Writing Elements I HATE In Books & Why: The Scylighter’s Literary Preferences

Have you ever read a book you really hated?

One that made you wish you’d never come across, or one that makes you wonder what others see in this book that you don’t?

Disliking a book is one thing, but even more valuable is to take some time to pin down exactly what you dislike and why.

Reflecting on your own reactions teaches you something about yourself, and also can help you find better books in the future — books that will actually teach you something valuable and help you in life.

So, in this article, I list a few tropes and elements in books that I dislike, hate, or loathe, and give reasons, examples, and contrasts (eg: books that did the opposite, or did something well that the first book failed to do)

Do any of the following resonate with you?

Ratings System

Dislike, hate, and loathe are the three ratings I’ll be using for the following tropes/elements. Here’s what I mean by each:

  1. D: I dislike this element, but it’s not totally unforgivable in small doses. I can probably continue to read the book, and if something else makes up for this failure, I might even like the book.
  2. H: I hate this element. Depending on how widespread this element is within the book, I might be able to force myself to finish reading this book, but most likely not. Even if I do trudge through it, it probably will be an automatic 2-stars-or-less book.
  3. L: I loathe this element. This book element/characteristic is pretty much unforgivable. Any book that includes this e lement or characteristic will be ejected by me, immediately. I won’t read it unless I have to, for research or some other purpose. This would be like an automatic 0 stars or negative-stars book.

For some of these elements, I include a “contrast with…” example to show a book that did the opposite of the element, or did the element RIGHT, instead of wrong.

Also: Just because a book is mentioned does not necessarily always mean that I hate the entire book. I just hate something the author did IN the book. (Although it’s true that I also didn’t care for many of the books on this list)

And a final disclaimer: Even if I dislike / hate / or loathe some of these books, that doesn’t mean I will never read these books. At times, I might read books I hate or think I’ll hate for research purposes, but the probability shrinks drastically if the books include any of the following factors:

(Oh, and warning: There will be spoilers for many of the stories on this list!)

Photo by Jo Szczepanska on Unsplash

Story/Writing Elements I Dislike, Hate, or Loathe

Made-up gods (D, sometimes H)

While there may be many elohim hanging out in this world, I’m not really interested in reading about them in novels, or human imaginations of them in novels, sorry.

Mostly, you can tell a lot of fictional gods and religions are made up by atheists (or “spiritual but not religious” people) who don’t know what “religion” really is. Which is why most stories with made-up gods just fail. Miserably.

  • Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson: The “gods” in this book are basically resurrected dead people with special powers. Which is not a whole lot different than the non-god people, who also have special powers, so what’s the point?
  • Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo: Technically, there’s only one absent god actually mentioned in this book, something to do with a tree. But one of the religions mentions saints, which are akin to demigods, and the whole thing is just…uck.
  • Avatar movie by James Cameron (the one with blue people): Technically not a book, but a really good example of this element. There are many reasons why I dislike this story, and the gods thing is just one of them.

Contrast with:

  • The Chronicles of the Kings by Lynn Austin: This is Lynn Austin’s best fiction series, hands down. The last two books in the saga delve into some of the pagan/polytheistic practices people in Judah indulged in before the collapse of their country, and she deals with the topic in a really interesting way.
Photo by Nicola Fioravanti on Unsplash

Lust portrayed as “love” (H)

Yes, romantic love does include an element of physical attraction, but that is not the totality of love. As one wise speaker once said, “romance (and lust) ends, but love doesn’t.”

  • Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo: Nina and Matthias’ relationship is forced when they have to cuddle together in the cold for a few weeks after a shipwreck. Yes, they talk and stuff, (eventually), but it’s not convincing that two formerly deadly enemies truly love each other based on such a thin foundation.

Contrast with:

  • Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen: There’s nothing physical at all. But from the conversations between the two main characters, and particularly the selfless sacrifices Darcy makes for Elizabeth in the second half of the book, you can tell that he actually loves her, and she comes to respect and love him too.

Unconvincing “loving relationships,” romantic or not (D)

Romantic, platonic, or familial. People who really love each other know each other, faults and all, and want what’s best for each other.

Which means they aren’t always unconditionally accepting of whatever might harm the loved one, but they’re always there for them, even when they have conflicts.

  • Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo: Inej & Kaz are supposed to be close friends, even love interests, but I don’t see it. Inej bears with Kaz’s temper, and Kaz trusts her, but there’s no real reason why.
  • The Astonishing Color of After by Emily XR Pan: Main character and best-friend-turned-love-interest don’t have a believable relationship. There’s more telling than showing when it comes to how close they’re supposed to be.

