Monday, July 25, 2016

5 Things I Look For in a Good Book


This is something I rarely find to my satisfaction in books.  I don't suppose it's important to as many folks as some of the other things on this list, but to me it makes all the difference.  Tolkien seems to share my opinion on this. 

 By consistency, I mean that things have to make sense within their own world.  I can't stand being asked to suspend my disbelief too much, and once I get into a fantasy world and have a good feel for the way it functions, I need it to stay consistent.

One way that Tolkien creates consistency that satisfies me is through the languages of Middle-earth.  All the names sound similar or at least like they are from the same language.  If you tell me someone is a dwarf, I automatically have a good idea of what that person acts and looks like because the definition of dwarves and their characteristics is consistent throughout the story.  I know what they wear, I have a good idea of how they speak, and I already have a firm foundation of what they look like even though they are fictional characters.

Imperfect Characters

Does anyone like to read a story about a "Mary Sue"?  Of course not.  Any good character is going to be well-rounded and relatable.  Think of Eowyn who is undoubtedly on the "good" side, but still struggles with her own vices and short-comings.  Think also of Gandalf who is undeniably a positive figure, but who also makes mistakes in judgement concerning Gollum and other matters. 

There are, however, mixed in with this imperfect characters, some characters who appear or seem unequivocally bad in The Lord of the Rings.  Leaving Sauron aside (since it was shown that he in the beginning was not wholly bad) I will only look at the Orcs.  The Orcs, like Sauron, were corrupted, though have no hope of redemption.  This is proven by the fact that after the Downfall of Sauron, the Orcs are killed unconditionally while the Easterlings and Southrons (Men) are offered a second chance.  This is because the Orcs are completely twisted and undeniably bad characters, while Men still have a chance of changing.

One might think that such an absolute form of Evil would be dull or impractical in a story.  While I may agree with this if it was the case throughout an entire work (though in The Lord of the Rings it is not, some Evil is not absolute) it does serve a literary function.  With the risk of sounding like I am applying allegorical themes, I want to suggest that "black and white" characters like the Orcs can sometimes "represent" different forces.  Now Orcs and Evil throughout The Lord of the Rings represent a wide variety of things and they are not allegorical, but in one reading Orcs could be seen as the disease which infects a body.  The disease must be completely eradicated; not toyed around with or partially dealt with, but completely and utterly destroyed.

This is a video from Bishop Barron explaining an Old Testament text about "putting the ban" on a society--a part of the Bible many people find troubling.  This video explains better than I can how Evil is sometimes represented and how it must be dealt with.  Just substitute the society being eradicated in the story Bishop Barron is speaking of with Orcs and you'll see what I mean.

A mix of perfect and imperfect characters makes a story more believable and relatable.

Narrative Purpose

Have you ever wondered how the author of Le Mort d'Arthur got all his information about King Arthur?  Perhaps he witnessed it first hand as a scribe and copied it down (in theory, regardless of whether the actual events happened)?  Indeed in an T.H. White's The Once and Future King, the reason for the tale existing is explained in itself: King Arthur asked one of his young scribes to copy down everything that befell so that England would not forget the tale.

Tolkien writes that he is just relaying history which has been passed down to him from the Elves, and therefore his reason for writing the stories he does and knowing the things he knows make sense in the story itself.

It bothers me to no end when a story just magically appears without any reason for its existence.  I think this is something that has developed ever since I read The Lord of the Rings and learned how satisfying it is when within the story is contained its reason for existence.


I am not a great fan of Mark Twain.  I do not find his writings style very appealing and indeed just to read it sounds like nails on a chalk board in my opinion.  I much prefer Chretien de Troyes' poetic style.  To me, having a great story or plot-line is not enough.  A story needs to be delivered in a beautiful and poetic way that is pleasing both to the ear and the mind.

Whether you write a story intended to sound like a legend, a diary, or a tale told around a campfire, it should sound and read smoothly.  I do acknowledge that the sharp dialogue Mark Twain uses is in service of providing atmosphere to his stories, and within that context it is successful, but imagine reading The Silmarillion written in that style.  It would automatically lose a large portion of it's fantastical element and legendary atmosphere.

"Unexplored Vistas"

Tolkien is a master of leaving random bits of intriguing information hanging in his works without fully explaining them.  A few examples include the references to Elbereth in The Lord of the Rings (at that time few even knew who she was because The Silmarillion was not published until nearly twenty years after the fact), the Cats of Queen Beruthiel (still to this day there is little to no information concerning this besides that provided in the appendix of The Lord of the Rings), Tom Bombadil (who toys with the imagination to no end), and the Two Blue Wizards.

These unexplained features not only make the world more believable (you can't understand everything in Middle-earth just as you can't understand everything in the real world) but also contribute to on-going discussion and speculation about a story.  This leads to readers creating their own ideas and thinking more and more about a story.  This is one of the things I find most fun to do when I read.

What things are important to you in a good book?


  1. This is interesting.

    I'm not attentive enough to find inconsistencies within a writers' works, but they're why I don't generally read fanfiction...

    Actually, I'm sure you knew this, but there were some scenes and comments in the first edition of The Hobbit that were edited to make it more congruous with LotR, which shows that Tolkien was dedicated to consistency.

    Hmmm, I'm a sucker for perfect characters, like Jean Valjean or Atticus Finch, but ideally they've experienced some change over the course of the story, as with Valjean. I'm also a sucker for anti-heroes like Gollum. :) Is there a particular book you can think of that had too-perfect characters?

    Despite liking Twain, I totally get what you're saying about needing that element of beauty. Twain's nature descriptions are lovely, but there isn't a retained sense of beauty throughout his books. This is why I can't really get into so many YA novels: because the writing is so strained and choppy(at least in my humble opinion :D), and missing beauty.

    You should do a follow-up post on 5 things you dislike in books. :)

    1. Oh yes, fanfiction where the characters don't match what they were like in the original work is the worst!

      I know; I totally love that! Instead of just republishing The Hobbit and ignoring the original, Tolkien made it look like Bilbo had originally lied during the first telling so that everything fit.

      I wouldn't really consider Jean Valjean to be a "perfect" character because he was definitely dynamic especially early on. He still has layers and temptations throughout the story (such as when he debates with himself if he should reveal his true identity or let the innocent go to jail).

      Well not going off the Harry Potter books, but just the movies (I haven't read the books yet) I've noticed that Harry seems to be too special...he's the ONLY one who survived Voldemort's attack, the BEST quidditch player, the ONLY one whose name was put in the Goblet of Fire, etc.

      Maybe Mark Twain was a bad example because he has a reason for having his writing really choppy (to add atmosphere to his stories), but you're right, a lot of YA authors like putting periods after random clauses that don't flow and it SERIOUSLY perturbs me from both a flow standpoint and because it makes my grammar senses tingle.

      Ooh, good idea! I think I'll probably do that sometime this week.