Tuesday, October 31, 2017

What is a novel’s most essential ingredient?

by Rick Blechta

Lately I’ve been starting crime fiction novels, reading around 50 pages and then putting them down. This is not usual for me, but having just attended Bouchercon, the books I’ve been putting down were handed out, and not necessarily ones I would have purchased. As well, I’ve never read any of the authors.

So what caused me to put these books down (4 out of 5)?

Quite frankly, one of the characters in each really got up my nose. In three cases, it was the protagonist or co-protagonist. Usually I’ll let something like that slide, figuring that maybe I need to grow into the story and the characters’ development, but these people really got up my nose. In the case of the fourth novel, it was the fact that the character who appeared to be the antagonist was wholly unbelievable. It was like one of those Bond villains but the story had no Bond to counterbalance the bad guy. (I did look to the book’s end and I had spotted the antagonist correctly.)

There is no sub-genre of crime fiction books I won’t consider reading. I don’t tend to like cozies, but if someone I trust tells me that one is really good, I’ll happily read it. I find macho male thrillers to be generally tedious, but here again, if it comes with a recommendation, I’ll at least give it a good chance. As a matter of fact, I generally finish at least 90% of all books I start. It has to be a real stinker for me to put a book down before I even get halfway.

So why did these particular four books from Bouchercon have this effect on me? I had to think about that a bit since there were multiple reasons for all of them. But the standout reason for all of them is that I did not like a major character in the story. Let me clarify even further, I really disliked these characters.

Now we get to the question of why. In the case of the three protagonists, they were either fatally two-dimensional and cliché (and I’ve been guilty of that on at least one occasion) but the overall thought going through my head as I got to the 50th or so page of each book was “This book would be vastly improved if the character was the next one murdered.”

Maybe the problem is me. In one case, the book got several lovely reviews and none from major reviewers mentioned the thing that was bothering me. Another was well into a series, so I’m assuming sales had been good enough for the publisher not to cut it off after the third book, which is generally the case.

I make it a policy not to call authors or books out when I haven’t enjoyed them. I could never be a book reviewer. I also don’t like lying. If I have something I didn’t like, I just won’t say anything. So I’m not going to identify the books here.

The point of my post is this: I can’t get past a major character not resonating with me in some fashion. The crux is that the person doesn’t have to wonderful or have flaw with which I can identify, but there has to be something that causes me to form an emotional bond with them. They have to make me feel something. They have to make me want to find out what happens to them — for good or ill.

I can get past somewhat weak writing (the nuts and bolts stuff), outlandish/unbelievable plot points, and even some huge clichés. What will stop me in my tracks it seems are main characters with whom I cannot believe/understand/sympathize.

Is there anyone out there who feels the same? Or is there some other deal-breaker for you?


Sybil Johnson said...

I generally finish 90-95% of the books I start. It's really unusual for me not to finish one, even if I don't like it very much. I vividly remember one book that I, literally, threw across the room (it was a mass market paperback, thank goodness) because I thought the protagonist was being super wimpy. This was the second book in a series. I'd read the first and, even though I didn't like her that much, the story was interesting enough for me to finish it and see what happened in the second.

I've never done that since, but I will stop reading if I hate the characters. The plot doesn't bother me so much.

Aline Templeton said...

It's an interesting point, Rick and Sybil too, about what the things are that make you stop reading a book. I used to be religious about 'I've started so I'll finish' but I've reached the point now where I feel that unless it has significant literary merit life's too short to struggle on when I'm not enjoying it.

Rick Blechta said...

Aline, I think that's me too. I don't have a lot of time to read and it's got to be something pretty good for me to spend those precious hours when I should be doing something like writing my own novels!

Sybil, I once abandoned a ms around 80 pages in because I realized the protagonist was someone I would wind up killing before we reached the end of the story. The issue was my ms was written in first person. Now that could have led to something really interesting, but I just disliked this guy so much, I didn't want to be tied to him for even another chapter and I couldn't kill him just then. All he did was whine, whine, whine and I couldn't make him stop.

So the story sat there for a good two months before I realized I already had a really good character from an earlier novel who'd be just the thing for this one, and thus Cemetery of the Nameless was born, but it was a near thing. I nearly walked completely away from my story.

Sybil Johnson said...

Rick, interesting story about Cemetery of the Nameless. So far I haven't written a story with a protagonist who is that annoying to me, but it's early days.

Aline, I find the older I get the less tolerant I am of finishing books I'm not enjoying that much.

Anonymous said...

Interesting... I'm a reader rather than a writer and just got back from Bouchercon too. I generally finish what I start reading and use events like cons to discover new (and often very much to my taste) authors I had not previously been aware of. Though frankly at the moment it would be almost a relief to quickly weed out those books I'm NOT going to enjoy, given that I've got such a large backlog of unread tried-and-true authors (including you and other Type M'ers) that I know I Will enjoy.

I also want to mention after reading about your trials and tribulations in putting together the Bouchercon program book that I thought the finished product looked really spiffy! I really enjoyed your John Buchan article and particularly appreciated the spiral binding so that it lay flat and didn't fall apart on me!

One thing that does irk me when I'm reading is internal inconsistency - sometimes a fairly major character will even undergo a name change in the middle of a book, for no apparent reason! Then there are inconsistencies of time and date, eye colour, geography, etc., not to mention all the typos. I hasten to add that not all of these flaws are necessarily the fault of the author. Ditto for UK title vs. US title - and of course in Canada we get them both, so I'm not always sure whether or not I've already read something!

Rick Blechta said...


Thanks for your very kind words. Just to set the record straight, I didn't do any of the writing in the program book except for my own bio and tiny things here and there that were needed at the last minute. But the Buchan article was very good, wasn't it?


The character who annoyed me so much was a composer, and composers can be complainers, and who can blame them? This guy was just whiny and miserable. Maybe it was my headspace at the time that caused him to not be able to stop. Who knows? But it was very strange -- as if I'd miscast him in the part. Who knows?

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

I don't necessarily have to "like" a main character but I do have to be able to sympathise or empathise with him or her pretty early on. They can have character traits that I find irksome or downright annoying but as long as the author can reveal something good at their core, or show they are basically sound people, human and credible despite their flaws, then I'll read on. If I don't like a novel after a few pages, I usually stop. There are too many good novels out there to be enjoyed to waste time on the ones I don't enjoy.