A small pet peeve

Okay, this is a detail.

But it seriously bugs me. And if anything, it’s getting more common, not less.

a) Protagonist meets another character and thinks, right off the bat, that she looks like she’s twenty-one or he is probably about fifty-two.

There is NO WAY to judge some stranger’s age that precisely and accurately when you first see someone. It is IMPOSSIBLE for anybody to know know exactly how old people are when they just look at them for the first time. The author is providing special magic knowledge to their protagonist.

This goes for weight as well. No one can look at someone and just know she weights 152 lbs. If someone out there can do it, I still don’t believe in this peculiar talent when I encounter it in fiction.

I honestly am pretty darn sure I have never, ever done this. My protagonists always think “maybe mid-forties” or something like that. Sometimes they’re wrong, too. For me, this is an obtrusive mistake, one I really dislike.

b) Protagonist meets another character for the first time and knows how to pronounce and spell their name, even though their name is obviously not easy for the protagonist to pronounce or spell.

This isn’t as bad. But there are times when the reader isn’t going to be able to overlook it. If Bob steps through a portal and meets D’sanethalthi, he ought to stumble over that. If he doesn’t, again, that’s because the author is giving Bob special knowledge he really shouldn’t have.

c) The most modern variant, which I’ve seen twice this year so far: Protagonist meets another character for the very first time and, without a word being spoken and without any introduction of any kind, automatically knows this singular person wants to be referred to as they/them.

Authors. Seriously. Cut it out.

New pronoun traditions are one thing. Providing magic knowledge to your characters is cheating. It also implies that something is wrong with real-world people if they cannot tell by magic telepathy that a particular person they meet wants to be referred to as they/them.

Stop doing that.

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10 thoughts on “A small pet peeve”

  1. I’m so bad with guessing ages that I’m frequently not even in the right decade. It’s hard to suspend disbelief when characters precisely identify someone’s age!

    With pronouns, I tend to use (or have characters use) a gender-neutral pronoun only when the person at issue appears to be deliberately presenting in a non-binary way. But if that isn’t evident in the text, why is the narrator guessing?

  2. YES. I have never seen this happen in conjunction with any kind of character description. The person steps on stage and boom! The protagonist JUST KNOWS about pronoun preferences.

    If the author wants to do that, the author can use understood social cues like earrings for the Betans. But then the author needs to let the reader know there is this kind of convention!

  3. I definitely agree with the age and weight things, but I am more forgiving on the protagonist knowing a name pronunciation or a character’s pronouns because I tend to find most of the alternatives more obtrusive and immersion-breaking than the magic knowledge? I personally kinda feel like these are things that naturally come up in between the lines, like characters making a pitstop to go to the bathroom, in a way that someone’s exact age or weight would not casually come up.

    (I don’t mind the science fictional solution of a digital profile attached to someone like in Murderbot with this info or the method that Winter’s Orbit went where characters wear something particular indicating their gender, though I feel like it would have limitations, e.g. not all nonbinary people use the same pronouns. I think narrative conventions will gradually develop and be standardized for this kind of representation.)

    (Although, I know it’s very petty, but the reason I have never read The Name of the Wind is because the main character, who is supposed to be _speaking aloud_, first _introduces himself by name_ and then _tells people how to pronounce his name_, which he himself has just said aloud to them: “My name is Kvothe, pronounced nearly the same as ‘quothe.'” I could not get past this!)

  4. Ouch, Sandstone. If and when I EVER get around to reading The Name of the Wind, that is now probably going to be something I notice. Granted, that may never happen, as it’s been this long and the thing is still sitting on my TBR shelves.

    Attaching a digital profile is a good way of solving the pronoun thing for an SF setting. But just using they/them pronouns with no way to know the character’s preference is so obtrusive that I am brought to a total halt.

    Names, I grant, sometimes are best passed lightly over, although it’s not THAT obtrusive to have the protagonist stumble over a name once or twice. (IMO.)

  5. I have one exception that I will accept: If the character is Sherlock Holmes. In that singular case, it’s part of the character’s known abilities. (It’s been long enough since I read canon SH I don’t recall if he actually does tell age and weight accurately, but that’s certainly part of the reputation he has in the general culture.)

    i find getting children’s ages correct even more annoying than adult ages. Children are hard, even within a classroom of supposedly the same age, there can be a great deal of variation.

