I’ve always enjoyed reading. From as far back as I can remember, reading was my escape. An escape from being an asthmatic child who coughed too much to run with the energetic children in my neighbourhood. An escape from classroom bullies. An escape from a world that sometimes wasn’t as much fun as the world depicted in the books I read.
In high school and university I became a more inquisitive reader, wanting to know more about things like travel and history, but still a lover of fiction. I analysed the set works of literature and the dramatic arts to get my degree. In my early years of being a drama stage manager, I was still fascinated by characters and their motivations as I worked alongside actors and directors in the rehearsal room, watching and listening to them unpicking the complications of the characters and the relationships they portrayed.
However, it’s only in recent years – since I became a writer – that I’ve started to analyse all of the above in terms of what makes a book interesting enough to keep reading it. As always, the answer inevitably comes from the books I love to read.
For example, I have just finished reading an incredibly exciting book by a successful best-selling author. This is her second novel. I really enjoyed her first, which I read about two years ago. However, I almost didn’t make it through this second novel, and I’ve been trying to work out why.
Before I start, I should mention that both are stand-alone novels, not connected to each other in any way – no sequels or prequels; each one is a single story on its own.
Her first novel was written in the first person, voiced by three characters, all of whom intrigued me enough that I felt compelled to follow and see where these three very different women led me. By the time it became evident – not far into the novel – that the main narrator was an unreliable narrator due to her alcohol addiction, I already liked her and wanted to see what she was up to. I cared. Despite her forgetfulness and the fact that she couldn’t be trusted, I still wanted to follow her to the end.
The second novel was written from several points of view – some in first person, some in third. Too many points of view, I felt. At first I couldn’t keep track of who was who, and by the time I’d sorted out and managed to tell the difference between some of the more confusingly similar characters, I was almost halfway through the book and I still didn’t really care about any of them. At the start of most chapters I had to page back through the book to remind myself who this particular person was. Reading a little bit each night before bedtime (which is the way I read most books), didn’t help with continuity.
The main difference between these two books was that, in the first book, I cared about the main character. I was also intrigued by the other two and wanted to know what happened to them.
In the second book, I didn’t care about the characters. I had no emotional investment in any of them. In fact, the only characters I even vaguely liked were an outsider policewoman (whom I had muddled with a second policewoman several times during the first half of the novel) and a young boy. Both of these characters were peripheral to the plot for the first half of the story. I felt sorry for the boy because his family had become dysfunctional after the death of his sister, and I had high hopes that the policewoman would solve the mystery surrounding the various deaths, but apart from that, I didn’t care enough to want to follow all the other unlikeable characters to see how they sorted out the mess the whole village was in.
The only reason I carried on reading the second book was because I had enjoyed the author’s first book so much. I knew that she was a really good writer, and that she was sure to deliver a fabulous denouement like she had done in her previous novel. I persevered only because I was willing to take the gamble that she would come through eventually.
I also knew that if I stopped reading the book halfway through, I was unlikely to ever go back and attempt to re-read it. Worse, I would probably never bother to read one of her novels again, and that would be a pity.
She did, of course, come through before the end. A suspenseful build-up during which I didn’t know who to trust (after all, I didn’t like any of the suspects, did I?), followed by a nail-biting climax, and capped with a nasty twist on the very last page. I’ll definitely be reading her next book!
What if I hadn’t read her first book? What if she wasn’t famous for delivering the goods? What if she was an unknown writer like me?
This all got me thinking about the most important thing an author can do when writing a novel, particularly if that author is relatively unknown. We can all wax lyrical about constructing a good plot, deep characters, exotic settings and amazing mysteries, but if a reader doesn’t care enough, it all goes down the toilet.
Reading is an emotional experience. Readers want to make a connection; they want to reach out and touch something because it resonates with something deep inside them.
It takes a long time to write a novel, so surely some of that time needs to be spent in making the reader care about the characters?