I tend to read books for entertainment rather than enlightenment. Occasionally,
in the process, I manage to learn things; however, it is the delight of
reading a good book that compels me to spend the time to read.
This has become the most important scale of a book: was the time well
spent reading it? Regrettably, I frequently arrive at the negative answer
only after finishing the job.
With this in mind, the following are the most important criteria to judge
a book, in order:
The most important feature in a book is sympathetic characters. I must be
able to like at least one of the major characters, or if not like, then
respect. Some of the most successful characters are not just antiheroes,
but outright bad guys: assassins, torturers, even evil geniuses (e.g. Hannibal
Lector in the Silence of the Lambs).
The characters must be reasonably intelligent: neither stupid nor improbably
bright protagonists can easily engage my interest. At the ultimate end
of the spectrum of intelligence, the god-like intellect a la Vinge's
Singularity cannot be portrayed in a human narrative—a cast of lower life-forms
must be present to relate with the reader.
In addition, the character should be neither so completely self-assured
as to be boring, nor as self-conscious as to be dysfunctional. A sense
of proportion, or better yet humor, is a vital ingredient in an interesting
Possibly the worst sin a book can commit is make the reader utter the
Eight Deadly Words:
The [Eight Deadly Words] are,
"I don't CARE what happens to these people!"
And are usually followed by putting the book/story/whatever aside without troubling to finish it.
I came up with them after attempting to get past the first chapter of the second volume of the Wheel of Time....
-- Dorothy J. Heydt, rec.arts.sf.written
The second most important element of a good book is a good plot. This is
what propels the reader through the book, and aids in suspension of disbelief
(for Fantasy or Science Fiction).
Style is the third element of a good book. Style can make a good book great;
however, good style will not redeem a book lacking in characters or plot.
One of the problems with some literary Science Fiction is the emphasis
on style to the detriment of everything else.
The best practitioners can make the style serve the characters and
the plot, and increase the enjoyment of the book thereby. Authors like
Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance or Robin McKinley have done this very well. Others,
like Patricia McKillip, have sometimes maintained their remarkable style
while losing track of the first two requirements.
Some of the most enjoyable books have the most pedestrian style of
writing: good characters and plot can carry a book a long way.
The Credo would not be complete if I did not mention what makes
a book bad. Unfortunately, it is all too common to experience regret in
wasting several hours on reading a book with no redeeming qualitites. Time
is the most precious commodity, and the choice to avoid a bad book is perhaps
the most useful service this site can provide.
Complete self assurance can make a character boring. However, I find that
there are too many books in my favorite genres, Science Fiction, Fantasy
and Mystery, which lean too far in the other direction. I use the word
angst somewhat loosely, to imply guilt and other emotional suffering
caused by too much introspection.
Don't get me wrong: some self-doubt is helpful in pulling the reader's
interest. However, if the character spends much of the book agonizing over
his actions, his reactions, past crimes or potential misfortunes, the interest
dries right up.
Overly Complex Plot
All too often, there seems to be a tendency towards what I call the "soap-opera
plot". It is characterized by too many characters, too many plots, and
complete lack of resolution for the first n-1 books of a n-book series.
I have a hard time keeping up with several plots. I also have a hard
time generating enough sympathy for more than one main character, and I
refuse to waste interest on boring characters.
This tendency is, alas, becoming more prevalent with the recent success
of grand epics, where the authors seem to compete to demonstrate their
ability to weave multiple story lines across a sweeping canvas of worlds
The best authors have occasionally been able to handle two interlocking
stories during a novel. These have had the advantage of carefully crafted
plots and extraordinary skill (Tolkien and Connie Willis come to mind).
In most of these "soap-opera" novels or series the result ranges from mediocre
While most of the books I am referring to require suspension of disbelief,
the internal consistency is critical. It is difficult to establish rules
for these things. One of the most common problems is the introduction of
new major scientific principles (or magic powers, or crime suspects) half-way
through a novel.
In general, forenowledge of any kind expressed in a book is a significant
challenge. A prophecy introduced in the beginning of a fantasy novel can
either make the rest of the plot boring, or force the oracles to be smugly
obscure. Even if overcome, what is the reason for the long-dead prophets/wizards/oracles/supercomputers
to be so much better at predicting the future than any contemporary agency?
Even worse, however, are the omniscient narrator interruptions of the
kind "if only he knew what this action would cause...". This type of thing
seems to be more prevalent in fantasy books.
Even handled as a flashback mechanism, foreknowledge is not easy to
handle well. My preference is to avoid it: there are so many good books
that let the reader discover the plot as it unfolds, why create extra problems?
It is important to note that the best books sometimes transcend the most
fundamental rules. Extroardinary skill can overcome many sins. Sometimes
even deeply flawed books from beginning authors are interesting, because
of originality, or some other aspect. However, in most cases, these do
tend to be exceptions.
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