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Friday, November 25, 2011

What do you want from a book?

Last week, I was chatting to a friend about a particular book she'd read. I wanted her opinion because I thought it would make the ideal Christmas present for a cousin. My friend pulled a face and said, "I wouldn't recommend it. The writing wasn't anything special and the characters didn't really do it for me."

Darn it. Another precious Christmas gift idea gone.

"You read it very quickly," I said.

"Oh yes, I couldn't put it down."

Um ... I was speechless on several counts and I should point out here that said friend works in a library and reads a lot of books.

As a writer, I aim to give my readers a fast-paced tale full of twists, turns and memorable characters. I want to give her a book she can't put down. She has to read just one more chapter before going to bed, and then just one more. If someone says they couldn't put my book down, I consider it a success.

As a reader, I want a book that I can't wait to get back to. I want to feel deprived if I don't have time to read it.

What about the statement "the characters didn't really do it for me" in the same breath as "I couldn't put it down"? How can that be? If I'm loving a book and racing through it, it means I care what happens to the characters. I want to see the good guys win the day and the baddies get their just desserts. I care about the characters and I'm totally wrapped up in their world.

Is it me? Is it possible to have a plot so original and exciting that the characters don't matter? Have you ever read a book where, although the characters "didn't do it for you" and the "writing wasn't anything special", you had to race to the last page?

And talking of Christmas gift ideas ... the thought of doing battle in the stores at this time of year fills me with dread but, if it's your thing, Happy Black Friday!


Toni Anderson said...

LOL--just when you think you have it all figured out... LOL. I love it when people say they can't put it down, but then not to recommend it? Did the hero die?? Someone kill a cat?

Shirley Wells said...

I'll let you know if a cat dies when I read it, Toni. It just goes to show that you can't please everyone, LOL.

Cassam said...

I read a lot of books, most are good and I'd say I enjoyed most of them, only a few were a bit boring. I love when I do get a book where I love or hate characters and it's a cracking story and I can't put it down. When I finish a really good book I feel quiet sad as I am leaving behind people I have come to know so well.That's why I love sequels. It's hard to buy a book for someone else I try with my husband and it very rarely works.

Shirley Wells said...

Anne, I agree that it is difficult to buy books for someone else. My husband always says I buy books for him that I want to read. Um, yes. ;)
I like to feel sad when I finish a book and know I have to say goodbye to the wonderful characters.

Rita said...

Don’t think it’s possible to have the characters not do it for me. The characters are the story. They are the ones who shape the outcome. Even in stories we know the ending – The Titanic it sets sale goes bump in the night and sinks- we want to know how the souls aboard died or survived.
No Black Friday for me. Ugg!

MaureenAMiller said...

I could live with an abysmal plot if the characters meant something to me.

While you're Christmas shopping, Shirley...I could use a new car. :)

Shelley Munro said...

My mouth dropped open when I got to the bit about not being able to put the book down. To me that's a sign of a great book. Maybe the plot grabbed your friend or the author's way with words. It's funny how we all have such different reactions to the same book. Personal hot buttons definitely come into the equation.

Mike Keyton said...

I think I know what she means. There are books that are formulaic-smooth so that you turn pages because you want to know what happens but at the same time knowing you don't really care about the characters and knowing that you are being basically indulging in literary chewing gum

Marcelle Dubé said...

"Literary chewing gum" -- love it!

Interesting post, Shirley. I have to admit that the characters are what matters most to me. They have to be interesting or I'm outta there.

Anonymous said...


I don't understand your friend's comments. Either it wasn't very good OR she couldn't put it down - the two statements are incompatible, to me!

But I would hesitate before giving a book to someone, unsolicited. I've realised I have an odd aversion to a book which is chosen for me! Even without such a peculiar reaction, unless it's by an author she always reads wouldn't it be better to give your cousin a gift token? You can say on the card that you nearly bought her the specific book, and then she can look at it and decide whether or not she does want it.

Shirley Wells said...

Rita, I agree. The characters are the story. The Titanic is the perfect example.

Maureen - two new cars coming up. What colour would you like?

Shelley, I suppose it's a good thing that we have all different hot buttons. :)

Mike, I couldn't read on to see what happened next if I didn't care for the characters. I half see your point though. :)

Marcelle - Doesn't Mike have a lovely way with words. :) Yep, agreed. The characters make the story.

HJ - I think you're right about buying tokens rather than books. I've had a long think about the books I've been given and, um, yes, I think I have an aversion too. :)

Wendy Soliman said...

Little things put me off. Even if a book keeps me up all, if the author keeps using the same phrase over and over - something stupid like, say, her eyes widened - the I find myself shouting, 'what was the copy editor thinking of?' That's the downside of being a writer as well as a reader.

Wynter Daniels said...

I'd describe The Davinci Code as a read I couldn't put down, but the characters were not much more than cardboard. It was obviously a great, captivating story, but it was way far on the plot-driven side and very light on characterization. That said, I'd recommend it in a heartbeat.

Shirley Wells said...

Wendy, I hate that too ... which is another reason I'm so grateful to have Deb as my editor, lol. To me, another sign of a great book is one that switches off my internal editor.

Wynter, I couldn't get into The Davinci Code at all and hubby couldn't put it down. I decided to wait for the film but I couldn't sit through that either. What an odd lot we are. :)

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