    Names… I can go either way with. But if it’s something like your example, and it’s a person from modern America, yeah, I’d expect a stumble, an attempt to repeat, an internal ‘what?” or some kind of reaction.

    I add my particular pet peeve: eye color. Since I almost never notice eye color unless I’m up close and personal, and rarely even then, spotting another character’s eye color from any distance seems highly implausible. Even when it’s famous actor with famous eyes. I will, however accept a description of ‘dark eyes’ from a distance as that is the sort of thing that shows. But specific color? Nope.

    Haven’t seen the pronoun thing yet, but imagine I would be annoyed.

  6. I can handle the “telling someone how to pronounce your name even though you just spoke it” thing a bit better than the “automatic exact age” thing, because I’ve actually experienced that. I once met a guy from the Czech Republic who introduced himself as, “My name’s Vatslav, you pronounce it like the Tina Turner song, ‘Vat’s lav got to do with it.'” Obviously, he’d had to deal with enough people asking him how to pronounce his name that this had simply become rote! So if the character in the book is from a different culture and/or speaks with a heavy accent that might make it harder for their hearers to pick up on the correct pronunciation on the first listen, I’ll buy it. If it’s the same culture, same language, no reason for the listeners to have a hard time with the name, though, it smacks too much of the editor saying, “hey, nobody is going to know how to pronounce this name,” and the author frantically trying to shove the pronunciation in at the last minute without a major rewrite.

    The age thing, though? Yeah, that one’s never going to be believable to me no matter how you spin it.

  7. Heck, I’m in my mid twenties and routinely get pegged for a high school student (and the reverse was true in middle and high school, oddly enough). So yeah, knowing someone’s exact age is incredibly unlikely.

    Ditto on weight. Actually, why would you even put that into a story unless it’s relevant? And if it’s relevant, why are you making your protagonist guess? Why not just ask the character whose weight is being guessed?

    You know what’s unrealistic to me (personally, though I know others who can do it just fine)? Remembering someone’s name forever after the first introduction. Unless their name is incredibly unusual or we get introduced in a memorable way, I am NOT going to remember your name until the third (or fourth or fifth) time we meet, even if I like you! And my brother just wholesale makes up nicknames. His planner is littered with notes to call ‘bowtie sushi guy’, meet with ‘spy dude’, get notes from ‘Pokemon Godzilla painting girl’, etc. Character quirk? Definitely.

    Magical knowledge of any kind is just lazy writing, in my opinion. Make up a conversation in which that knowledge gets shared, or make your character go through some kind of process to find out that information, if it’s important. And if it’s not, it didn’t need to be there.

  8. With the Death’s Lady trilogy, I kinda tried to cheat by handing everyone names that are relatively easy to pronounce. I DID cheat with spelling, though, by saying “Mitereh” and “Niah” without having anybody wonder whether there’s an “h” on the end.

    I think you’re quite right, Louise, there’s no need at all to have people pause if they’re all from the same culture and it would be obtrusive if the author DID mention pronunciation and spelling. In those cases, my preference is to say nothing at all and let readers pronounce every name however they like.

    Elaine, I didn’t think of eye color, but yes, you know what, I hereby agree. Which is awkward, since I think I do mention eye color pretty often. But you’re right, in real life, I rarely notice eye color; often not even dark/light, probably. Now, with the Tarashana people, that’s different. I bet EVERYONE would notice if someone’s eyes kept changing color as though they were mood rings.

  9. Huh. I notice eye color in real life and I really miss it when it’s not specified in a book, at least for major characters. And I find it really annoying when they say that someone has dark eyes and I imagine them with, let’s say, dark brown and later they turn out to be dark grey, and I have to reimagine the character.

  10. Thanks for commenting, Maria! Hah! Now I once again feel justified in mentioning eye color.

    I’m a bit surprised anyone would say “dark” and mean any shade of gray. I almost always mean dark brown when I say “dark.” I don’t really think of “dark gray” as a thing — to me, all gray eyes seem pretty light. But I don’t actually notice eye color very much, so maybe there are plenty of really dark gray eyes out there and I’ve just never noticed.

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