Last week I wrote a post about the secret recipe for a bestseller. A recipe which, for a series of reasons, I don’t believe it can be found.
Instead, in this post I’m going to list the features a book must possess to intrigue me. It’s not a secret recipe, far from it. It’s just me babbling about my likes and dislikes. A sort of case study on my reading habits.
Unwilling heroes with a North Star
Unwilling or reluctant heroes. You can call them like you wish. But for me this is how heroes should be to have a chance to win me over. Because they smell much more of real humanity than any other kind of hero.
In fact, we all intuitively know that being a hero is an exceedingly arduous task. As a result if, on the one hand, those people who jump into a potentially lethal adventure after the other earn our admiration, on the other hand, they also raise some eyebrows.
Because more or less unconsciously we think they can’t be completely normal. That’s to say, they can’t be just like you and me. And as a result we ultimately find it more difficult to identify with them.
Often a great solution to make sure literary heroes get involved in any sort of dangerous adventure while retaining credibility and making it easy for us to identify with them is to endow them with high moral principles.
For example, making sure that for our reluctant heroes justice and truth are moral imperatives. In this way even if they are unwilling and scared to death (well, almost) they still embark in the damn adventure. Because they are principled.
Yes, I would say the heroes I like most are unwilling but firmly principled. For them ideals aren’t political horses to ride according to the social climate. On the contrary, ideals and beliefs are their North Star.
Off the top of my head, examples of unwilling heroes I can think of are Jack Richard, Lee Child’s creature. Frodo Baggins in The Lord of The Rings , and Juliette in Silo by Hugh Howey.
Worlds must collide
What I mean here isn’t about big meteors heading straight toward the Earth. It isn’t about furious car chases either, or thunderous wars, or psychopaths mass-murdering whole Walmart stores with a chainsaw–not really the stores but the people inside, of course.
What I mean with worlds must collide is that deep-seated beliefs, whole ways of life, dogmas, and all those nifty psychological crutches people often use to go through life must be shaken and shattered, must be put in doubt and, if need be, abjured.
The story can be as simple as a rabbit making friends with a duck. But if this kind of friendship sparks interesting new ideas about identity, society, and so on I’m fine with it.
For me it’s way better to read about rabbits and ducks who make me think about big themes than senselessly consuming tons of books where all that matter is the dress the heroine is about to wear. Or the car our hero has just bought with his dad’s money.
For an extremely enjoyable example of what I mean when I speak of colliding worlds go read The Godfather, by Mario Puzo.
Another important aspect of a great book has to do with the interior landscape of the characters populating it. I can’t stand those novels in which we can only see what characters do and say but are never privy on their inner musings.
A novel is such an effective tool to enter a character’s head and listen to their inner dialogue, or to listen to what they have to say directly to us, it’s a pity when we have such options foreclosed.
Just think of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, or of Notes from the Underground by Fedor Dostoevsky. Such novels work their magic exactly because we can know what the main protagonists are thinking. Their thoughts and desires and idiosyncrasies are part and parcel of the story itself. Even the lies they tell themselves.
Misery by Stephen King is another great example. Read the book and then go see the film adaptation and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Even if the film is a quite good adaptation, after reading the book it seems to me a bit too simplistic and somehow weak.
To kill or not to kill?
It’s not that I particularly like it when authors kill off a main character. But when this is the case something indisputable happens. My attention grows exponentially. All of a sudden the fictional world begins to resemble in a dark and unsettling manner the real world. The world where bad things happens.
And, indeed, one of the many reasons I particularly enjoyed reading George R.R. Martin’s cycle A Song of Ice and Fire is exactly because any page could bring about real grief and desperation.
Of course, killing off a character can be tricky. Generally speaking, if one of the protagonists dies in a credible and meaningful manner then the story benefits from the sacrifice.
Instead if the protagonist is run over by a car, out of sheer bad luck, then maybe it would be better to rethink the plot. Because literature should resemble real life, but it shouldn’t be exactly like it. That is, unless as an author you want a legion of outraged readers foaming at you.
For example, in Silo important characters die. So many indeed that you really never know for sure who is going to make it to the next page. Howey uses this bloody rhetoric device so artfully that when you are finished you are only too glad he killed off some of those people. Because in this way the ride he offered you was much more satisfying.
Great novels don’t need only great heroes, they also need great villains.
Obviously, what makes villains credible is the ability to carry out their threats. Otherwise they would look like spoiled four-year-old children. All frowns and yells, but ready to shed a sea of tears as soon as they get spanked, no matter how gently.
Villains must also be evil, of course. Otherwise they would never issue a threat, to begin with. But this evilness should never be like a black blanket of darkness. Because a villain who never shows a moment of doubt, who never experience a positive emotion, who isn’t at least a bit tormented, looks dangerously similar to a caricature, not to a real person. That is, unless we are speaking of psychopaths–have a look at Joyce Carol Oates’s Zombie, for an illuminating example on this.
There are also some aspects of villains that trouble me. In particular I can’t stand those novels whose villains act like perfect and merciless killing machines throughout the book only to change into some sort of idiotic wannabe villains when they meet the main protagonist.
That’s not the way to go. I particularly dislike this kind of development because it occurs toward the end of the novel, and often spoils the whole experience of the book. It’s really too bad.
I must admit it: I’m a fan of happy endings. But over the years I read a lot of novels where happy endings never materialized. And I enjoyed them. A lot. In short I think that while happy endings make us, indeed, happy, the somber ones make us think a lot more. And for me this is a huge plus.
For example, there’s no happy ending in Lolita. Nor there is any in Zombie. And the way Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Süskind, ends, well…
Yet, I would never change a word of such novels. And I’m grateful to their authors for coming up with such incredibly rich and deep and unsettling narratives.
As a result more than of happy endings I can say I am a huge fan of all those endings that emerge organically, naturally, from the story–without any intervention from the author to steer it in any particular direction. I love such endings. They make me think a lot about the story I just read. And about life in general.
That’s it. This is what I like to find when I read a novel. It’s not a secret recipe. Not at all. And probably it isn’t going to be of any use for most of you. But it’s my recipe and is also my recipe for writing, at least in part–you know what they say, write the story you want to read… But this is matter for another post.
And you? What are the essential features they must have? Chime in and tell me.