For me, it’s character development. Interesting characters, those that are different, unusual, flawed: those are the ones I remember. I love reading about people who shine, who stand out from the literary pack. By shine, I don’t mean perfection. Flaws make or break the character. I remember reading one manuscript when I was judging a contest, and the heroine’s flaw appeared to be that she was too everything. Too beautiful. Too smart. Too rich. Too witty. It made everyone judge and hate her. In the right hands, this might work, but this rendition left me rolling my eyes: “Yes, we all feel so bad for you. It must be terrible to look like a supermodel, have a trust fun, and work as an expert in the field of artificial intelligence.”
There is no right answer to this, by the way, as this is a subjective question. For some people, the answer would be a unique idea, truly beautiful writing, or an original world. All of those things add to my enjoyment of a book, but are not the quality that makes it magical. Today, I’m giving my personal criteria. When I read, I will overlook flaws in worldbuilding and plot, if the characters are compelling. But conversely, if the characters are cardboard or I can’t relate to them, it doesn’t matter how strong the world or how meticulously the book is plotted. Every single time, I will put the book down, wander away, and not return. I prefer to read about people who feel tangible to me, and the way that begins is if they feel real to the writer.
Sometimes, a book strikes me as… “competent”. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it lacks the spark that fires my imagination and lets me fully engage. I never get lost in the characters’ lives or lose my realization that these are words on a page. What causes that barrier to immersion? Honestly, I’m not sure. Sometimes I think it’s because the writer didn’t fully commit to the work, didn’t feel what his characters felt. The writer wrote about them, and I, the reader, can sense that distance and detachment. That’s not always the case, however. Sometimes the obstacle is in my personal belief system or my conception of how the world works. My personal experiences have provided context that leaves me unable to suspend belief on this particular premise. Which is why you can never predict what stories will work for which readers. For that reason, you should never write an idea just because you think it will be a universal crowd pleaser; even international bestsellers have their detractors.
When I open a book, I’m always looking to fall in love. I want to adore the characters. I want to be swept away. But if there’s no chemistry between the protagonist(s) and me, then it’s just not going to happen. Sooner or later, I’ll walk away. I used to finish books compulsively, even if they bored me, but since I began writing professionally, I realized I don’t have time for that anymore. I stop reading sooner than I used to. Now, an author has ten pages to hook me. I suspect it’s about the same for agents and editors.
So what’s your criteria? What makes a book magical for you? How soon do you stop if it’s not working for you?
Photo courtesy Flickr’s pareeerica