The Lies Novels Tell Us

Okay, sometimes fiction and “escapism” is a good thing. Sometimes…it isn’t.

Here are a list of lies novels tend to tell us that I think can be quite damaging when they’re part of a trend:

  1. Relationships aren’t built, they happen, preferably within the span of Book One.  See: montages.
  2. The first guy/girl who walks across the stage of your life is the one you should end up with, for sake of (plot) tidiness and as the key to your (predicted) ultimate happiness.
  3. Singlehood is a state to be bemoaned and feared.
  4. You should also be too busy saving the world to have a good relationship with yourself. (Maybe that’s why there are so many love triangles in novels? They simply don’t know who they are or what they want and they don’t have the time to stop and find out.)
  5. To be a strong woman, you must look ultra-feminine but behave as masculine as possible. Also, exert your worth and independence at every opportunity.
  6. Only women who are feminine are beautiful.  Only men who are masculine are handsome.
  7. You must be the ideal beauty in order to be a hero or heroine.
  8. People shouldn’t rely on each other, they must solve all of their problems by themselves.
  9. Intimacy within a temporary relationship is just as emotionally safe and stable as in a mutually-promised, committed, trusting, long-lasting one.
  10. Relationship growth ends at marriage. (“And they lived happily ever after”)
  11. The only interesting or fulfilling relationships are romantic ones.
  12. Romance, attraction, sexual tension are enough to base a healthy, functioning relationship on.
  13. You can get away with lying to yourself and/or lying to others and still have healthy close relationships.
  14. Vengeance and justice are the same thing.
  15. Mercy and passivity are the same thing.
  16. People are only interesting when they’re young, preferably between 16-19 years old.
  17. White Americans are not interested in reading about different peoples, cultures, races, nations, times, histories, diversities, languages, so these shouldn’t be published, they won’t sell.

If I have an agenda in writing, it’s to write (and explore) relationships in my fiction.  Each of my novels thus far has come at it from a different angle.  Queen of the Eight Banners is about the protagonist’s relationship with (mainly) herself, discovering who she is and what she’s capable of, which is far more than she thought possible.   The Witch’s Tower explores several different mother-daughter relationships.  Otherside explores two sets of atypical romantic relationships, alongside the other plot arcs, of course.

So perhaps “agenda” is the wrong word. “Experiment” or “exploration” or “fascination” would be closer, but I do want to do relationships better justice than I’ve seen them in many…many books.  Mostly I think this happens because relationships are side-lined to make room for other, flashier plot elements (which makes sense since no one book can do everything), or because, well, the authors themselves simply don’t know how to make them work.   Most of the time it feels like they’re just sub-consciously rehashing formulas they’ve read because I can name several books that go along with each statement.

Which is a shame, considering I think our relationships are the trickiest and most important part of life, so getting them right can really “make or break” our own happiness.

I don’t want to imply that all books proclaim these things. For every “lie” I listed, I can think of a book that happily disproves it, but I don’t think there are enough of these truth-resonating books, and all of them are daring in one way or another…which is probably why there aren’t enough of them.  “Daring” books aren’t exactly typical in the industry.  (Note the difference implied here between “daring” and “edgy.”)

Thoughts? Additions? Subtractions to the list?

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9 responses to “The Lies Novels Tell Us

  • Charlie Holmberg

    I think this is a great list! And it’s very true, especially in YA novels. I like being surprised in relationships.

    There was a book… I think SPIRIT FOX… where this very plain and chubby girl hooks up with this guy who has half his face burned from an earlier incident. I loved it. They weren’t the main couple, sadly, but I thought it was a great idea.

    That’s something else I’ve seen in books–when there’s a love triangle and a difficult situation that needs to be met, authors often cop out. I read one book where a girl had to choose between two guys, but instead of making the decision, one of them happens to die in a car accident. In another, one of them dies (poorly) at the end, again making the decision for the protagonist. Or one of the men will imprint on the protagonist’s daughter (holla Twilight), thus getting rid of the emotional strain and making the decision easy. I hate that…

    • Laura

      Woot! Thanks for the comment.

      SPIRIT FOX sounds interesting–though even more interesting if they were the main couple. What was the main couple like, out of curiosity?

      AND YES cop-outs are not cool! They are also rather…Victorian. At least many of the Victorian novels I have read make sure everything Works Out Properly through deus ex machina by the end…. It’s always discouraging to see it in contemporary novels.

