Expectations – oh no!

I just finished reading a book that annoyed the hell out of me. Even a week after finishing it, I’m still bitter and twisted. The writing was great and the story was gripping right up until the last bit. By then the story was wrapping up in the usual way. I knew what was coming so starting skimming a bit, switching my brain off because I didn’t really need to concentrate. After all, once you know what’s coming, there’s no real need to focus. Except then the author threw in a curly one.

It was a romance so he was carrying around his grandmother’s ring to give to the love of his life, which of course was the other main character, because for 80,000 words we’ve been hearing that she was and it was just unfortunate circumstances that kept them apart. Except then… she wasn’t. Someone else was and he gave her the ring. Cue my WTF face:

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Now I get that there is a trend at the moment where we’re trying to show women and young girls in particular that the love of a man isn’t everything. That you can be happy and fulfilled with the love and support of your friends and family. The problem for me is that I think that’s great and support it wholeheartedly. I watched “Frozen” and loved the ending where true love is about sisterly love, rather than romantic love. Similarly, “Maleficent” was about the love of a mother figure, rather than Prince Charming. So you can imagine my horror when I found myself feeling deeply annoyed that the main character in the end behaved horribly to the original “love of his life” and decided that it was in fact his daughter who deserved his wholehearted devotion.

I should like that, right? The stressing of the importance of other types of love in our lives. But I didn’t. I actually hated it. But why? Was it because it was a man making the decision, rather than a woman, that her child was the most important thing in their life that I didn’t like? If the sexes were reversed, would I have been okay with it? As much as I hate to say it, maybe.

Quick disclaimer: I feel the need to stress that what I’m talking about is fictional works, not reality. What I want to read is completely different from what I want to happen in my actual life. I love books about stuff that I would never want to happen to me personally.

A big part of the problem is expectation: I want to be surprised, but clearly not too much. For me, there wasn’t enough of a set up for the resolution. My reaction was not the one the author was looking for.

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But then I put on my writer hat and I want to do all sorts of crazy things. There is a total disconnect between what I want to read and what I want to write. I want to write the twisty ending because that’s far more fun than just going with the obvious and I always think in my head that it’s great to surprise the reader and of course they’ll love it! This has been a great lesson for me. Readers don’t want to be surprised in the last chapter but something completely different. If you’ve stuck to a theme and known storyline, you can’t back out at the end. If you write a whole book about star-crossed lovers, then they have to be happily together at the end or there is no point to all the angst. And if you mess with that, you’ll just end up with cranky readers.

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Horrible People

Characters in a book are easy to make irredeemable, but you try not to, because you get criticized for making them one dimensional. You try to put a bit of good in with the bad to give them some texture because it makes them more realistic. But sometimes that’s not true to life. Some people you encounter really are just that awful.

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I hadn’t given it much thought until I encountered one recently. Generally, if someone is behaving badly you can write it off as a bad day, too much to drink, going through a difficult time in their lives, et cetera. From asking around, it seemed this man was genuinely what he appeared. He was loud, obnoxious and completely unattractive, both externally and internally. Literally there is no stage of drunk you could reach where he would be even tolerable. He appeared to have no knowledge of this though and regaled everyone in shouting distance of how fantastic he was. He was that stereotypical older privileged white male who travelled to third world countries a lot from the locations given for the anecdotes and you can only imagine what he got up to there. With the advent of political correctness and greater understanding of different cultures, I had thought that this type of man didn’t exist anymore. Racism and sexism are generally better hidden than in this throwback to the seventies. And I mean the 1770’s. I gained a new insight into how the atrocities towards the native inhabitants occurred when white people first arrived.

What it made me realise is that when it’s not in your face, you tend to forget stuff like this is still there. If someone isn’t drunkenly shouting absurd and increasingly vulgar statements at you, you can ignore it. A sly comment here or there, an attitude that is slightly offensive to another racial group or a patronising compliment that reinforces gender stereotypes are all easily glossed over. It is easier to ignore it than to confront someone and have your interpretation denied. In one way, it was reassuring that I wasn’t the only one disgusted by this man and that as a society we’ve come a long way. But in another, the fact that this person was still invited to social functions shows that he hasn’t had to change and is to a certain extent still tolerated.

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It has made me think about who and what I find entertaining. I often laugh at outrageous things and sometimes I’m the one trying to make people laugh by saying things I probably shouldn’t. But where is the line between funny and distasteful? Between being so careful that you become bland and just being pleasant by ensuring that you don’t offend anyone? I struggle sometimes when writing to not censor the words and actions of a character, in order to avoid potentially offending anyone. But sometimes that means that the writing doesn’t ring true, because that fictional person would have said the wrong thing. Of course not every character I write is me, though I realise by this stage in my writing career that people reading a book will generally attribute any attitude expressed to the author. Understanding what is acceptable and what isn’t is difficult with the increasing globalisation of publication, where your book is available in every country almost instantly with no regard for cultural differences.

I’m lucky that I write very commercial books that aren’t taken that seriously but it has to have an impact on people trying to write works of greater literary significance. With everyone chasing publicity, trying to get their name out there ahead of all the millions of other authors, there’s sure to be someone far more offensive in their writing than I could ever imagine being. I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or not. These characters might be descriptive of real people, and while they do unfortunately exist, don’t really need more air time. Though they do make excellent villains, as long as they get offed in the end because unfortunately some times, you can’t do that in real life.