Last week, I discussed some common “fatal flaws” that might make me give up on an epic high fantasy novel, rate it poorly, or even avoid reading it in the first place. This week I’ve decided to do the same thing for paranormal romance, YA and urban fantasy novels, because I enjoy reading these genres as well, and I’ve found the problems I encounter in them usually differ to those I encounter in traditional epic high fantasy.
So here are 10 key things that will often turn me off a paranormal romance or YA fantasy (genres I normally like!):
1. Poor Writing
It’s important for books in any genre to avoid awkward or poorly written prose, which is why I also mentioned this category for epic fantasy last week. However, some weaknesses I find that crop up more often in paranormal or YA fantasy are:
- Wannabe teenage dialogue – where the book tries to imitate teenage slang or “how teenagers talk” and doesn’t quite hit the mark. This can make the dialogue come out sounding stilted and awkward, or just make the characters look a bit brainless.
- Repetition – where a character regularly spouts the same ideas and thoughts, or uses the same adjectives and exclamations repeatedly. E.g. a character can only say or think “oh my god” or “this can’t be happening” so often before it starts to jar.
- Expository dialogue – when characters say awkward things to reveal a plot point to the reader/audience even though it doesn’t make logical sense for them to do so.
- Not-funny jokes – when a character says something that is supposed to be funny but is just a bit silly or predictable, particularly if that character is clearly intended as the ‘funny sidekick’ or ‘comic relief’ type character.
2. Unoriginal Use of Paranormal and YA Clichés
When I open a paranormal or YA fantasy novel I expect a few clichés, and I don’t mind them if they’re handled in a fresh way, or have enough newness and depth that they don’t make me groan. That said, if a book appears to be nothing but a minefield of clichés used in the same unimaginative ways I’ll probably give up after a few pages, or avoid buying it in the first place. Some cliché plot elements in these genres that would make me wary include:
- Cliché Vampires, Werewolves, Angels and Faeries – I don’t mind a good vampire or werewolf story, but given how many of them I’ve seen or read (and how popularised Twilight has made them), it has to have an interesting angle, unusual premise and compelling characters to peak my interest. If it looks like another standard, unimaginative vampire-human-werewolf love story, I won’t even be picking it up. The same goes for paranormal romances with Angel and Faerie love interests: they have to be different and interesting.
- The Love Triangle – okay, I’ve made no secret of the fact I’m really sick of love triangles. But they’re a staple of paranormal romance, so I can accept the presence of a love triangle if it diverges from the standard “girl loves good boy but also loves bad boy, then angsts over who to choose while they both moon over her and save her life repeatedly” construction in some interesting way… or simply provides an unintrusive background element to the overall story.
- The New Hot Boy at School – I’ve seen this one too often: our outcast, awkward female protagonist arrives at school one day and, lo and behold, a new hot (likely supernatural) guy enrols and starts showing immediate interest in her. Personally, unless this cliché is turned on its head in some way, it puts me off.
- The Chosen One – I’m not ruling out chosen one elements completely, but if a story fits too much into a standard “young special protagonist prophesied to save the world” mould it might make me dubious.
This no-cliché rule also extends to cliché names, characters and phrases.
3. Ditsy, Unintelligent or Shallow Protagonists
Personally, this is one of the first things that will turn me off a book. If the heroine in a paranormal romance or a YA fantasy immediately reveals herself to be shallow and uninteresting, makes supremely stupid decisions, or can’t figure anything out without someone else spelling things out for her, I won’t be developing any warm feelings toward her. And if I’ve got to spend the whole book inside this character’s head, I’ll be jumping ship pretty quickly.
4. Refusal to Accept the Existence of The Supernatural
This ties in a little with point 3 above, because if a protagonist spends too long refusing to believe what is staring them in the face, I’m going to get annoyed and start thinking they’re a tad thick.
I know that in a paranormal fantasy, a human character is generally not going to immediately believe in the existence of magic, vampires, or whichever supernatural element the world suddenly throws at them. However, if I’m more than a third of the way through the story, and our hero has been repeatedly attacked by magical beings or demons, and he’s still shaking his head and saying “no, this isn’t real, I’m just going to go back home and everything will be fine” I quickly lose respect for him. Of course, it’s a hard balance to strike, as I would also question the intelligence and sanity of a protagonist who too-readily accepts and embraces the supernatural (I discuss this fine line a little more in another post: Accepting the Existence of Magic).