  • Robinton

    Good list! *Archives link.*

    Feel free to ignore this (I mean, seriously: TL;DR!), but I’m working on a lengthy story, called the Last Fairy’s Tale, and I’d like to go ahead and list how I deal with (or want to deal with) your list. Oh, and I’ll be using TVTropes notation.
    1.@montages: PlayedWith, I suppose. The first book stretches over about two decades, so I can, and hopefully do, handle the various characters’ friendships/relationships well. Varies by other books, though the rule of thumb in the series is: unless you’ve got a good ~5 year friendship, anything more is probably not reliable (though foresight can change things somewhat).
    2.@First guy/girl wins: Arguably Played Straight, since I don’t really feel like writing love triangles…
    3.@SinglehoodPhobia: Almost always Averted. By the wiser characters, averted hard. By the supporting cast, depends.
    4.@KnowHowToSaveTheWorld,NotThyself: Again, usually Averted. Knowing thyself is a huge part of being magically strong, so “meditation” could count as a Defense Against the Dark Arts class.
    5.@Insecure”Strong”Women: Usually averted. Or considered a flaw that the characters have to grow out of. Idrial, a central protagonist, actually notes that she is too dependant (though she gets some slack, as her powers honestly are geared toward working with friends, and with some work and some Healing Powers, she does grow out of it).
    6.@Only women who are feminine are beautiful. Only men who are masculine are handsome: Hmm… Not sure about this one. I suppose sometimes averted, if you count Bryston wielding a sword almost as well as _Jed_. But you could certainly argue about this, especially since I’m not (yet) that good with descriptions.
    7.@Hero(ine)sAreAlwaysPerfectlyGoodLooking: Again, I haven’t really described any characters in detail (which I shall have to amend), though I’ve never _noted_ anyone looking perfect… Hmm…
    8.@MustBeIndependent: Averted. Some of the most painful scenes for Adrian (even if you include his first death scene) are the ones where he can’t Protect his friends. And most of the most awesome spells, inventions, victories, etc. would be absolutely impossible without teamwork.
    9.@TemporaryRelationshipsArePerfectlyStable: The Heroes tend to realize that that wouldn’t work. And so Defy it. Hard.
    10.@RelationshipGrowthEndsAtMarriage: “Happily Ever After” is referenced, by name, and totally Subverted. It’s the story of a Fairy, for goodness sake! Shouldn’t there be a happy ending? No. Life’s still going to be difficult, as long as it lasts.
    11.@InterestingRelationshipMeansRomantic: PlayedWith. Two of the closest main characters eventually fall in love and marry, but they’re both great friends with Rachel and Carl, who do also end up marrying, but…
    12.@Romance, attraction, sexual tension are enough to base a healthy, functioning relationship on: Averted. To really avert this as hard as I want to, I need to get (much) better at non-battle scenes. But, regardless, averted.
    13.@LyingIsOK: Averting this is built into the Magic System. Yeah, go ahead and lie, if you want your wards to start crumbling… Go ahead and stop trusting your friends, if you want to lose the Trust “status effect”. Go ahead… the demons are waiting.
    14.@Vengeance=Justice: Averted the one time it shows up. You’ve got a teenager pleading with a 500 year old Grey Mage to not blast everyone who had just tried to shoot them.
    15.@Mercy=Passivity: Hmm… Not sure. Idrial calling down StarFyre and weeping afterward comes to mind, though I’m actually not sure how it would apply. I suppose Averted, on the rare occasions it becomes relevant (as most people who even _notice_ Magic are those who are either so evil they’re practically irredeemable or so good, you’ll probably never need to fight them). Oh, and Averted HARD when talking about the Redemption.
    16.@Youth=Interestingness: PlayedWith. Mostly, the main characters will be the youngest generation (as the whole story goes on for several decades), but the older characters definitely stay relevant, and while they don’t usually have the current quest (youth _is_ the time of greatest growth, after all), they do sometimes come along. And some of the most interesting characters are REALLY old. Like Cali, the immortal timetraveler: so old everyone’s forgotten how old she actually is.
    17.@WhiteAmericansWantToReadAboutWhiteAmericans: Well, in this case, I _am_ a White American. 😛 And, so far, I’ve Written What I Know. 😛 White Americans and Fantasy. 😛 Though, there are several central characters who are NOT White American (TradeSnark), and once I get around to doing the research to flesh out their backgrounds and cultures, I’ll end up half-averting this. Oh, and then there’s Pyroia, with it’s own series of made-up cultures…
    If you bothered to read through this, congradulations! Hope you actually think you spent your time well! Hope you learned something (even if that’s: Robinton needs to do some research)! If you didn’t, don’t worry: it wasn’t worth reading, anyway! 😛

    • Laura

      Hmmmmm. Here are some of my thoughts in response to your book analysis.

      1. A relationship built over several decades in the span of a novel can only really happen via mostly summary. Do we actually see them interacting? Or are we told how they interact via the narrator? What’s the percentage of real-time, on-stage vs. narrated?

      3. Do your main characters remain single, or do they all hook up with someone by the end of the book? Even if the characters themselves know you can be happy while single, if everyone ends up paired off by the end of the book, the book itself gives the opposite message. Life doesn’t happen that way. There are plenty of single, divorced, widowed people in the world who want to read characters like themselves.