Contrast with:

  • Mansfield Park by Jane Austen: Fanny and Edmund’s relationship is deep and strong, even before it turns romantic (and that final turn is almost more of an afterthought, which actually works). Edmund has always been Fanny’s protector, helping her adjust to his neglectful family, and the two of them share common values and interests. He’s always been caring toward her, loving her like a sister long before he falls for her. And because that strong loving foundation was laid so well early on, it makes sense why he chooses her in the end, and vice versa.

Shoving in popular politically-correct elements for virtue signaling points (H)

When people “preach” and try to force readers to see things their way, particularly when it comes to the deeper worldview issues.

That is not to say that you cannot or should not address politics, religion, philosophy, or worldview in fiction. I mean, that’s the whole point of fiction, really.

But some people don’t know how to do it without bonking their readers over the heads with their pet political ideas. (Some of which I suspect they haven’t even really thought through, themselves. The worst is when writers pass off warmed-over political opinions siphoned from their favorite “thought leaders” as their own)

  • I won’t give one example here. Rather it seems like there’s a recent trend where many (most?) new/modern stories — not just books, but movies, comic books, TV shows, everything that has a narrative component — is focused more on “representation” than on telling a good story. It’s gotten really tiresome, really quickly.

Contrast with:

  • Take your pick of any classical storyteller, like Shakespeare, who dealt with a lot of sensitive issues, culture, politics, and characters with diverse backgrounds, but never sacrificed the story in order to hit people over the head with superficial diversity or narrow political grievances.
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Attempting to sound elitist/literary/artistic but coming off as inauthentic (D)

Writers who try to sound “literary/artistic” when they don’t actually “think literary/artistic” in real life just sound insufferably inauthentic.

  • The Astonishing Color of After by Emily XR Pan: The main character talks about emotions in terms of color. And does it in a rather cheesy way. It doesn’t convince me that the author really understands art, or that the character is truly an artist.

Contrast with:

  • Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon: It’s much more natural when this main character talks about her favorite thing — books. Her one-sentence summaries are spot on, and shows that the author knows what it means to be a well-read person who loves books.
  • Books by Joan Bauer: Bauer is great at giving her main characters interesting hobbies — waitressing, growing pumpkins, selling shoes, researching family history, playing pool. And you can tell she REALLY understands those hobbies and her characters REALLY like doing what they do, and are GOOD at what they do, too. You can sense that the author knows what she’s talking about because of the level of detail she includes and the way she describes the way her characters love and participate in their chosen hobbies.
Photo by Mikhail Vasilyev on Unsplash

Second/third-rate copycats (D)

Imitation (fanfiction) is good when you’re learning, but it’s less attractive when you try to publish it as a standalone novel or novel series. There are so many old fantasy story elements that are used over and over again, I’d really like to see more originality in worldbuilding. At least make it funny?

  • Charlie Bone by Jenny Nimmo: This is just a Harry Potter knockoff, and not a good one at that. Whatever else you may say about Harry Potter, it had a far more developed world and more interesting character arcs than many books like it. Charlie Bone, on the other hand, did not.
  • Eragon by Christopher Paolini, and many other dragon-related books: So many of these dragon books have dragons as magical, powerful, good but misunderstood creatures, who need a special human to tame them and work with them to defeat a great evil. Yawn. What would it be like if someone actually wrote a story where the dragon WAS evil?

Contrast with:

  • Dealing with Dragons by Patricia Wrede: Although the dragons are not evil in this series, either (that would be a real unusual turn), at least this world is unique, and quirky, and unpredictable, what with magical frying pans and wizards melting from soapy lemon water, and whatnot. The author uses several familiar fantasy tropes, but turns them on their head, and it’s refreshing.
  • The Squire’s Tale by Gerald Morris: This series retells Arthurian legend with humor and quirkiness, and I’m a sucker for quirky humor. (Side note: there also is an opening scene involving a cooking utensil used as a weapon. Maybe I’ve inadvertently discovered a story element I do like? [Come to think of it, Tangled also includes a frying pan as a weapon…Maybe it’s not just me O.O])

Abrupt endings with loose ends (D)

Real life is often messy and inconclusive. But fiction (for the most part) shouldn’t be. If I wanted an inexplicably abrupt and unsatisfying ending, I’d just live my regular life in the real world and never read a novel.

But novels are a bit of an idealized version of the real world, and as such they should have more conclusive conclusions. As Mark Twain once said:

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

  • Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee: MAJOR SPOILER ALERT — the two main characters set out to look for two people. They end up finding one, who ends up dying five minutes after they find him. For no good reason. Also, the main character never finds the person she was looking for. Otherwise, there were many other things about this book that I liked. But that one character’s ending? No bueno.

