Weekly Musing: What Makes For a Good Read?

What attracts a reader to spend hours each day reading? Is it the characters? The plot? The author? The subject matter? Is it the story? That desire to experience a world different from their own?

For myself, I’m usually drawn to what the story is about but what ultimately makes for a good read are the characters. Occasionally it is the author but only if it’s one of my favorites.

But what is it about a story that peaks my interests? Genre is the first attraction. Since historical fiction is one of my favorite, I’m first drawn to particular time periods. If it’s fantasy, stories with swords or magical people or creatures or just has a unique world. And, as of late, I’ve been reading more of the classics and literature just because I feel deficient somehow.

After picking a genre, reading the book jacket to get a feel for the story is key. If the story is set in a time period I’m familiar with, what twist are they going for? If it’s a story containing a real historical figure, what aspect of their life do will I find interesting? If it’s fantasy, what is going to happen in this world? With the classics or literature, I tend to be interested in a theme or an exploration of a character as he goes through change in his life. Location and time period aren’t as important to me.

Once I’ve started a book, the biggest thing that will hold my attention are the characters. I generally prefer the lead characters to be smart, strong, and courageous yet I’m coming to realize that a really good lead character doesn’t necessarily have to be all these things in order to be interesting or a well-developed. Well, actually, the lead should be at least smart. And by smart I don’t mean has a high IQ but that there is something smart about them. I don’t want to read about someone who constantly acts stupid. The lead can make stupid decisions as part of the plot and character development but the character itself can’t be stupid.

Admittedly plot isn’t too big of a priority. I’ve read some books recently that had some pretty out there plots and didn’t mind because the characters were so interesting. American Gods by Neil Gaiman has a plot I have a very hard time describing but it is the odd, creepy characters that intrigued me. Actually everything I’ve read so far by Neil Gaiman I could claim to have a hard time describing the plot other than it’s just different. Another book I’ve read, Emperor Mollusk vs. the Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez is a sci-fi read with a villain as the main character that again, it’s hard to describe the plot and do it justice. It’s not that they had bad plots or boring plots, if they did, I’m not sure even the most interesting and well-developed characters could save a boring book. I think overall, I’d much prefer a simple lot and simple subplots with complex characters. If the characters are complicated, then I get more of a sense they will do just find mucking up a simple story. That’s what is fun for me to read.

Those elements that make for a good read to me are what I strive for in my own writing. Yet I do realize it is important to have a good plot; it’s the platform that allows characters to do their thing. Also, plenty of readers are attracted to plot so I do need to keep that in the back of my head. But for me, characters are what drive the story bus, both in what I read and what I write.

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