I am the annoying friend who asks why. Especially why you might like, or not like something. And never say something is weird because I will dig deep to understand that word’s use. My lifemate really is not a fan of my confusion surrounding humans’ basic quick-to-judge reactions. He often thinks I’m being rude, especially when it’s him facing the brunt of my childlike question. I think he thinks I’m calling him out or some-such-thing we have yet to understand about each other. But I swear, I am not trying to be a dick. I genuinely want to know. I want you to dig deep and figure out for yourself why you think you think a thing, and then explain it to me.
This topic comes up often, this question of why a story is loved or hated, why a character is followed through pages of adventure, or not. At least, it comes up a lot in the conversations within my own mind. I struggle defending my opinions to myself. I struggle to answer why a book gets 5 stars, 3 stars, or no stars. Every review I write, I wonder. I especially wonder it when I’ve fallen against the grain; when I dislike a book everyone else loves, or when I love a book most dislike. I know I’ve never adequately answered it, even to myself, but in this post, I will attempt it.
Let’s Talk Characters
My upcoming release, KILLING GAME, is Urban Fantasy, so I’m going to start with characters set in this type of world. The first example that comes to mind is Rachel Morgan, from Kim Harrison‘s The Hollows Series.
Rachel is a great character because she’s a little bit of a spaz, a little bit not-quite-sure-how to deal with her life, but always trying and always sticking up for the little guy (literally and figuratively, in her case). She’s confident, without being arrogant. She’s always a little lost but isn’t afraid to get dirty anyway. She’s funny, without being an ass. Her backstory isn’t filled with pseudo-mystery and fantastical hype, but there’s enough to give her some grit.
So, let’s break this down a little. Why am I a fan of Rachel Morgan?
Rachel is not perfect. She’s not godlike. She does push forward even when she doesn’t know exactly what she’s doing. She acts like a real person, in that her personal interactions are filled with missteps that are totally relatable to anyone whose ever had to interact with anyone. Roommate struggles, boyfriend miscommunications, friendship battles, etc.
Let’s compare with a character in a similar universe I’m not a fan of: Lily O’Conner from Yasmine Galenorn’s Lily Bound series.
Why didn’t I appreciate Lily?
In Lily’s world, everything seemed so scripted. Nothing happens organically. Her past makes no sense for her present. Things come together too randomly to follow some natural flow of storytelling. Especially, the dialogue was stiff and lazy.
Lily is, by far, a way ‘cooler’ character on paper, but Rachel comes alive; seems real. I guess that leads us towards the start of an answer: Story isn’t enough. Character isn’t enough. The whole thing needs to com together.
But that doesn’t really tell us much. It’s kind of like: DUH. Alright then, let’s continue trying to figure this out…
Children of Blood and Bone is another example where a great character wasn’t enough to keep me in it. I skimmed through the second half of the first book, confident the second book would open up a better aspect of the story. Instead, I found I couldn’t even get through book two, so infuriated was I with the main character. I actually went to the last page to see if it was worth getting to the end. It wasn’t. I put the book down, and have thought on what it is that made me so dislike this much adored story.
I’m not sure I can even explain my annoyance. When I sat down to think on it, to pull the fine points of my dislike to bare, there was little reason for my dislike. Zélie’s anger is justified. It’s even rational, from a certain point of view, but to read it over and over and over, after the previous book was filled with it… I just couldn’t. Even as I ‘understood,’ I didn’t care. Even as I could see why the story progressed this way, it seemed almost gregarious.
My own main character, Desiree, goes through a similar journey with her anger. I hope she’s not as infuriating to read as Zelie. Desiree is not as in your face about it. I tried not to draw her period of rage out too long, while also not glossing over it. I want you to feel her pain, but not get sick of her whining. I want to show character development, but without it seeming too fast.
There’s the line, isn’t it? For me, the hate-fueled reactions were too much, while others understood better , so enjoyed the story. This line is exactly why my favorite book is another’s least favorite. While this may help us understand why we like different books, it doesn’t help explain why we like them in the first place. Or maybe it does, and I’m too thick to catch the nuances…
What makes my favorite books, my favorites?
