It inspired me to ponder about what I like in a story, and so with Christine's permission to use her idea, I thought I'd share it with you lovely folks. As I was brainstorming my list, I noticed that everything falls into one of three categories, so I organized them accordingly.
The People . . .
Firstly, I love characters who make me care. If I can't step into the character's skin in some way, you've already lost me as a reader. Put me in someone else's mind for several hours. Let me hear their thoughts and feel what they feel. Let me live their lives for a few hundred pages. How much I care about the characters will determine how much I care about the book. If they fall flat, even the most amazing plot won't make up for it. On the other hand, good characters can make up for a multitude of (plot) sins.
I also love character arcs! Round characters, dynamic characters, whatever you want to call them. People who change over the course of the story, whether for the better or for the worse. Being fascinated by people and the way their minds work and why the make the choices they do, I want to see the characters transform in some way.
Speaking of regressing . . . I like genuine characters. As uncomfortable as it can be, I want to see a reflection of humanity, including the not-so-pretty parts. (How much of that is revealed depends on the story, and there are certain things I shy away from because I have zero desire to wallow in them.) But everyday imperfections? Yes, please.
Christine mentioned character relationships in her post, and I couldn't agree more! Siblings, parents, friends, couples, relatives, neighbors, co-workers, brothers-in-arms, rivals--I want those deep, realistic characters to interact with each other. To have a bond of some sort, whether that bond be solid or shaky. What's better than an awesome character? Seeing two or more awesome characters bounce off each other through conversation or shared events.
There's also a couple of character types I adore (okay, there's actually a lot--but I'm limiting myself to just two of them today). One is the chivalrous hero. A guy who's morally white and noble of heart, who treats people with respect and takes a stand to protect what is good in this world. I find those fellows incredibly inspiring.
And let's not forget the heroines. I'm tired of the popular definition of a strong heroine, the kind who "don't need no man" and won't stop broadcasting that opinion. The kind of heroine I love is a girl who's strong, yes, but also feminine. She can kick butt, but she still has a heart, and she desires to nurture and protect in whatever way she does best. A warrior princess. She can be independent in the fact that she stands on her own, but she also recognizes when she needs the support of her comrades. Balance is key, people.
The Plot . . .
I did say that worthy characters can make up for many things, but that being said, the best books deliver on both fronts: character and plot. Here are a few plot elements that make me over-the-moon excited.
A reason to worry. Tension, conflict, high stakes! Bad things are happening, and I have to wonder how the heroes will ever win and find a happy ending. It's worth noting, however, that "high stakes" are relative. I might be worrying over whether the protagonists will save the world from annihilation, or fretting about whether the main character will stop pushing away the guy who's obviously perfect for her. The level of tension can be vastly different from one book (or genre) to another, and that's fine by me. As long as the stakes feel high for this particular situation, I'm hooked.
I absolutely love connections. (Another thing Christine mentioned. What can I say? We have similar taste in books!) Discovering how one character over here actually has a history with that character way over there . . . and this particular challenge is connected to what took place back in chapter two . . . and this country's decision is going to have a massive effect on the neighboring kingdom . . . and so-and-so is related to the enemy and didn't know it . . . ETC. In real life, everything is intertwined, and one thing has a domino effect on so many other things. I love it when books are the same way. Not only is it super fun to piece everything together, but it ups the believability factor.
Plot twists make my day. I recently read one in a certain story I'm beta-reading, and it made my head spin. My favorite twists are obviously the ones that work--the ones that are foreshadowed, but in such a subtle way that you don't figure it out until BOOM, something happens.
This one is more of a plot type--I love quests. Ha, bet you didn't know that, did you? (*cough* The Prophet's Quest, anyone?) Some also call it the Hero's Journey, but overall, I just like those linear, goal-oriented plots. Not to say I don't love other kinds too, but quests are one reason I read so much fantasy. Something big is at stake. A person or object must be found. A villain must be stopped. A disaster must be averted. And the whole book is a series of attempts, failures, and eventually successes along the road toward that goal. Much epicness ensues.
And when it's all said and done, please, please give me a satisfying ending. None of this completely hopeless stuff. Things don't have to end perfectly happily, but I want to find some satisfaction upon turning the final page. I want all the struggles to mean something. The characters may have lost much, but I want them to gain something worthwhile in the end. A good, satisfying ending gives me hope for my own adventure in this life.
. . . & Other Epic Things
Okay, so everything else is pretty miscellaneous, and some of it is admittedly specific to fantasy. Here goes.
Deep world building. Just like I want to delve into a character's mind, I want to be immersed in the world of this story. I want people, places, history, and beliefs to be organically conveyed. I want to get a sense of where and when I am. Nothing makes me happier than a world in which I can settle in and put down some roots.
Writing style. Whether the author's words are bullets (like Andrew Klavan, Travis Thrasher, or Suzanne Collins) or more like flowers (such as Anne Elisabeth Stengl, Jeffrey Overstreet, or Maggie Stiefvater), I love reading a story told in distinct and delicious language.
Another thing I love is cleverness in general. Brilliant battle plans, sly characters manipulating others, or particularly well thought out plots--just impress me with the cleverness, please. Make me wish I'd thought of it first.
More specific to fantasy, I enjoy objects of power. The One Ring, Jack Sparrow's compass (okay, yes, that's from a movie, but they count as stories too!), candlestones, a talking sword, a horn that summons help when blown, an orb with mysterious transformative/transportation powers (oh look, a shameless plug for my own book) . . . There's something fascinating about cool devices or weapons. They lend themselves nicely to those quest plots I was talking about.
Speaking of which, I love DRAGONS. And that is all anyone ever need say on that subject.
One of my most favorite things, though, is symbolism. Whether it's on a large scale like an allegory, or as small as a passing description, I love when one thing stands for something else, be it a person, object, or concept. C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Anne Elisabeth Stengl's Heartless are two examples of allegories I treasure. But even something as brief as the dropping of a sword representing that character's inner surrender--that makes me tingle with happiness.
I also get a kick out of the strange and the scary. Not over the top, mind you--I do have my boundaries--but stories that are odd or out of the box shake me out of my comfortable rut. And a certain measure of creepiness or scariness (like in Ted Dekker's or Robert Liparulo's thrillers) will guarantee that I devour the book.
You'll never, ever guess this one. I like humor. (What a shock. Because I never laugh or joke around here, no sir.) Whether it's an inherently funny scrape the characters get themselves into, or a character like Walter Foley or Sir Eanrin providing comic relief, I'm happy because "I dearly love to laugh."
And lastly (for today, anyway), I love a book that affects my vision of life. Preferably in a good way, of course. When I have to pause and stare off into the distance, or when I close the book and spend the rest of the day thinking about it, that's when I know that the story is affecting me on a deep level. Most of us don't read to get a sermon, but if we can learn while being entertained? That's fabulous. My favorite authors are those who have opened my eyes to something about God, life, or myself. Some wording or images have even seeped into my daily thoughts. These books enrich me in the best way possible.