Recently I just finished a book called Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys. It’s not terrible but it’s not great either. One of the things that annoyed me about it was the lazy way it treated potentially interesting characters.
The book is set in a New Orleans brothel in the 1950s and focuses on a little girl named Josie as she grows up in this unusual environment. Every cliche about a hooker with a heart of gold, idiotic but cruel mafia types, police officers who turn a blind eye are brought out and put on display. The story has a very predictable love triangle and Madame who is tough talking Southern lady we’ve read in a thousand other books.
But I don’t want to talk about those characters because what got me thinking is how Sepetys makes Josie a reader. She even works and lives at a bookstore. It felt like a really lazy way of ascribing a whole bunch of qualities to the character without really developing it. Just make her a reader and that will mean she is precocious, smart, thoughtful, introspective, a dreamer etc.
Then I realized how often this is done with lots of different books, books I love. Usually combined with writing an author can make a character a reader and it immediately associates them with a whole list of attributes and traits. I find this to be particularly true with female characters. Has there ever been a female reader in a book that was silly and superficial?
I’m sure this is partly because authors are readers and so they like to ascribe lots of positive qualities to the character they most embody. It also saves the author from having to create complex characters in every story.
Sometimes the plot doesn’t need a complex character, or all she needs to be is the type of bold thinker associated with the trope. There is nothing wrong with using cliches in your story (within reason) if it moves the story. Certainly many books have gotten mired in unique characters and the plot has suffered.
Jane Austen actually plays with the lazy assumptions of readers in Pride and Prejudice. Miss Bingley see’s Lizzie reading and trying to pin her foe down as the very type of woman I’m talking about: the percocious reader instead of the lady:
“Do you prefer reading to cards?” said he; “that is rather singular.”
“Miss Eliza Bennet,” said Miss Bingley, “despises cards. She is a great reader, and has no pleasure in anything else.”
“I deserve neither such praise nor such censure,” cried Elizabeth; “I am NOT a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things.”
Why is this so rare? Why not have a person who just enjoys reading on occasion? Or why not have a reader who also likes sports or playing cards? Why do 99% of readers have to be the same?
But it just made me think is the brilliant reader trope a thing because that’s actually the way readers are or is it a lazy way to continue a story and create a likable heroine? I feel like I know lots of different kind of readers but perhaps the one’s that self-identify as a ‘reader’ are more similar. For example, my father likes to read a particular type of book but I don’t think he would list that as his first character attribute.
Think about in Sound of Music. When Brigitta comes into roll call reading a book as a viewer you immediately assume tons about her character. What do you guys think about that? Is it lazy storytelling, necessary to quickly identify people or actually true to life?
Perhaps it doesn’t really matter but I do wonder if it could ostracize certain people from reading because they don’t fit the stereotype of a ‘reader’. What if you are like Lizzie and take pleasure in many things? What’s wrong with that? Books are so diverse that creating such a narrow definition of what a reader looks like could be discouraging for people who don’t want to be branded with that label or persona?
I think this is particularly true for boys who may want the persona of being a comic book reader but not the more feminine quality of reading novels (although why that is a gender identifier I will never understand).
Maybe I’m overthinking it but I just know I get bored when I’ve seen a character a million times and know exactly what she is going to say, believe and do. Also some of the enlightened reader types are from my favorite books (Book Thief, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women etc) so it has kind of been done as good as you can do it. And those great books were developing their characters in other ways not using reading as a lazy writing crutch.
What do you guys think about readers in books and movies? Do you agree with me they can be pretty predictable or am I creating a pattern where none exists? What are some examples of more nuanced readers in books I may be overlooking? Would love your feedback