I am a firm believer that all books, as well as all paintings and poems and songs, have something valuable to offer the world. All art that is created and shared has a place in this world, because they are all ways that a person has chosen to express themselves, their view of the world, and their understanding of things, and I think its very, very important that all people are given that opportunity. But even then, some art is still better than others.
In my time reading I've come across great, epic works of art. Books that make my heart tremble with characters that breathe beside me and imagery so sharp and exquisite I forget I am sitting in my humble room, tucked away in my own plain corner of the universe. And I've also come across books that were so bad I cackled loudly in the middle of class and if I wasn't doing that I was cringing and putting it away because it was too bad to finish. So today I am going to tell you just what makes a book good.
Its all very simple, because the secret to a good book is all in who you put in charge of running the story: The characters.
Even if you're not writing a character based novel that is about a girl becoming a woman or a group of kids learning who they really are, the characters drive the story. In many ways they are the story. A story without a character isn't a story at all, its nothing. Even scientific observations have characters. Nonfiction books have characters too, just not in the obvious ways. So if you fail at writing good characters, you've missed the mark for a good novel.
Then the next obvious question is, what makes a character good? Well, I'll tell you.
They have to be legitimate. Human beings (real ones that live and breathe, not just the imaginary ones on paper) are very complex. They say things they don't mean, they go back on their word, they confuse themselves, they confuse others and not one of them can be easily described in a few short sentences. So don't try. Its best to have some basic character outlines, things like, 'He is brave and devoted to his family' but not just leave his character there. If your hero goes the entire book stabbing dragons because he's 'brave' and whining about how much he misses his family, and then doing literally nothing else, people are going to throw your book in the garbage and give it a one star rating on amazon. People are complex, so your characters have to be too.
Take Scarlett O'Hara for example. That woman is WILD. She's in love with one man only to be in love with another but she doesn't know she loves the other because she's in love with the first because the first is a mystery but the second one makes sense and on and on and on. And its so good to read 'Gone With the Wind' because there is such a strong, well-developed character spearheading the novel. She's an awful woman no doubt about that, but a good character doesn't have to be kind and honorable, they just have to be well-written. Make sense?
So to keep building off the concept of them being legitimate, people are stupid, but they're not stupid. Yes, we all say and do stupid things, and sometimes the things we do and say are cringe worthy and embarrassing, but we all have our good moments, and to look at life in a positive light, most of the times the things people say aren't terrible and stupid. So its not a legit to have an entire book filled with characters saying stupid things. And some of the time this does come down to personal tastes. Whats stupid to me may not be stupid to you, but since this is my blog post I can say whatever I want.
'The Infinite Moment of Us' is one of the most awful books I've ever read, solely because I spent half of the novel face palming because words could not describe how awful the dialogue in that book was. Both of the characters were not only poorly written and poorly developed, but they just said the most cringe worthy statements, all the time. It was uncomfortable to read because the characters themselves were made uncomfortable by the dialogue and thoughts they were given.
Finally, as a kind of blanket statement, the characters need to be people your audience can get behind, even if they're awful people like Scarlett O'Hara. If the reader is hanging on the edge of their seat as a character slowly creeps around a corner, and the entire book has led up to this one moment and the reader knows exactly what the character is thinking without any blatant descriptions being given and the reader can feel the pain the character is going through about what may or may not be around the corner, the storyteller has done a good job.
The purpose of books is to share an experience that you, as a reader living a life of your own, would otherwise not have had. I as a white woman living in a middle class suburbia have no idea what its like to live on a houseboat in a tropical island, or to be a refugee coming to a new country, or to live in New York, or to be gay, or to live on a farm, or to be Muslim, or to play on a basketball team, or to have my mom pass away, or to be the victim of domestic abuse. But thanks to books I am able to experience those things in a special way that will lead me to have a better understanding of those who are different than me, and that understanding will lead to a mutual sense of compassion, and then world peace may at last be achieved.
So books have to feel real, they have to feel legitimate even if your characters are fighting dragons and making out with hot alien chicks on a spaceship in another galaxy. And the easiest way to do that is to have solid characters steering the ship, characters that are well-developed, easy to understand, and as close to human as an imaginary book-person can get.
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