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
20 thoughts on “Readers in Books”
Offhand, the only readers I can recall in fiction are Helen Burns (“Jane Eyre”) and Melanie Hamilton Wilkes (“Gone With the Wind”), and both of them croak. Not a good track record, I’m afraid.
Ha but they do have a pretty good track record with men falling desperately in love with them. Jo March gets 2 of them. Anne Shirley has Gilbert. Hermione has Ron. That may be authors fantasizing more than anything else!
You’ve got a point, there. Not Helen, who dies as a kid, but I suppose Jane could also be counted as a reader, and she gets Rochester. And Melanie gets Ashley, who is also a reader, come to think of it, and although he’s supposed to be good at everything that men are expected to excel at in that time, his heart’s not in it, and he’s otherwise pretty wishy-washy; nevertheless, Scarlett has the hots for him (when she’s still a teenager, she thinks she can “change all that” about Ashley). My character Dillon Carroll is both a writer and a reader, and has tons of books stashed in his little flat.
Hm. You actually got my creaky old brain working, on this one. 🙂
Hurray! I love when I get that brain working. Job done! It’s funny it had never occurred to me as a writing trope but totally is. Another example is Belle from Beauty and the Beast. Totally the enlightened reader who everyone is in love with.
I think a lot of “readers” in movies in TV are predictably portrayed as being quiet, intelligent nerds. Not an altogether bad thing, but it certainly has become a bit of cliche on-screen.
You get either the outspoken nerd like Hermione or the quiet nerd. A lot are like Liesel in Book Thief (my co-favorite book) very introspective but also outspoken.
These are some of my favorite characters but I just dont like it when an author uses the trope as a lazy way of explaining their character. Just make her a reader and we dont need anything else…
Yeah, unfortunately, I think it’s just a growing stereotype depicted in film and TV today. Although I have to admit that Rory Gilmore in Gilmore Girls is an avid reader, but there is so much more to her we get to see as well. I’d have to say she is an exception.
Oh for sure. Like I said some of my favorite books and characters are the enlightened readers so it just depends on how they are used by the author. I think a lot of the good ones use the trope as a starting point and then build a more dynamic character from there. Nothing wrong with that. Like I said some books can get mired in trying to be too clever and too original so tropes have their place it’s just the lazy ones that annoy me.
Totally makes sense!
I just don’t want anyone to get ostracized from reading. Nerds for boys are almost always into science and not the enlightened reader type. A boy should never feel like they are doing something “girly” by reading
I get that! That’s a good point, now that you mention it. I rarely see a guy into another kind of reading other than sci-fi in film.
You are absolutely right. I’ve seen the same thing. Isnt that weird? And it is affecting our culture. I’ve thought about that with book clubs. Why are they almost exclusively a female phenomenon? There is nothing inherently feminine about talking about books. Most of the big readers I know are women. It’s a problem
Yeah, I’m in a book club of all women. I don’t understand it. It’s really too bad!
Interesting too that the trope goes all the way back to Jane Austen! Ha. There may be no hope
You raise a good point. So many people enjoy reading in real life that the very fact they read can’t define them. There are two women in my office at work who often talk about the books they read (they even like similar genres) but are very different in other ways. Characters in fiction who read should be similarly diverse.
I agree! And let’s have more boys reading
So while I do think that in media it’s definitely a feminine stereotype and I would also say that’s true in most of the adult world, I teach at a middle school and I run a middle school book club. We’re pretty evenly split on the genders. In fact, I think the ones who really read the most are the boys.
That being said, most of those kids in my book club, whether boys or girls, fit that basic stereotype. Obviously, ALL humans are so much more complex than that, but it is true that the same style of people are all in my book club at school. However, because I know all of my students I also know how diverse each one is.
Interestingly enough: most of the boys in my book club are also in sports, but not obvious, large team sports like baseball, basketball, or football. More like cross country or lacrosse or waterpolo.
I do think it is taking the easy route to character development to put a book in a girl’s hands. However, in some books and movies there just isn’t enough time to go in to the description. For instance, in the Sound of Music you’ve got to introduce several characters in such a short amount of time that you have to do things like that to move the story along. Just like what’s-his-face that says, “and I’m incorrigible!” Immediately, you have an idea of what he’s like.
If the main character is never revealed as much more than a reader, then I say that’s laziness. But if it’s not necessarily the main character, then I say it’s just smart.
Very well said. That is totally true about not needing complex characters for every story. In fact, some stories can get overwrought when the author is getting too clever. I agree when it is used as a foundation for more development it is fine. Do you find it is harder to get boys into reading because of these examples?
Like I said most of these books/movies are my favorites so I really like the trope just realized it can be used a little lazily.
One of my favorite characters who’s a reader is Sawyer from Lost. Since it’s not something you’d necessarily expect from a con man, it adds dimension to his character. I don’t know if I see “the reader” so much as a cliche as much as an archetype in most cases. It’s repeated often, but that’s because it works so often. To me, someone being a reader just points to the fact that they are thoughtful (not as in extra kind, but that they think things through, ponder, ruminate, what have you). There are varying sets of traits that go along with that quality, but within the archetype of the reader you can do so much to add dimension to the character. You’re probably right that it’s sometimes used lazily, but that is true of almost every literary archetype.
Very interesting point. I wouldn’t have thought of Sawyer but you are right. He is definitely a complex reader. Archetype is probably a better word. I agree. Something like Anne of Green Gables it is used as a side part of her character to show her desire to dive into other worlds and very effectively. I guess having just read a book where it was lazy it was fresh on my mind. I would like to see more boys as the archetype but there tend to be more boy lead characters with the enlightened reader girl by their side. That’s kind of strange.