish the idea of being some kind of story-demon that must be appeased.

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