Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Characters I (Don't) Want to Be Friends with

I've been reading a lot of chick lit lately, because a) I like it; b) since most of the stuff I write is chick lit, I think of reading chick lit novels by published authors as research; c) due to the fact that I'm thirty years old and still single, it helps to read stories about women who are just as confused about dating as I am but still get their happy endings. (It especially helps after reading way too many online dating profiles that say stuff like, "I'm convinced that there's a woman who looks just like Natalie Portman out there for me, and I'm not willing to settle for less," and "I have a girlfriend, but I'm still open to meeting new people.")

Some of the chick lit novels I've been reading are really good, the kind of books that I want to reread as soon as I finish reading them. Some of them, however, are not so good. One major problem I have with a few chick lit novels are the characters. If I don't like the main character in particular, it's really difficult for me to enjoy the book. I mean, if I'm going to be reading 300 pages about someone's life, I want it to be about someone who's funny, interesting, and a good person, not someone who makes me want to take her by the shoulders and yell, "For God's sake, get a grip, woman!"

I like reading chick lit books about characters that I want to be friends with, the kind of women who would be fun to hang out with and have dinner with, not the kind of friends who make me frantically come up with excuses like, "I can't hang out tonight because I have to organize all of my M&Ms by color and Google myself to make sure that nobody's writing mean stuff about me and posting it online."

I read a book called See Jane Write: A Girl's Guide to Writing Chick Lit, by Sarah Mlynowski and Farrin Jacobs. It included a list of descriptions of characters who should not show up in chick lit novels. I agreed with their list. I've included my own list below, with my own additions/modifications.

1. There's more to life than having a boyfriend. Have you ever had a friend who was totally obsessed with her boyfriend? The kind of girl who spent every weekend with him, and only hung out with you when he wasn't available? The girl who would spend half the time texting him when she wasn't with him? And it isn't just girls who are like this. I was once friends with a guy who would mention his girlfriend every ten minutes, literally. His girlfriend was nice, but I didn't really want to hear every single thing about her ALL THE LIVELONG DAY.

In some of the chick lit novels I've been reading, getting or keeping a boyfriend is not only the protagonist's main concern; it's her only concern. I will admit that finding true love is important to me too, but there are other things that matter, things like friends, writing, teaching, life in Chicago, whether or not I'll ever be able to kick my Jersey Shore addiction (I know they're stupid and are probably sucking my soul every time I watch their show, and yet I can't stop watching!), etc., etc. 

I don't want to read a story about a twenty-first century Stepford Girlfriend whose only focus in life is finding and pleasing her man. I want to read a love story, yes, but I also want to read about the other stuff in her life. Just look at Pride and Prejudice. It is a story that focuses on women's pursuit of love, but it's also about other good stuff, like Elizabeth Bennet's frustration and love for her embarrassing family, and the fact that people like Lady Catherine just can't get over the fact that Elizabeth doesn't have the same wealth and social status as Lady Catherine does.

2. Real life is not a soap opera. When I was in college, I was addicted to soap operas. I actually scheduled my classes so that I wouldn't miss any episodes of All My Children. But then I got caught up with school, friends, and college clubs; I ended up missing several episodes. When I started watching again, it was a lot easier to recognize how melodramatic and unrealistic soap operas are (although if you think about it, it's pretty much required and expected that soap operas be melodramatic and unrealistic).

I thought, "Hey! Real life and relationships aren't like this! Real people don't have evil twins (at least I hope they don't) who are plotting to destroy everyone that gets in their way. Most people don't become so obsessed with the object of their affection that they a) kidnap other people's babies and replace them with other babies; b) keep deal-breaking secrets like secret pregnancies, the fact that they didn't really divorce their eighth husband, the fact that they're secretly cheating on the object of their affection with the other object of their affection, or the fact that they are the evil twin; c) keep doing that dramatic pause thing where they stare off into the distance and do a monologue where they say stuff like, "I will make him love me! I don't care that he's married to my sister who seems to be invincible because she keeps mysteriously coming back from the dead no matter how many deathly traps I set for her! I mean, seriously, who is able to survive a gunshot wound, a house fire, and a drowning, all in one week?"

Monologues in chick lit novels are okay if they're used sparingly, but I don't want to feel like I'm reading a play by Shakespeare. He was able to use monologues pretty effectively, but in chick lit novels, too many long speeches where characters describe their feelings for each other or list all the things that they've learned or all the reasons they find fault with other characters just don't ring true for me. Too many long speeches from the characters also make me feel like I'm being preached at.

I want to read conversations with stuff that people would actually say in real life. I also want to read a story about situations that I can actually relate to, not the kind of stuff that soap operas are made of. 

