I’ve recently started a new Work in Progress (WIP) and, obviously, I want it to be the best book I’ve written so far. Or the best book ever for that matter. In my dreams, I write it in a couple of months, edit it until I can’t stand to read another word of it, query it, and publish it. It then goes on to become a huge best-seller and I’ll get to quit my job and write full-time.
Sounds great, right?
There’s only problem: writing “the best book ever” implies that I know what that means. Which then got me to thinking: “What is it that makes a book good? Are there elements or plot points that you have to include to make for a good book? Or is it all subjective?
I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject at all, but I’d like to share my opinion with you and open this topic open for discussion.
For me, “good books” are mostly subjective. By mostly, I mean this: everyone has different tastes. Some people like books with fantasy worlds that are described in great detail. Others like space operas or a good sword fight or a steaming romance or … You get the point. Everyone likes different things. What I like and think is amazing, you might hate and vice versa. I think we can all agree on that.
But, to me, that’s just the top layer.
I wanted to dig deeper and find out if universally acclaimed books from any genre or demographic have certain things in common.
Here’s what I came up with…
The secrets to a good book
1. A Main Character You Can Sympathise With
Note that I’m not talking about a likeable character. Why not? Because I don’t think you need one. There are plenty of good books and even some classics with unlikeable characters. This, again, depends on taste since not everyone has the same opinion on a character.
For example: I don’t particularly like Holden Caufield but Catcher in the Rye is still a great book. Why? Because, to me, Holden is relatable. I can sympathise with him and with his struggles. This is absolutely key. Why else would you follow the main character’s journey if you couldn’t sympathise with them?
Main take-away: good books don’t need a likeable main character. They’ve got a main character you can sympathise and root for.
2. A Journey I’m Invested In
So, you have a main character who might or might not be likeable but is definitely relatable. Great. But that’s obviously not going to be enough. Something needs to happen. You can’t just have a character living his life while nothing interesting happens to them. That would be boring.
No, the main character needs to go on a journey. This can be either a literal journey and / or a metaphorical one. To me, that’s the main difference between a plot-driven book and a character-driven one. In a plot-driven book, you’ll have lots of plot.
– A boy discovers he’s a wizard and must go through different trials before he can defeat the most evil wizard of all time
– A girl volunteers to take part in a dangerous game to save her sister’s life but ends up becoming a role model for a rebellion against a tyranny government
You get the point. Lots of out-of-the-ordinary and / or dangerous things happen to the main character.
But there are also character-driven plots where your main character goes on an emotional journey. In Catcher in the Rye, not much happens to Holden. He spends most of his time wandering around the city on his own, thinking about his family, his past, and his future. But the important thing is that he changes throughout the book. He’s not the same person at the end of the book, which means he’s “been on a journey”.
Something must happen to the main character to make them change, which is key in both plot-driven and character-driven stories.
Main take-away: good books have main characters who go on a journey the readers are invested in.
3. Good writing
This one is nearly impossible to define. After all, what makes for good writing? Sure, there are certain things that are universally frowned upon (using too many adverbs, showing vs. Telling, etc) and things that are praised (three-dimensional characters, beautiful descriptions, etc.).
But that’s all subjective. For one, times change. You can’t expect to write like Charles Dickens and have his success. Second, not everyone agrees on what makes for good writing. Some like purple prose, others can’t stand it. Some hate info dumps, others don’t mind.
So, the question is: “Is there such a thing as a style of writing that’s objectively “good”?
To me, there is, but it’s got nothing to do with the words the author chooses to use or in what order he puts them. For me, good writing need to inspire emotion (of any kind). If the author’s writing can elicite emotion from its readers, it’s good writing.
Main take-away: good books have a range of styles, but they all inspire emotion in the reader
Main Character I Can Sympathise with + Journey I’m Invested in + Good Writing = Good Book
Now, let’s open this up for discussion. Do you agree with me? What do you think a good book can’t do without?