What makes a good story? Well, there are the obvious things, good use of language appropriate to the story, time period and theme. For some authors it’s lush and vivid intricate sentences. For others it’s sparse and terse. Richard Morgan’s, Altered Carbon, one of the best first novels I’ve ever read, is a great example of genre melding with perfect use of language. Altered Carbon is cyberpunk but it’s also noir. The language has the terse, edgy quality of good noir and that plays excellently into the futuristic theme too.
Aside from the ability to use language appropriately and well, I want to hear something new. Take something old, most things are derivative of other ideas, it’s unavoidable, and make it new. Rachel Caine’s, Ill Wind and Heat Stroke are two great examples. Take a paranormal world where people have special powers and are saving the rest of us who are sadly and pathetically normal, and twist it, have enslaved djinn being used to control the weather. Take the typical werewolf story and expand on it like Kelley Armstrong did with Bitten.
Research is always a plus, it’s more than annoying to read a book about law or lawyers and have it be horribly inaccurate (simply insert whatever your own hot buttons are here).
For me though, the big draw to a book is characterization. Do I like the characters? Are they three dimensional? Do they have flaws and if so, are those flaws something the reader can get past? Are they people I’d love to know in my real life?
Characters like Sookie Stackhouse from Charlaine Harris’, Southern Vampire series will hook me right away. Sookie isn’t perfect, she’s poor and messed up and has a cheating vampire ex boyfriend but she’s funny and genuine and brave. You want to know more about her. Eve Dallas from JD Robb’s, In Death series is wounded and defended and yet, there’s something about her that compels me to read each and every book (well that and Roarke).
Even better, I love it when an author can take the challenge of making an unlikeable character someone you still want to know and care about. MaryJanice Davidson does this with Betsey in her Undead books. What a horribly shallow woman! And yet, there’s something about her that’s likeable and I really don’t know what it is. In Spending, Mary Gordon gives us Monica, another woman that I didn’t like much at all and yet, one of the most compelling characters in my bookcase. Laurell K Hamilton does it with Anita Blake, Susan Elizabeth Phillips does it with Sugar Beth â€“ all are women that are selfish and self centered but are drawn so well that you are sucked into their world willingly.
All of the best language and great research in the world won’t keep me reading a book if I don’t like any of the characters. They’re the bridge between the author and the reader into the story.