3. A chick lit novel should not resemble an episode of Jackass or Ridiculousness. I've never understood why people like those shows. What's so entertaining about guys who light their pants on fire or hurl themselves from rooftops without any protective gear or jab sharp objects at their faces? Self-destructive behavior just isn't fun for me.

By a similar token, Mlynowski and Jacobs wrote in their book that the main character shouldn't be the type of person who keeps making stupid choices without learning anything from them. I was reading a chick lit novel recently, where the protagonist kept doing one dumb thing after another. Even though her choices didn't lead to anything good, she just kept going. She didn't even try to change her behavior until she'd run out of other options. I just kept shaking my head and saying, "Oh, come on!" That made it really hard to like her as a character, and that made it even harder to like the story as a whole.

That's why it's really important to me to be able to like the character, not to be constantly annoyed by her. There are enough people like that in real life; I don't want them to invade my favorite books too. Fortunately, a lot of chick lit authors I've read know how to tell their stories and describe their characters without making me want to fling the books across the room. They're the kind of authors that I can learn from and enjoy. They're also the kind of authors that I would want to be friends with.

What about you? What kinds of things do you like or dislike about fictional characters in your favorite novels?

Happy New Year, everyone!


  1. When I was in my early teens, I was addicted to Sweet Valley High novels because I loved the drama and the evil-twins factor. I still want to have twins because in some deep, dark part of my brain I want to be Alice Wakefield (still looking young after all these years!). It's one of the reasons why I want to see Young Adult with Charlize Theron.

    If there is a love-plot in a chick lit book, I want to also like the guy the heroine falls in love with. If he's too young, immature, or a version of the guys you met on dating websites, then I lose respect for the main character and have less fun reading the book.

  2. I love chic lit! It's a light, quick read that always makes me feel good. Still, you've made some excellent points. Life and relationships are more than what's written in most chic lit novels. But that may be why I enjoy reading them. They're an escape. Kind of like romantic comedies. : )

  3. That last paragraph made me imagine you reading, getting angry, then throwing the book across the room. But in my head, it was a common occurrence so you were just on to the next book. :)

  4. I dislike the plot lines when it's all about miscommunication FOR AN EXTENDED PERIOD OF TIME. Oh, you've really been married for years and didn't bother to tell the other person you never signed the divorce papers? Oh, your mom had sex with his dad but you think it was your little sister instead? Oh, you had a crush on him in high school but he thought you were too perfect for him? Those dumb plot points that could have been explained in three sentences, but cause misery for many people for days/months/years? That drives me insane.

  5. Hi Anna,
    I liked Sweet Valley Twins too, but I actually didn't like Elizabeth Wakefield very much; I thought she let Jessica push her around too much. Young Adult sounds interesting, especially because I like movies about writers.
    I totally agree with you about liking the love interest in chick lit novels. He's a major character, after all, and it'd be more difficult to relate to the female protagonist if we can't understand or don't agree with what she sees in him.

    Hi Emily,
    I like romantic comedies. Like you said, they're an escape, which is especially good when I want to escape from what dating is really like. I normally only watch three or four movies a year; when I do go to the movies, I usually watch romantic comedies.

    Hi Libby,
    Usually I just throw books when I'm studying some really boring critical theory stuff for grad school; I get frustrated sometimes because the books are difficult to understand no matter how many times I read them.

    Hi NGS,
    I know what you mean; I often skip ahead to the end of the book to see what the big "revelation" is like. And the miscommunication can be frustrating for readers, too, because it makes us wonder why the characters who don't know the truth didn't figure it out sooner.

  6. Haha - back in college my BROTHER rearranged his schedule for All My Children!

    I really like this post. I know exactly what you mean about picturing characters as people you could be friends with. Makes it easier to like them. As long as it doesn't swing too far the other way, where they're too perfect, you know?

  7. Hi Nicki,
    Characters who are too perfect can definitely be annoying. I read one chick lit novel where there was hardly any conflict because not only were the characters a little too perfect, they all loved each other and hardly ever fought. When they did, they made up rather quickly, so the story got boring pretty quickly too. Real people and their relationships are not that perfect at all.

  8. Fantastic pointers that can relate to not only chicklit but pretty much any genre. I really need to like--or at least care for--the main character to finish reading a book.

  9. Hi Lynda,
    I think that readers develop a sort of relationship with the characters; the more invested we are in that "relationship", the more likely we are to keep reading.

  10. I'm with you on the 'boyfriends are the only reason for me to breathe' thing. I really don't like that!

    I won't comment on anything else because now I'm paranoid I've done some of it in my novels! :)

  11. Hi Talli,
    Don't worry, you didn't do any of those things. I really enjoyed your book (and I plan to buy your new one); it was the kind of book that I was able to finish in just a couple days because I couldn't stop reading it.