Contrast with:

  • Harry Potter 7 by JK Rowling: A problematic series that I’m pretty ambivalent about in many ways, but I gotta say, the final twist that turns Snape’s storyline on its head was really quite clever. Everything that came before makes sense, and it makes sense in a way that many people never saw coming. Turning one of the arch-villains into a secret hero? That’s a pretty satisfying way to end that story line.
  • Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: There’s a reason why Sherlock Holmes dominates the mystery genre. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a genius at creating interesting mysteries (they weren’t always about someone getting murdered) and solving them in interesting (and satisfying) ways. No loose ends or head-scratching, unbelievable denouements here!
Photo by Andrew Haimerl (andrewnef) on Unsplash

Excessive, descriptive, and/or graphic violence (H)

Some people love horror and gore. I’m not one of them. In fact, I’m the opposite. That’s all.

  • Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo: In one scene, Kaz tears out someone’s eyeball. The author describes it graphically and Kaz’s reasons for his actions (he’s just a tough, mad bloke) make him extremely dislikable, so much so that I don’t feel like rooting for him anymore.

Contrast with:

  • Les Miserables by Victor Hugo: A lot of ugly, depressing, terrible things happen to the characters in this book (particularly Fantine), but Dumas deals with the situation with a grim sort of reality, and an undercurrent of hope in spite of it all. No reveling in gore or graphic violence just for the sake of it.

Dark and hopeless (L)

In these types of stories, you can’t root for or care about any of the main/important characters, because they are all horrible and/or killed off early. The author has a nihilistic sort of philosophy.

Even when the story ends relatively “well,” you have the sense that it’s just a temporary reprieve, and as soon as you’ve closed the cover on this book, the rest of the story is going to take a turn for the worse and in the end everyone will die and nothing has meaning and that’s all.

  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: There isn’t a single character in here that you can like or be interested in. It’s a case of two wrongs not making a right. Dr. Frankenstein
  • Nausicaa by Hayao Miyazaki: I don’t hate this story (in some ways, I like it), and it’s not a book, but I added this title here because it’s a good example of what I mean by a book “ending well” but you don’t believe it will last —
    SPOILER: Although Nausicaa ends with the girl getting revived, and the war between the bugs and humans never happening, you still get the feeling that the pollution of the world is so bad that it’s really unsalvageable. That Nausicaa’s heroic actions won’t matter in the end, and everyone’s gonna die anyhow, sooner or later. Dunno *shrugs* maybe it’s just me. But that’s the feeling I get from Nausicaa.

Contrast with:

  • Les Miserables by Victor Hugo: Even though so many bad things happen to so many people in this story, there’s a sense of hope that runs through the entire story, that eventually goodness and righteousness will win and that those who suffered did not suffer in vain, and sacrifices made were not made in vain.
    The sense of hope starts with the way the bishop reacts to Valjean’s betrayal, and continues with Valjean’s actions and how he deals with the various people he meets, and finally, even Cosette and Marius’ visit to a dying Valjean at the very end of the book isn’t truly sad. You get the sense that they will meet again in heaven, and that one day, “the Miserable Ones” will no longer be miserable.
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Completely self-absorbed featured characters who don’t learn (H/L)

Not just main characters, but any significant characters count too…

  • The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald: I had to read this in high school, and it was a very “emperor’s new clothes” experience for me. Sure, there was some interesting symbolism in the book, but Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, and even Nick were boring, self-centered, terrible characters that you don’t care about, because they don’t care about anyone or love anyone either. And there’s no character growth for any of them. They never get over their self-centeredness, and then Gatsby dies. The end.

Contrast with:

  • Howl’s Moving Castle by Dianna Wynne Jones: Although Howl is vain and self-seeking, he’s somehow lovable in spite of it. Partly because he’s funny, partly because he’s not totally selfish, he just exaggerates and acts that way (because he’s lost his heart), but mostly because despite his attempts to behave like a selfish coward, when push comes to shove, Howl really does pull through and care for other people. Not to mention Sophie’s presence does help him to grow up a bit more too.

Destructive philosophies (L)

I can’t stand anything that tries to justify or encourage arrogant pride, cowardice, selfishness, dishonesty, licentiousness, immorality, and irresponsibility. It’s not that those things don’t exist, or that books can’t talk about these topics, but I loathe books that promote these ideas, that “call evil good, and good evil.”

And I also can’t stand anything that lies about real-world cause-and-effect, the actual consequences of behavior, your own responsibility/ability to influence your own life, or how the world (moral and otherwise) ACTUALLY WORKS.

