Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A question of character

We keep coming back to this, as editors and as readers, and it's worth thinking about. What exactly is the most important factor in making a good book? My votes would be, in order, character, character, and character.

Take this example. My wife is an inveterate reader of mysteries. I mean, she will read any and every mystery, any time of the day or night. (She is not unhappy that I can fuel her addiction with books borrowed from the office.) And the vast majority of these books are series installments. For that matter, the vast majority of mysteries from the beginning of the genre have been series installments as far back as Sherlock Holmes. So why does my wife incessantly read these various incursions into all these different series? As she puts it, she just likes to visit with the characters again. She doesn't care about the mystery per se, although if the mystery is intriguing that's a nice plus. She cares about the people. She cares about the characters. She wants to see what they're up to next. Everything else is just gravy.

I maintain that this is true of all books. The underlying appeal of a good book is good characters. We care about the people in the story. Maybe we connect with them on some personal, emotional level. Or maybe they're people we'd like to be. Or they're people who are just so entertaining that we want to be around them. They can be nasty, weird, and exquisitely underhanded, and we just enjoy watching them pursue their evil ends. Whatever. Our favorite books—modern, classical, mystery, romance, adventure, you name it—are our favorites because of the people in them.

Try it yourself. Think of your favorite books. Ten to one, the thing you remember most is the characters.


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