TV Tropes has a name for a phenomenon that speaks for itself: “Most Writers are Writers.” Writing what you know, in some cases, means writing a protagonist that shares some traits with you, which often includes being a writer or loving books. This is not a problem, as I can relate to bookworm characters, being a bit of one myself.
What drives me up the proverbial wall, though, are the bookworm stereotypes, especially in young adult stories. The bookworm in question is more comfortable with a book than with anything based in reality, whether that means surroundings or other life forms, making them clumsy, pathologically shy shut-ins that need to be healed with the power of a free-spirited love interest.
Enough, I say. Not all bookworms or English majors have the same traits, and it shouldn’t be that way in fiction, either. Here are the five signs that you or someone you love is a fictional bookworm and how I think these character traits could be improved.
- All of us are writers.
If you’re getting an English major, it’s because you’re either becoming a writer or a teacher. There’s nothing else you can do with an English degree, ever. Well, nothing except starving to death, if the opinions of the many strangers I’ve talked to are any indicator.
Not so. Yes, I’ve known a number of people who have gone into education (which is a separate degree/certification/concentration in most if not all cases, which seems to be a very common misunderstanding) and writing (and I’m the latter!), and yes, in order to succeed in that field you have to be a good reader and writer. But I’ve also known people that have gone on to law school, business, and social work, among other things. The ability to communicate clearly is important in so many fields, not just writing and education. As long as you’re not taking an English major because everything else is “too hard” and/or just want to party the entire time you’re at college, there’s a lot of good uses for it.
Furthermore, you don’t even have to be an English major or writer to be a bookworm: the most voracious readers I know are students of botany, neuroscience, and sociology that use reading as a pleasant diversion from everything else that’s going on in their lives. Real people often have a variety of interests, and I see nothing wrong with fictional characters having them as well.
- You’re either good at reading or good at math/science, but not both.
Are you a fictional character? Female? The shy, quiet, artistic type? Congratulations! You are right-brained and therefore completely and totally inept at anything STEM-related! It’s all Ds on your science and math tests for you no matter how much work you allegedly put into your studies or how much tutoring (or “tutoring”) you get from that cute boy your teacher assigned to help you out!
As someone who was thrilled to pass high school Algebra II with a C-, I would be a terrible example to use to refute this trope. But I can’t be the only person that’s noticed that being bad at STEM fields has become a flaw for fictional characters in the same way that being clumsy, stubborn, or a vampire has—which is to say that it isn’t a flaw at all, but a trait tacked onto a character by a writer who knows that their otherwise perfect hero needs a “weakness” in order to be believable.
Like I mentioned with myself, a weakness in number-heavy fields can indeed happen in people who are stronger with languages, but it’s not a blanket thing. Algebra wasn’t my field: I was much, much better at geometry and trigonometry, when I could visually get an idea of how the numbers related to one another rather than guessing at what went into a formula (or guessing what the formula even was). I wasn’t a fan of physics or chemistry, but there were parts of biology that I was halfway decent at.
To take some of the focus off of me for a moment, there are some people who are just really good at academics of all stripes. These are the valedictorians and salutatorians who have their 4.0 and above GPAs for a reason and absolutely deserve them (which is another trope that I hate, by the way—you generally can’t fail classes and still end up with a 4.0 overall, because it’s an average of everything you’ve done). There are also people that aren’t as academic—I have a lot of “car guys” in my family that are good at hands-on, technical things that I wouldn’t even dream of attempting. Even then, it’s not like they failed anything else that they attempted, and there’s actually a lot of studying and certifications for mechanics.
I don’t claim to be an expert on the brain at all, but right and left aren’t black and white. There can be some overlap. And give your characters some personal flaws, not academic ones.
- The classics are our favorites.
And you only get to choose from books written by Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, if you happen to be in high school. You get Tolstoy, Dickens, or Hemingway if you’re male.
This goes back to what the audience can be expected to know. Austen and the Brontës wrote romance novels, so the hopeless romantic young woman at the helm of your romance novel is a fan of them. Even though Poe is the father of the detective story and wrote a number of romantic poems, he’s best known for his creepier fare and any character who name-drops or reads him is bound to be offbeat and eerie. Someone who’s nose-deep in The Art of War is a military history buff and probably going to be calling the shots in your battle-heavy climax.