5. The Ugly Duckling Syndrome
I know it’s typical for human beings, and particularly teenagers, to doubt themselves and feel they are not beautiful or interesting or special in any way… so I can handle a little of that in my YA fantasy. However, if a young female protagonist continually mopes about herself and how worthless and ugly she is, particularly if she’s being wooed by countless hot supernatural men, or has been prophesied to save the world, I’m just going to roll my eyes. If she keeps up with the self-depreciating internal monologue for too long I might even start agreeing with her, and asking: why are these supernatural men vying for her affection? Why does everyone keep trying so hard to save her? She’s too busy insisting on how unworthy she is to help anyone around her or do anything interesting!
6. The ‘Heroine’ Who Always Needs Saving
Many of the paranormal fantasies I’ve read have compelling, determined, intelligent female protagonists that actively pursue their goals or try to get themselves out of trouble. Unfortunately, I’ve also encountered several heroines who pretty much never do anything to further their own cause, and leave it up to other characters. With these kind of heroines, often their only achievement is that they’ve managed to woo a supernatural man, because every time they get themselves into a dangerous situation they just wait until he swoops in to save them. Heroines don’t have to be kick-ass magical knife-wielding warriors, but they have to at least try to use their own intelligence or skill to get what they want… otherwise they’re not a character I’m going to enjoy reading about.
7. Noble, Perfect Love Interests
I know this is probably a personal pet-peeve of mine, but I just can’t get on board with supernatural love interests that are absolutely perfect, selfless and noble. To me, these love interests not only regularly defy logic and plausibility in their quest to be noble, they are boring. They constantly define themselves by what is best for the heroine, or what they can do for her, till they become a non-person. Even worse, sometimes their nobility drives them to the illogical conclusion that the heroine would be better off without them, so they send her away or vanish or tell her they don’t love her… in spite of the fact this is almost always a terrible idea (“I’ll leave her alone and then all of the bad guys will surely stop coming after her, right?”). I like a love interest to be a little bit selfish, flawed (other than in his supernatural-ness), or interesting in some way.
8. Predictable, Simplistic Plot
Predictability isn’t always a bad thing. In almost every romance ever written, for example, we figure out pretty soon which two characters are likely to end up together. This is perfectly fine, and indeed expected, because we’re interested in seeing how they fall in love.
The kind of predictability I have a problem with is when the next turning point in a plot (e.g. an immanent double cross, the enemy revealing their dastardly plan) is glaringly obvious because of giant hints given in the lead up to it, and yet comes as a grand surprise to the characters when it arrives, and is clearly supposed to come as a surprise to me as the reader.
Essentially, if my 10-year-old self could work out what’s going to happen with the same information the characters have, and yet the characters still don’t see it coming, I’m going to lose respect for them, not to mention any sense of suspense I might have had. And if the plot is not only predictable but also simplistic and cliché, the problem is compounded.
9. Underdeveloped or Near-Invisible Setting
This is a problem I occasionally encounter in paranormal romance and urban fantasy: plenty of things are happening, but I’m having trouble picturing them and immersing myself in the story. This is because the book is giving me little or no sense of where the events are taking place and what the setting looks like, or because it’s painting a world that is too simplistic, uninteresting or underdeveloped.
Paranormal fiction isn’t set in an entirely invented fantasy world, like epic high fantasy, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have a rich, intriguing setting. Often paranormal fantasies reveal hidden magical spaces within the real world, or secret subcultures and societies where magic is rife. If these are intriguing and well-drawn, they can really pull me into a book… if they’re not, the story can feel a bit empty and shallow.
10. Whiny Characters
I’d say this tends to be more of a second and third book problem when it comes to YA or paranormal series, though it could occur in any book. Basically, the issue is when a lead character starts to spend more time whining and doubting and being generally broody than actually doing anything. There’s only so much self-depreciating, doubt-filled inner monologuing I can take before the character annoys me.
So those are the top ten “flaws” that can irk me when it comes to paranormal romance or young adult fantasy. I’ve read plenty of brilliant books in these genres, so by no means do I hate them… it’s just that the ones that don’t thrill me tend to fall victim to one or many of the above pitfalls.
But as always with reading, opinions differ, so I’ll throw these questions out there: do you have any pet hates or “fatal flaws” you commonly encounter in paranormal romance, urban fantasy or YA fantasy? Or are there mistakes you think writers in these genres are prone to making?