Last week, I started reading a book I’d checked out of the library. I was in a bit of a reading slump, as I hadn’t really taken to the last couple of things I’d read, but then very early in this book I got that tingle of “ooh, I’m going to like this.” And that made me stop and think about why — what was it about this book that made me sure I’d like it, that drew me in? It wasn’t the plot, since it hadn’t even really started yet. One of the recent books that I didn’t take to had a plot that should have been catnip to me, but I never really got into it.
Thinking about it, I decided that the thing that makes a book grab me is a character I like who has potential for growth or change. I haven’t done a full analysis of all my favorites yet, but this seems to be a common thread.
For “character I like,” I have to confess that most often that seems to be a character I’m romantically attracted to, the “book boyfriend.” But it can also be a character I relate to. That doesn’t necessarily mean in any demographic sense, stuff like gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, station in life, etc. It’s more about that sense of “I get you.” For instance, I’m not a rogue security android, but the moment I started reading the Murderbot books, I had that “yes, this is a kindred spirit, I get you” sense about Murderbot. And sometimes it’s just a character I like, someone who’s interesting, funny, capable, kind or has some other quality that makes them appealing, even if I don’t relate to them at all and am not at all attracted to them.
This is where a lot of books that I don’t take to go wrong for me. I don’t like the main character. There’s nothing I’m attracted to or relate to, and the person is annoying.
The “potential for growth or change” part was a bit surprising to me because that’s something I struggle with in writing. I have a bad habit of starting out with a character who doesn’t need to learn anything, or I have trouble coming up with the flaw the character needs to overcome. But when I started looking at what hooks me, most often it’s the character who’s in way over their head in a situation they aren’t prepared to deal with. So there’s nothing necessarily wrong with the person. The problem is that they’re in the wrong situation for them, and they’re going to have to rise to the occasion or fail horribly. It’s the “unlikely hero” trope, the “you want me to do what?” story.
The next most common need for change that hooks me is the person with some kind of damage that skews their perspective, and the change you see coming is some kind of healing of that damage. That was the book that most recently hooked me (I’ll discuss it in another post after I’ve read the second book in the series and see how it goes). The main character was someone angry who’d been hurt, and the plot setup was something that I could see leading to some kind of healing. I wanted to see the character be healed, so I was eager to read on.
I’m a bit less interested in the “this is their fatal flaw in how they see the world, and they’re going to have to correct being wrong in order to prevail” story.
When I have a bit more free time, I want to do a good analysis of my bookcases and see how this theory holds up. It does give me a better idea of how I can write character growth — and the need for character growth — in a way that works for me and that I hope will work for readers.
What is it that is most likely to grab you in a book?