I’m not saying that the classics didn’t become that way for a reason: rather, I’m saying that not all of us read or love the same things. I love Jane Eyre, but I read it too late in my life for it to be my catalyst for loving literature in the “grown up” sense of the word. Arthur Miller probably comes the closest to getting that particular honor, actually, but my love of reading was instilled in me from a very young age by Jannell Cannon, and a lot of my favorite required reading wasn’t from traditional western canon—I’ve read and loved Amy Tan and Barbara Kingsolver, but you won’t see their names getting mentioned. Who’s to say that Nathaniel Hawthorne or William Wordsworth couldn’t be someone’s writer of choice?
- The unremitting employ of an inordinately ostentatious lexicon.
Or, in standard English, “Using big words when they’re not called for.” I do think this is a good trope for establishing that someone is unfamiliar with typical language conventions and/or that they’re extremely intelligent, especially if they’re among their equally-intelligent and similarly-trained peers. Where this starts to grate on me is when a bookworm sounds like they’re vomiting thesaurus pages on their less-literary friends for no good narrative reason.
The way I talk to my close friends is dramatically different from the way I talk to my parents, other people’s small children, other writers, potential employers, and so forth. Part of the training to be an English major involves, yes, learning these larger words, but also when and how to use them. The point is to be understood, which you’re not going to be if you speak “academia” to everyone.
If you’re looking for a character to spout a lot of complicated-sounding language that relates to the plot, go with a scientist, especially a biologist or chemist. A lot of what they do is so complicated, technical, and/or specific that they have to communicate in jargon in order to be effectively understood. When your loquacious character is just a fan of books, though, you’re wasting ink.
As a corollary, the same thing goes for cursing coming off as shorthand for a character being unintelligent. I’ve known a number of English majors and great students whose favorite words were of the four-letter, profane variety. Again, it depends entirely on context.
- We are as naïve and clueless as they come.
Because you’re too busy reading books to know anything about the real world. You need to let down your hair, take off your glasses, and go outside for a change. What you need is a hot, devil-may-care love interest to get your head out of the clouds and teach you about everything you’re missing out on.
(Am I being a little heavy-handed with this “love interest” angle? Perhaps.)
This right here is the bookworm trope that gets on my nerves the most. And just like with my fourth point, there’s truth to this one, because I used to be really naïve and something of a prude. I’ve also known a number of other people like me who might even have been worse than I was in that regard.
The thing about this is that, at some point, you’re going to run across an adult theme in all those books that you read. You can’t talk about The Scarlet Letter in those schools where you’re allowed to read it without at least alluding to adultery and sex; Lord of the Flies is pretty intensely violent, scary, and cynical if you’re not prepared; even Harry Potter got darker as the series went on and the characters became mature enough to confront the more complex situations that faced them.
Books tell you the truth while lying to your face. Even if they’re about wizards, aliens, superheroes, vampires, or even just ordinary people that don’t exist, the plots and situations are often written about and in response to things that happen in the real world. While a book can take you away from reality for a bit and give you a dose of fantasy and escapism, you cannot completely avoid facing real-world problems and situations by taking refuge in books. Sooner or later, someone would have at written an allegory for it, even if it’s frightening, violent, sexual, or political.
Additionally, in stories that take place in or around this day in age, search engines exist. If every reader is like I am, they will Google whatever is on their mind that they’re fairly certain won’t end up with them on a watch list (but maybe even then deciding to take that chance). If you have the right teachers, you’re encouraged to do your own research on things you don’t understand or that pique your interest. I learned in elementary school how to determine which sites are reputable sources of information and be wary of anything you read online. While I didn’t have a public library near me when I was younger, there were libraries inside of the schools that I knew how to use so that I could do research in books. This is especially true for high school and college students with some measure of economic privilege: this is the time when you actually need to put in a lot of effort outside of class to find information, and you have the resources. You cannot escape from school without being required to research something, and fictional characters have fewer excuses than real-world humans do.
I don’t know how you can be a bookworm and, if you don’t know something, not have at least an impulse to look it up. Even if it’s something that you’re personally not interested in, if having that information would help you understand something else you love, why wouldn’t you try to learn? If your character is a bookworm, but also doesn’t know about something that she could reasonably be expected to know given her demographics and isn’t curious enough to look it up, I’m all but convinced that she’s either lying to seem smarter or hasn’t read anything other than picture books in her entire life.
What do you guys think? Did I leave one off of the list? Are there any tropes that just bug you?