While Rachel Morgan was a great character, The Hollows Series wasn’t one of my favorites. I didn’t like the progression of the story, wishing it had gone in a different direction. Still, I read all the books. I liked all the books. But they overall, I was left disappointed.
What books make my favorite list?
- Kingkiller Chronicles, Patrick Rothfuss
- Children of Dune, Frank Herbert
- In Her Name Series, especially Empire and Confederation, Micheal Hicks
- Terra Ignota Series, Ada Palmer
- Epic Saga, especially Book 3: Hero, Lee Stephen
- Blood Song, Anthony Ryan
What’s the common denominator among them?
I think it’s the underlying sense of being taught how to be great.
In the Kingkiller Chronicles, which includes The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear, Kvothe might be seen as unlikable, which is kind of why I liked him, and his story. To know his fall is coming somewhere along the way, to know that his arrogant nature pays an ultimate price, to hope a redeeming event is transpiring even as we learn of his past, keeps us in the pages, alerts us right away that every smaller story amongst the larger one is meant to show us something specific about what Kvothe learned and how he grew, and maybe even how/why he ends up in the crap position he’s in.
Are these books character driven? Or story?
Dune can be argued as having minimal character development. The characters are real and deep and interesting because of the events surrounding them; the decisions, with their vast cultural implications that transcend time and space, that they make. Events and decision that ask: How much is something worth; Is what happens now more important than what happens later; and especially how all those things change a culture, and thus individuals.
Paul sees his loves death, knows the exact moment of it, but rather than stop it and set off a worse chain of events, he lives each moment with her as more precious. I love this. And this is the easiest of decisions Paul, and then his son, Leto, are required to made.
And what of Paul’s mother, Jessica, or his father, Leto, who see the trap, who know the dangers in the trappings of their lives, but move with them anyway lest they be forced to fight other, unwinnable battles? These questions go on and on throughout the Dune saga, and explain why I love them still.
Terra Ignota uses characters as icons to explain basic social and political tenets. While fantastic and fun in their own rights, the story is minimally about character. There is no person in that story that can’t be replaced and still have the story unfold as it would. The characters are personas used to explain greater political and social situations, and how the dance of them might explode.
It looks like my favorite books are all about mass. Mass of subtext, of underlying dialectics on social and political constructs. Especially about individuals with some power or foresight they must use for a greater goal, rather than personal gain.
To Listen is to Hear
I think I have an answer then. But the only way to be sure is to revisit my favorite books and really pay attention to how I feel, and hope to figure out why.
I love all kinds of books. I love a good sports romance as much as a classic Sci-Fi, but the stories that really get in my head, well, that’s the question I wanted answered.
To continue to bring light to this topic, I’ve begun a little experiment that involves revisiting these favorites of mine. I’m listening to the audio versions, while also re-reading them. I’m savoring the pages, listening to the feelings that swirl and rise to see if some empirical data comes forth from the emotional swirl.
I was never big on listening to books. If I sit and listen, I tend to fall asleep. If I’m sitting to listen, I’d rather just read. Only when I started working in a warehouse, where I was able to wear headphones all day, did I start. Now, I listen to a few books a week. It’s enabled me to visit books I might never have picked up. The library is my go-to for audio books, and there have been quite a few recommendations that have been great reads (listens).
What that has to do with the rest, is that I found a few books I just could not listen to. Since I listen while working, there are times when my attention is forced away from the book and on the task at hand, so I tend to miss things here and there. Sometimes, that is just not okay. Sometimes I find I’m into chapter 5 with no idea of what’s going on. This left me with the question of how different reading is from listening; how the experience of the story might differ. This transitioned nicely into figuring out why I love the books I do. Now, I can listen to my favorites and see what difference there might be in listening, while also revisiting beloved pages.
Just Getting Started
I’m just getting started. So far, I’ve listened to In the Name of the Wind and can say I loved the first of The Kingkiller Chronicles just as much this time as when I read it. It looks like I’ll be moving on to Heretics of Dune next. Good thing I recently re-read Dune and Children of Dune so I won’t be missing anything (you’d understand the joke in that statement if you knew how many times I’ve read the first four books).
Stay tuned for updates on my findings about books and why we over them, and if maybe we can love them more (or less) by changing the medium in which we absorb them.
Until then, happy reading 🙂