One of the blogs I follow on a regular basis is written by an agent and her post today was a particularly useful look at story telling from the other side of the fence. As a reader who’s effectively paid to critically analyse why a book is good – and worth taking a gamble on whether it will sell – here are some of the things she looks for in a story:
Smart characters. I love a clever protagonist, someone who works things through and has realizations over the course of the story. I love characters who solve puzzles, whether they are physical, follow-the-clue sorts of situations or situations that require research or careful sifting of ideas. The thought process draws me in and I am with you for the ride. And this does not mean the book needs to be a mystery; all books require some sort of puzzle or level of suspense, even if it’s a will-they-or-won’t-they romantic scenario. And this isn’t limited to smart adult characters. Smart (and smart-ass) teen and child protagonists push my buttons, too.
By contrast, I hate a stupid protagonist. And by this I don’t mean naïve or uneducated or possessing a low I.Q. A stupid protagonist is one who stares the facts in the face and then ignores them for the sake of keeping the story going, who could solve the book’s major issue by making a phone call or being honest or reading a note someone left on the refrigerator. In these instances, it’s not the protagonist who is really stupid, but the author who insists on insulting the reader’s intelligence.
Smart characters are not perfect characters. A character can be brilliant and still have many flaws. They can, and should, be wrong some of the time, and their intelligence can often stand in the way of their accepting or realizing that fact. Smart can still be real.
An intriguing setting. I’m all about the world building. I want to feel like I’ve stepped into the world of your story, which is one of the reasons I adore fantasy and science fiction and historical novels, but that sense of place is important regardless of the genre. (I’m a sucker for travel blogs, so you can see where my weakness lies.) I love well-done description that puts the reader in the scene, in the moment, but still keeps the story moving forward. Carefully chosen words that pack a punch over long, rambling descriptions of everything in a room or landscape. Settings that reveal character – details about someone’s décor or the state of their car trunk or the sort of small town they’ve chosen to make their home. Intriguing for me can be well-rendered and meaningful. It doesn’t have to be a glamorous cityscape to draw me in. Audrey Niffenegger’s HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY takes place primarily in Highgate Cemetery and a neighboring set of flats, and that setting is utterly integral to the story she tells. And if you introduce me to a place or a culture or a world that is new to me, all the better.
Themes of rebirth, rehabilitation, and resurrection. While I love a good coming-of-age story or rags-to-riches story as much as the next girl, I’m a sucker for the complete makeover. Characters who were walking on the wrong side of things and, for some reason, have decided to put their past to rest and start a new life. I love the idea of transformation, of being able to take control of your destiny, of not allowing past mistakes to set the path for the future. I’m also fond of protagonists who walk the line, gentlemen thieves, Robin Hood-type characters, and so on. I’m intrigued by morally complicated individuals. For anyone who has seen The Avengers in theaters this summer, it won’t surprise you that Hawkeye and Black Widow intrigue me the most. A former circus performer and Russian assassin, respectively, they have complex backgrounds that make me want to know more about them, their choices, their motivations.
Adventure. I mean this both as a state of mind and as an actual story arc. I love characters that have adventures of some sort, they don’t have to be a long, winding quest or involve a battle against the forces of evil, though I love those as well. Someone starting their life over in a new city where they don’t know a soul can certainly have an adventure. It’s about their mindset and their willingness to experience something huge and life changing; or, conversely, about their lack of willingness to change and how life or external forces somehow force an adventure upon them. Unwilling adventurers can be just as compelling.
Psychological twists. This ties in to my love of smart characters as well as those who are morally complex. A protagonist with a mystery in their past, a situation that appears to have no solution, questions of identity, mind games, etc. I love it when these sorts of things are the focus of the story, but also when they creep in unexpectedly along the edges, adding color to a main storyline and making things just a little bit more complicated.
For the full blog post check out The Knight Agency by Nephele.