Literary Pet Peeves #2: Misleading Titular Characters

Photo by Noel Nichols on Unsplash

Alternately, the post title could have been “Why Did the Title Make Me Think This Book was About This Character When They’re Irrelevant, or They Don’t Show Up For Half the Book.” But that was too long.

It doesn’t happen often: I think the first time I formally complained about this in a book review was after reading The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender back in 2016, but it’s come up again a lot this year: The Miniaturist was, at best, a randomly mysterious but ultimately unnecessary minor character in her own novel; The Necromancer wasn’t primarily about Johannes Cabal; The Hangman’s Daughter was barely present in the book named for her and was usually a plot object rather than an actual character when she was present; and perhaps mostly surprisingly, I got hit one more time with a nonfiction book, An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew, where Ms. Tew was little more than a narrative thread barely holding together a succession of historical vignettes about the men in her life.

I’m peeved every time. I get that titling books can be difficult, believe me, I do. But if an author puts a character in the title–the most visible, prominent thing about a book, the very identification that differentiates it from other books–isn’t it reasonable for me, a reader, to expect that the book is about that character?

Am I wrong in my disappointment? Should I stop expecting a titular character to be a protagonist, or at least a villain if that’s applicable? Should I stop squandering my expectations?

Of course, it’s not universal. I’m so irritated by it because it keeps happening, but it’s far from every book. Coraline was clearly about Coraline. The Picture of Dorian Gray was a wholly accurate title for its contents. Even if I didn’t end up enjoying the book, The Bone Witch was about a bone witch. I could go on, but I’m not actually interested in titles that get it right. I’m questioning why it seems so many titles get it wrong.

(It would be a fun exercise to look up general title-writing advice and try to re-title the books that have irked me in the past according to that advice. I think I just created a new Writing Homework post for later this month!)

I’m hesitant to ascribe a single, reductive motive to all these poor titling choices; it would be easy, but useless, to simply say “these authors were lazy.” In some cases, it might be publisher pressure–character titles are memorable, and titles are one of the things that can get changed in the publishing process (though I have no hard information on how often that happens, obviously. You just hear things.) In others, the author might truly think they gave their work an appropriate title, and I happen to disagree. In yet others, I’m sure there are reasons I haven’t considered for why the title is what it is, and I’ll have to accept that those titles set me up for disappointment.

But it has become a literary pet peeve of mine, and the point of this post is to whine about it, not fix it. I can’t fix it. I can only hope that writers reading it will take my whining into account when they someday publish their books that I might someday read, so that I (and other readers) won’t be disappointed next time I pick up A Book Clearly Named for One of its Characters.

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