Burdening your protagonist with superlatives

From Janet Reid, this:

When I read a lot of manuscripts in succession some patterns I might have missed if I wasn’t reading so much, stand out clearly.

One such pattern: the tendency to describe characters in superlatives. World renowned, elite, billionaire, first dog on Carkoon.

…if you need a character to be really good at something, just have them be good at it. They don’t need to be world renowned. …

Take a look at your characters. Are any of the burdened with superlatives they don’t need?

This caught my eye because one of the things I dislike most in (some) (too much) Paranormal Fantasy is the tendency for the male lead to be 

a) super rich, and also

b) super handsome, and ALSO

c) the absolute top [insert your favorite shapeshifter variety] of the pack.

In some (too much) Paranormal, every single male character who steps onto the stage is super, super, super handsome. Soooo dreamy. Almost too beautiful for a man. I bet some of you can name the series I’m thinking of here. Feel free to guess in the comments if you’re so inclined. Anyway, I overdosed on that trope way, way long ago. I don’t like super-rich/super-handsome male leads in contemporary romance either, though in that case (c) is no longer relevant.

It’s interesting because I generally appreciate uber-competent protagonists, especially in, for example, thrillers. But I seldom if ever appreciate uberness in any realm other than competence, and extreme superlativeness of the male lead in any kind of romance has become nearly a dealbreaker for me because it makes me roll my eyes so hard I can’t read.

How about you all? Do you get turned off by extreme superlativeness in a protagonist, and if so, which kind of uber-superlativeness turns you off?

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14 thoughts on “Burdening your protagonist with superlatives”

  1. I just finished reading the latest Ilona Andrews book, which does, of course, feature a super-handsome billionaire ultra-powerful psychic male romantic lead. I still love it, but yes, the superlatives can get to be a bit much.

    I was just thinking the other day about Tim Power’s Dinner at Deviant’s Palace. The protagonist gets the stuffing beat out of him at the very beginning, then we fast forward years in time to a middle aged partly crippled man whose face has spent way too much getting acquainted with both edged and blunt objects. As I recall, he was obsessed with an old flame who turns out to be beautiful but vacuous, and ends up getting together with a tough as nails woman who is a much better fit for him. The book wasn’t billed as a romance, but still nice to see.

  2. Depends on the story.

    Remember that being the greatest means your problems have to be of the “greatest” variety, not the “underdog” variety.

  3. Allan, I really liked that Ilona Andrews novel too, thus demonstrating that this kind of male lead is only almost a dealbreaker, even for me. Ilona Andrews can get away with it because they’ve got enough writerly chops in other ways.

  4. that’s one angle, Mary. Another is make the ‘greatest’ ability a handicap. Thinking of Miles Vorkosigan’s courtship follies, here.

    Or simply not applicable to whatever the story challenge is. Toss General Patton into a romance, or something.

  5. With Ilona Andrews, there are a lot of superlatives for the guy, but that’s true for the protagonist too – it’s generally well balanced, or at least not totally imbalanced.

    With, say, Sookie Stackhouse, it was a poor waitress who tons of powerful men were obsessed with for not much reason.

  6. AS far as what kind of uberness puts me off: That of the character in Rothfuss’ first book. Way way overdone. I must choose books that generally don’t go that way, ’cause I’m not coming up with any more examples.

    I remember the Deb Coates’ books the very goodlooking detective, who gets his looks commented on and then treated normally and what’s important is his character, not his looks. That’s how to make it work.

  7. It all depends on the audience, I suppose. For avid readers, a steady diet of “hawt” characters gets old. For the occasional reader, maybe not so much.

    Similarly, someone who sees only three movies a year in the theater (like me) can be perfectly happy with a well-done genre film, while a movie reviewer may be delighted by an experimental and “different” film simply because it is different than the 400 other films they’ve seen recently.

  8. Allan, that’s completely true. I think this effect, where the most experienced viewers want novelty while viewers who consume less of the media don’t, is very powerful in fiction as well. Professional reviewers admire novelty; normal readers are much more likely to enjoy fiction that continues to use the traditional tropes and beats of whatever genre.

  9. For once, I have to disagree with you both. (That is unusual!)

    I don’t usually attend movies, because I don’t like to pay that much only to have someone sit in front of me and block my view. But while I might watch one or two movies a year, I read that many books in a week. (For one thing, no one blocks my view except for the cat, and she can be bribed to move.) And in books, there are inevitable trends. These days, it’s rare to pick up a paranormal book that doesn’t have a shapeshifter or a romance novel that doesn’t have a duke. What sets a good book apart is the characters, and imo the best stories have characters who don’t conform to type.

    I love stories where the hero or heroine subverts not only the bad guy but also the reader’s expectations.
    In LOTR, the hobbits are surrounded by the noble, heroic, and wise, but it is the little guy (literally) who saves the day. Or take the genre of Romance. One of the most famous Romance writers was Georgette Heyer, and one of her most famous stories concerns an innocent young heroine who has a cousin who is brave, handsome and dashing. The reader puts him in the “hero” slot automatically— he’s the archetype of Romantic Lead. The heroine has a male friend who babbles a lot and is mostly concerned with wearing the latest fashion—instantly put into the Best Friend slot. But by the end of the story, you realize that the Romantic Hero is a self-absorbed jerk and the Babbling Friend has always been there to save the day and is head-over-heels in love with the heroine.

    I would submit, yer honor, members of the jury, that one reason these stories are so beloved is that the characters go against type and surprise us.

  10. Evelyn, that’s one of my favorite of Heyer’s. It took me practically forever to realize Freddy was actually the male lead. Loved it.

    But I’m not this counts as the kind of thing I had in mind. Freddy is actually a competent and admirable male lead, just not in the typical heroic, dashing style. The story itself would not, I think, be counted as experimental or original in the way that a romance might be if, say, the author spent the whole story speaking directly to the reader; or the male lead turned out to be dashing, heroic, and a terrible person; or something like that. I’m thinking of the way critics raved about The Fifth Season, here.

  11. It seems to me that thiis Heyer still has all the elements of a romance, including the torn between the right & the wrong guy.
    If there’s a Heyer romance that doesn’t, I nominate A Civil Contract. I’ve run across quite a few complaints from romance readers about how it isn’t a romance, really.

    I think Rachel and Allan are referring to book like the mystery (IIRC) Rachel occasionally complains about which was really well reviewed and set up a puzzle that was NEVER solved. Not even hinted at a solution for what happened in the backstory.
    It broke the standard for the genre and some reviewers liked it, often readers didn’t.

    Can’t comment on The Fifth Season as I bounced hard.

  12. Elaine, that was In the Woods by Tana French. I disliked the ending for many reasons, but yes, that was definitely an element that left me shaking my head.

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