      5. Dependence is different than interdependence. We need to rely on each other, but we need to be self-sufficient too. Otherwise, not enough details for me to judge.

      7. Yes, amend that. *amused*

      11. Is the focus the romantic relationship or the friendship?

      16. So, despite the book going on for decades, no main character starts off older, they’re only supporting cast? There are always older characters in a supporting cast, but it’s rare that main characters start off older. Also, immortals don’t count since they’re generally ageless and perpetually youthful. (An immortal woman in her fifties as a main, point-of-view character would work to break this mold.)

      17. Let’s change that from “write what you know” to “write what interests you” or “write who you are.” We don’t know enough to write a good book without some sort of research along the way. 😉

      It must also be said that not every book has to break every trend/trope. No one person/book can do everything, of course. Nor should they try.

      • Robinton

        Replies to replies, if you want to read them:
        1. I *try* to include a specific example of any given trend. So, I’ll mention that Adrian and Idrial were learning lots of random things from each other, then I’ll have Idrial mention that cars’ sun-visors don’t usually wear out (until everything else does), since it’s something only Adrian would be likely to drive in old enough cars to know. But, yeah, it’s really a handful of particularly memorable (frequently tranlates to “we got attacked by a dragon” or some such) or representative scenes, with narration telling how these fit in the pattern of their lives.
        3. So far, I think most of my *main* characters end up getting married. Not all, though, and the important-secondary cast seems somewhere around 50/50. Good enough?
        5. Idrial spends half of the first book getting rescued by Adrian. Better than dying, worse than being able to help defeat the various enemies. End of the second book, she decides she’s had enough of an Army of Darkness, and calls in something like a miniature gamma ray burst. Battle over.
        11. Depends. Usually, there’s more focus on friendship than courtship.
        16. Generally speaking (ignoring the short stories and anything I haven’t specifically planned yet, 11/16 of the time), *main* characters start off fairly young. As for Immortal characters, the main example is the cat Cali, who mostly looks middle-aged. After all, that was her age when she became immortal. Course, it’s kinda hard to tell with cats. And she’s a shapeshifter. Middle-aged cat. Middle-aged lioness. Middle-aged Zombie Wyvern… (I’m probably joking about that last one.)
        17. Good point.
        Yes, it’s impossible to build a tale with no trends. (TVTropes actually has a joke page called the TropelessTale: a trope about a tale without tropes. 🙂

        Good comments! Thanks!

      • Laura

        Hmm. Let’s see, two comments to all of the above.

        The first is that, “skipping rocks” across the relationship pond in what scenes to show across time doesn’t really give you much on-stage time to build powerful scenes. However, the nature of the story means you can’t really do it differently, so I’m not worried–or even critical. You’re just trading one disadvantage for an advantage in whatever story it is you are hoping to tell.

        The second thing I want to point out is that diversity in approach through secondary characters isn’t as fulfilling or impactful as diversity in main characters. For example, there are plenty of films in the 1920s and 30s with black actors taking up important secondary roles. But there’s a difference between giving someone a side-character role and calling it done and giving them a lead role and letting them shine. (We still only rarely give lead roles to non-white actors unless the film is specifically about being non-white.)

        Also, there’s a tendency to make “token characters” in the secondary characters’ ranks. Such as the female smurf who is the token female to add “diversity” to the cast.

        So when you ask if it’s “Good enough?” on #3, my answer is–speaking generally? No, not good enough. But speaking specifically for your story? Yes, it could be good enough.

        The answer is always do what’s best for each individual story. But my addition to that is – in the future, explore a wider range of stories and approaches. See what happens?

      • Robinton

        Sadly, you’re probably right about disadvantages of “skipping rocks”. Given a decade or two of writing experience, I might know how to get around that, but I sure don’t now.

        Hmm… I see your point. In the later books, there are definitely some non-white main characters, but not really in the earlier books. Except maybe the Archmage… he’s Native American, and right on the borderline between main and secondary. Half of the Master Mages of Sanctuary are also non-white, so I suppose that’s something. They aren’t token characters, but they aren’t main characters either.

        Actually, some important characters (though not any main characters until book 5) are non-human. So make of that what you will.

        On #3, I think I’m going to have to say “It’s a Fairy’s Tale. According to the magic system, sometimes things wrap up more neatly than in real-life.”

        Good advice. Thank you.

  • kgstewart

    A lot of these are broken by Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook. It’s part of why I loved the book: It defies stereotypes without really making a point of doing so. It just tells a story organic to the characters and situation. For example, it doesn’t tack on a love story it doesn’t need, so there is no love story.

    • Laura

      Cool! I’m really looking forward to reading The Rook. I’ve heard a lot of good things about it. I’ve discovered it takes a lot of guts to tell a story without thought of what others may say or think something does/doesn’t need, so even though I’ve yet to read it, I really respect the author for all the good things I’ve heard.

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