Genre Pet Peeves: Character Must Love Books

Hello blog, yes I know it’s been a while. I’ll update on life situation– OR MAYBE I WON’T. But either way, I need to get back in the habit of blogging and I wrote out half of this rant in a comment elsewhere, so I may as well do this properly in my own space.

No matter how much you love a genre, there are always some cliches and tropes that drive a person up the wall. I have many for the fantasy genre and I’m sure I’ll talk about some of the other ones later. But this one applies to more than just fantasy, being a trope of a lot of literature.

I hate, hate, HATE how the main character of story MUST love books and the narrative requires commenting on how they discovered reading and utterly fell in love and it was So. Mindblowing!

Now, I understand why we have this trope. Most authors are also readers and it’s very common to give your main character traits you like. Most readers by default of being readers also really love books, so it makes characters more sympathetic, more relatable by your bookish audience.

And I will certainly grant that there are times where loving books is actually character building, where discovering books and literacy can really add a lot to both plot and character. The Outcast Bookish Main Character Thrown Into An Adventure is a staple of the fantasy genre. And having been a bookish outcast growing up, I hold a special place in my heart for that kind of character.

But the Bookish Main Character isn’t even what I’m sick of seeing. What really drives me nuts is the need for every main character to love books, regardless of whether this adds anything to the story, character, or even makes sense for them to be literate in the first place! It often gets mentioned as an aside, while tracing the character’s early years before we get to the actual plot. It gets tossed in, like a check box that must be hit on the way to Traumatic Quest Starting Event or else they don’t give you Official Main Hero Badge.

And what pisses me off even more is when our main character loving books comes as a surprise, to the main character and teachers alike! It’s usually phrased in some dumb way as “And then, to my surprise and delight” or “Everyone was shocked to discover that I loved books” or “No one was more surprised than I when reading came naturally and joyfully to me!”

Really? Reading as enjoyable is a surprise?

Look, I know in fantasy in particular, we have the trope of the dumb barbarians who can’t read and beat their younger children for liking books more than they like swords. But the truth is, we’ve had books for a long time. If it weren’t enjoyable as well as useful, people wouldn’t keep doing it. You wouldn’t be reading this blog if it weren’t. Sure, in ancient times, farmers were too busy trying to get enough to EAT that they had no time to learn how to read. But if it’s expected of a kid in your fantasy world to learn how to read, if it’s an available option to them, then there’s going to be people who enjoy reading and won’t be surprised when your main character also likes reading.

Because lots of people like reading. I would argue that just about everyone likes some form of storytelling, if we define storytelling broadly. So come on. Reading should not be this huge revelation most of the time!

I really want to see more stories where:

A) The main character reads poorly or not at all and this isn’t some excuse to discover the magic of words later. They actually just aren’t super literate and this is not seen as a crime. It can still be a problem, if the answers to the quest got written down and our hero does not have the skills to deal with this. But the story shouldn’t revolve on the hero learning to read or on the hero being belittled for not knowing how to read. It sucks not being able to read and that can be addressed, but if you live in a world with dragons and no indoor toilets, maybe reading is not your main priority. Think on that.

Or

B) The main character just doesn’t care about books. The main character doesn’t hate them, because that always inevitably leads to Sudden Discovery of the Value of Books. Instead, a character who just doesn’t care. Books are lovely, thanks, but they’re not all that! Much rather listen to the bard at the local inn. Maybe our main character even reads when time is available, but hey guys, there’s kind of an entire plot happening that doesn’t have a damn thing to do with books and is maybe even an excuse to get out of reading boring text books. Yes! Let’s go slay the dragon, way better than this three hundred page tome on philosophy!

Even if we don’t see more of these characters, I would still ask authors to consider if it’s really important to tell me that your character loves books a whole lot. Is it plot significant that they can read? Does it help flesh out the character and give us a deeper understanding of who they are? Or are you just pandering to your own love of books and giving your character a trait that you think makes them cooler and more likable?

Because if it doesn’t matter to the story, I don’t care if your main character likes books. Because I am already reading books, so you can presume, dear author, that I also like books. I don’t need to be told, again, how cool reading is. I figured that one out for myself. Your characters opinion on books doesn’t change mine.