Fifty Shades of Ethos

When writing a piece, particularly a piece of fiction, it is important to know who your character is, and how he or she should think, act, and feel. Most authors who find a wide audience do a pretty good job of this. For example, the characters in the Harry Potter series, while they grow and change, never do things that would make a reader think things like, “Wait, did Hermione REALLY just do that?” A recent example in popular literature of character ethos gone wrong is the increasingly popular Fifty Shades series by British author E.L. James.

Let me preface this rant by making it known that I did not in any way know that this horrendous book was born as Twilight fan fiction, written by a woman using the pseudonym “Snowqueen’s Icedragon.” The English major part of me was extremely offended that one of my friends recommended this, not because it is fan fiction (there is excellently crafted fan fiction out there), but because it is based on another popular series with little to no ethos. I still get a little offended every time my friend says, “Laters, Baby” to me. Even as I type this, Microsoft Word is angry and has thrown an epithet at me in the form of a red squiggly line beneath the made up word “laters.”


The first glaring problem with ethos comes right at the beginning of the book, when the main character, Anastasia (Ana) Steele, begins to describe her “dearest, dearest friend” Katherine Kavanaugh, A.K.A Kate. The second page of the book launches into a detailed description of Kate, who is “articulate, strong, persuasive, argumentative, [and] beautiful.” ALL of this could have been shown by simply fleshing out Kate’s character through her actions. It was a 500 page book. There was time for Kate to do things that would have shown these attributes. I am taking Creative Writing Fiction this semester, and authors are supposed to show, not tell. Also, strong /persuasive /argumentative are all pretty similar words, and we’ve already been told how gorgeous Kate is at this point. Apparently she is even stunningly gorgeous when she has the flu. I find this a little unbelievable. After this long-winded initial description of Kate, we learn that she is incredibly “tenacious.” She is so tenacious, in fact, that this is basically the only word the author uses to describe her for the rest of the novel.

Moving on to the main man, Fifty Shades himself, Christian Grey. Owner of a multi-billion dollar company–Grey Enterprises–at the tender age of 27, Christian has it all. He’s got a killer apartment, expensive cars, and according to the novel, he is absolutely gorgeous. Before I even delve into this character’s sordid past, I must point out how unrealistic his whole scenario is in the first place. I am not buying that this man has managed to become a mega-billionaire so fast. It’s just totally unrealistic no matter what kind of job he has. While his adoptive parents do have a lot of money to finance his business, I am still having a hard time believing that this man is on the same level as Bruce Wayne. My willing suspension of disbelief did not arrive quickly while reading this book.

I suppose I can’t really blog about this book without mentioning the sex. Christian Grey has a rather murky sexual past, having lost his virginity at the age of 15 to the friend of his adoptive mother. This friend, dubbed “Mrs. Robinson” by Ana, exposed Christian Grey to the world of BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, Masochism), and he never went back. He spent a good six years as Mrs. Robinson’s submissive, and then continued to find other BDSM relationships until he met Anastasia Steele. I am really curious as to how his mother did not figure this out and voice concern. That is some less than satisfactory parenting right there. Apparently there is a better explanation as to why Christian Grey is “fifty shades of effed up,” as he puts it, in later books, but I did not read them so I cannot really say whether or not this is true.

Lastly, I have to write about Anastasia Steele, the sniveling, confused, insecure “heroine” of the novel. Ana is a rather strange individual as she is a senior in college and has not experienced owning a laptop or being drunk. I don’t how she has been doing her homework for the last four years, or how she has avoided the bar. She is 21, and her best friend Kate is cool. I have a hard time believing that a character like Kate would not take Ana out on her 21st birthday. Ana has a lot of insecurity issues that, try as she might, Kate cannot fix. At the beginning of the novel, Kate sends Ana on a journalism assignment to interview the CEO of Grey Enterprises, Mr. Christian Grey, a wealthy alumni of their school. She is immediately intimidated and barely gets through the meeting, not only tripping over her words, but her feet as well. Naturally, fate pushes Christian and Ana together through a variety of awkward encounters while he is staying in her town, and they eventually become partners. “Couple” just did not seem like the right word to use, because Christian has made it abundantly clear that they are not dating. He tells her that in order to be with him she must sign a contract expressing that she will not speak about their sexual relationship with anyone (what happens in the Red Room of Pain, stays in the Red Room of Pain). As Christian and Ana’s relationship explores the world of BDSM, Ana discovers that she likes a lot of things that she didn’t think she would. These actions release Ana’s “inner goddess,” revealing the most glaring ethos problem in the novel. This “inner goddess” comes out every time that Ana almost chickens out of doing something, and she eventually follows through on the actions in order to please the goddess.

Some people would probably say that Ana is a complex woman, learning to deal with a lot of new ideas, and her “inner goddess” shows her ability to try these activities.

I think she should see someone about it.

As you can see, ethos is a very important element to writing. With the wrong ethos, a character may become completely unbelievable, and his story less accessible to the reader.

Who knows? Readers might even find your writing to be nothing more than a regurgitation of popular teen vampire fiction.

Michelle, peer tutor