For example, if a book tells you that abandoning your children for selfish reasons will help you to be truly happy and successful in the end, throw the book away. Or if a book tells you that the way to achieve self-fulfillment is to prostitute yourself, bury the book in the closest dump.

  • Anything that promotes Marxism, Social Darwinism, Violent Subjugation of “Infidels,” critical theories that try to pit groups of people against each other based on superficial characteristics, etc.
    Or anything that demeans or tries to discredit healthy families and loving familial bonds (eg: When they tell you that people should love the “state/dictator/government” more than their own families and communities). Aka Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, etc. Plus quite a few modern books, too.

Contrast with:

  • Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky: In this fascinating little book, the author explores how murder is wrong, period. Even if you have “good reason and the victim is the most unlikable and inconvenient person you’ve ever known.
  • The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn: Alexander Solzhenitsyn tells his own story and the story of others who believed in a massive worldview lie of socialism/communism, and the devastating consequences on all of society.
  • The Bible: When read carefully with a humble spirit, this book shows you the reality of human depravity and the brokenness of the world, but also the hope that things will get better, and the encouragement that you can actively start making things better from wherever you stand, as long as you walk in faith and humility.
Photo by Bence Balla-Schottner on Unsplash

Romanticizing evil (especially infidelity/adultery) (L)

Similar to the above, but I decided to pull this one out in particular because it’s a particular more-than-pet-peeve of mine. One of the characteristics I admire most is loyalty/faithfulness to goodness, and we have so little of it in real life already that it’s infuriating to see infidelity celebrated in books.

  • Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia McKillip: The story features a girl who is the product of an illicit relationship, and the way her parents’ relationship is portrayed makes it seem like it’s a good thing. Not that these kinds of relationships don’t happen in the real world, but I’ve always loathed stories that even slightly seem to promote adultery as something that is good or even excusable.

Contrast with:

  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte: I don’t like Rochester, but Jane is a strong character, and not a bad role model, as fictional characters go. She demonstrates strong moral will when Rochester tempts her to be his mistress and she flees instead of succumbing. In today’s world, there aren’t many people who would do that. But she chooses to do the right thing, value her honor, and hold Rochester to a higher standard, and in the end, it turns out well. (Although I still think Jane deserves someone way better than Rochester, I can understand why the story ended with her getting together with him, once he learned to be a better man)

Rebel without a cause (H)

I’m not fond of stories that feature people who are anti-tradition/anti-norms just because they think they’re special and they never figure out they’re not as special as they think. As GK Chesterton said: “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.” Rebelling against true injustice or true stupidity is a good thing, and many books do this well. But being a rebel just to be a rebel is itself stupid.

  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher: Revenge-killing yourself and trying to manipulate people from beyond the grave may be a rebellious thing to do, but it’s a cowardly kind of rebelliousness, and the so-called “cause” is a lie.
    Besides which: This story premise is literally deadly — the idea that other people’s bad actions cause you to commit suicide is dangerous beyond words. It’s tempting to blame your bad decisions on other people, but it’s wrong. That’s not to say that other people can’t influence you or hurt you, to an extreme degree, even. But in the end, we all choose to do evil for our own reasons.
    The very fact that there exist people who survived things like the Holocaust and still forgave their enemies and lived healthy lives proves this. Just because others do evil is NOT an excuse for you to do evil. It’s not easy, of course, to choose the right path when you are severely hurt, but at least let’s not glorify the wrong choice in our entertainment, otherwise we’re going to have a lot of murder-suicides on our hands.

Contrast with:

  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas: Is also a revenge story, but one where the main character (Dantes) doesn’t kill himself. And he carefully designs his revenge plots on his enemies so that ultimately they are the ones who pull the trigger on themselves. If they had changed their characters for the better, they would not have fallen for his traps. Which, at least, is more fair than purely vengeful. For example, Dantes gives one enemy’s wife access to poison, but doesn’t tell her what to do with it or force her to do anything. She is the one who chooses to use it for ill.
    Plus, there’s a point where Dantes pays back the one man who treated him kindly in his previous life, saving his honor and his life, and that sense of gratitude is redeeming. And, in the end, when one of his revenge plots goes terribly wrong, Dantes finally learns his lesson — that he is not God and doesn’t have the right to personally take revenge on his enemies for what they did to him.
    In other words, this is a far more realistic and healthy portrayal of what it’s like to be betrayed, to want and try to execute justice/revenge, and the real-world consequences of that behavior.

Your Turn

So, those are the book elements and tropes that I dislike, hate, and loathe. What about you? Agree or disagree? (With the elements, and with the book examples given?) Let me know!

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