Thursday, June 1, 2017

What Do I Want From a Book?

Today, Armchair Book Expo is asking "What Do Readers Want?" After giving it some thought, I've made a list of the ten things that the books I enjoy all tend to have in common.

Believable and sympathetic characters.

For me to connect with a character, she needs to be someone I can root for. I don't necessarily need to have anything in common with the character in order to feel a connection with her, but there has to be something relatable or fascinating about her to keep me interested for the length of an entire book. I don't think the character even necessarily needs to be likable, as long as there is something about her personality, history, or transformation throughout the story that intrigues me. I also like characters who feel real, and who have a few flaws and foibles that make them feel human.  In the case of child characters, they also need to act like kids rather than mini-adults,

Realistic dialogue.

Dialogue is a big part of character development. Awkward or false-sounding dialogue really grates on my nerves and brings me right out of the story, so it's important for characters to sound real and for their dialogue to flow smoothly. I don't mind an author using local color to help a character come across more realistically, but I prefer that thick accents and regional slang don't become so overpowering as to obscure what the characters are saying. Characters' speech should also align with who they are as people. Well-written dialogue makes it clear who is speaking, not just through dialogue tags, but through the style of each character's speech.

Memorable descriptions.

Samuel Johnson identified an engaging author as one in whose work "New things are made familiar, and familiar things are made new." When I think about the kinds of descriptions I most enjoy in books, this is what I mean. I love it when an author shows me something I have seen many times from a new angle, and I like it just as well when an author can introduce a new concept to me in a way that makes me quickly understand it. There is such a thing as too much description (don't get me started on The Yearling), but authors who describe things well, especially using metaphors that arise from the world of the story itself, tend to become my favorites.

Interesting use of language.

Directly connected to a talent for description is an overall fresh approach to using language. I like it when an author uses certain turns of phrase that represent his or her overall writing style, and which can be easily identified specifically with that author. I also appreciate it when authors avoid cliches, especially the really common ones, such as the dreaded "She let out a breath she didn't know she was holding." 

Attention to detail.

I'm the kind of reader who gets really hung up on little details, sometimes to the point that I can't keep reading if something seems out of place, until I've figured out the problem. I am especially bothered by anachronisms in historical books, and complete misrepresentations of religious and cultural customs which can easily be researched with minimal effort. When an author appears not to have done his or her research, it feels like they don't care about the book, or its readers, and that makes me less inclined to care about the book, too. 

Appealing and convincing setting.

Setting is not always important to me. I can sometimes happily read a book with a very generic setting if it has little bearing on the plot. But if a specific setting is named, I need it to be described well enough that I can picture it. For me to really want to spend time in a setting (especially over the course of a series), it needs to come across as a place I would want to visit. I also find that settings meant to sustain entire series become more engaging if there are hidden depths for readers to discover as the books wear on. 

Strong plot structure.

Obviously certain genres (mystery, romance, etc.) have their own specific plot structures, and I do appreciate it when books adhere to those requirements. When it comes to novels outside of those genres, however, I prefer to read books that are at least a little unpredictable.  I don't like to be confused by the events of a book, so it's good for the story to be well-organized, but I also don't want to be able to see where it's going before I even hit the halfway point. I also like it when seemingly irrelevant details mentioned early in the story end up being important to the outcome.

Attractive and meaningful illustrations.

If a book has illustrations, they should be appealing to look at, but not merely decorative. Illustrations - even just line drawings - should add something to the book. This might be context for the events of the story, additional information to support the text, diagrams to help decode difficult concepts, or beautiful illuminations of key scenes. Illustrations shouldn't just be a substitute for lazy writing, or filler, but as much an integral part of the book as the text.

Subtle messages.

All books have messages of some kind, but I like it best when these are not overt and are left open to interpretation. I don't want a book to manipulate me into having the "right" attitude about a social or political issue. I'd rather the book tell its story well and leave it up to the plot and characters to steer me toward careful thought about the issues at hand.

Respect for the reader.

Finally, I like it when an author clearly trusts the reader and believes that the reader is smart enough to understand the story being told without lots of hand-holding, over-explanation, or commentary about the story. In general, if a book feels condescending, or tries to tell me how I should interpret it, I give up after just a couple of chapters.


  1. Great post! I totally agree about believable characters. One of my pet peeves is when a regular person finds out that they're the Chosen One or something and after only a week of training, turn into an expert warrior! Not doing research is another pet peeve. I once read a book set in an area where I had lived and they got so many details wrong that it wasn't even funny! Authors, PLEASE do your research!

    Terri @ Alexia's Books and Such

    1. I don't like those "chosen one" type characters much either. Have you read The Rest of Just Live Here by Patrick Ness? He pokes fun at a lot of the stereotypes associated with that kind of character.

  2. Dialog can be done with good word choice to show a regional accent. It doesn't need to be written out pseudo-phonetically.

    Armchair Book Expo day 2: What do readers want? and Collaboration

    1. I remember being taught this very thing in a creative writing class in college. It has always stuck with me.

  3. Wonderful post. You are the second blogger today that mentioned that a character doesn't necessarily have to be likable in order for you to feel invested in them. I like reading about unlikable characters, as long as the author makes them well-rounded, I'll enjoy it.

    1. I have to like something about the story, and that is usually the main character, but not always. The example I always think of is Catcher in the Rye. No one can stand Holden Caulfield, but I love the way Salinger writes.

  4. Realistic is a good choice! I love it when it feels as though the book could be happening in real or on a movie screen.

    Armchair BEA Cafinated Reads Day 2

  5. Oh my gosh, realistic dialogue is so important!! I have DNFed many books because the dialogue was so awful and forced.

  6. I get hung up on small details too. I've been told before that I get too bothered by things like that sometimes, but I just can't stop them from bugging me.