From Whence Greatness?

A post on the blog of T.S. Bazelli the other day made me think back to some thoughts I had a year or two ago about what makes a novel or a book great.  I thought this would be a great place and time to go back to those thoughts, re-examine them, and share them.

The question of greatness in books is one that can cause a good deal of contention among those who are well-read.  The erudite and scholarly may have the ability to pontificate on the relative merits and flaws of the great classics, from Tolstoy to Nabokov, from Shakespeare to Dickens and from Joyce to Fitzgerald and beyond.  (You’ll note how each of these is readily identified merely by their last names, as though nothing else is needed for their introduction.)  Well, I haven’t read a word of Tolstoy nor much of Nabokov.  I’ve read smatterings of Shakespeare and Dickens, nothing of Joyce, and only what they made me read in school by Fitzgerald.  The same could be said for any number of other “great” writers.  But, frankly, I’m not interested in scholarly or academic discussions of greatness.  I’m a young man who yearns to be a writer, himself.  So, what I’m interested in is the kind of greatness that churns out best-sellers.  The Stephen King kind of greatness.  The Dan Brown kind.  Or the J. K. Rowling kind.

And it was a consideration of Rolwing’s “masterpiece”, as it were – the Harry Potter novels, as though they need any introduction either – that originally got me thinking about this subject a few years ago.  I haven’t read King or Brown (though I’ve seen many of their movies), but I’ve read the entire Harry Potter series.  Now, this reading is but one datum to consider, but when I think back over the stories I’ve loved throughout my life – over nearly all of the books I’ve found most compelling – the key learning I gleaned from this consideration holds constant and true.  Let me take you back to the beginning, to where my thoughts on the topic began.

I had just finished one of the Harry Potter books, whether the fifth, sixth, or seventh I no longer remember.  By this point, Harry Potter was past being a phenomenon and had become the touchstone of a cultural moment.  By 2007 the New York Times felt forced to create a whole new category of best seller to which it could shuck the quarter-dozen Harry Potter titles that were clogging up its normal best seller list.  And as a writer, I wondered.  What made these Harry Potter books so great?  Why were they such a huge bestseller?  Why did so many people love these books?  And were there any lessons I could glean from them that I could apply in my own work?

I approached these questions from the point of view of one who would also write heroic fantasy stories of wizards and dragons and the fate of the world in balance.  And right away, I was able to rule all of that out as a factor in Harry Potter’s success.  Certainly, other tales have done spectacularly well relying on just those very themes: the Lord of the Rings comes as one clear example, and there are other great bestsellers (though none quite so best selling as Harry Potter) in the fantasy genre that rely still on these same themes.  Harry Potter is something of a bildungsroman, but so are many other fantasy tales.  There is a young boy destined to defeat the evil wizard.  He has a wise old mentor who is destined to die before the young boy can fulfill his own destiny.  Sound familiar?  Lots of great fantasy stories have been told with the same motifs.  So have lots of truly awful dreck.  My own fantasy novel rested on these same themes, and yet I knew in my heart of hearts by this point that my novel was practically unpublishable.

No, I reasoned, these themes were not a reason for success.  Neither, it was clear to me, were they a hindrance, no matter that you always hear that we, as writers, have to avoid such clichés “like the plague”.  The success of Harry Potter proved for certain that the old saw about fantasy clichés was no true path to greatness in fantasy literature.  Many stories have been new and unique and inspired.  Many of them have been consigned to the dustbins of history.  No, there is no formula for greatness in the way that we approach these fantasy clichés.

What about Rowling’s prose, and her style?  Certainly, one can count points in her favor here.  Yet it cannot escape notice that though these were books written for and to a young adult and juvenile audience, they nevertheless had an appeal to a much broader audience.  Adults and people of all stripes and ages were completely caught up in the Potter-mania.  Should we all strive to write YA-fiction with broad market appeal?  How would one do that?  No, that line of reasoning is silly.  Stephen King churns out a never-ending stream of best-sellers, and his books are decidedly not YA in appeal.  Still, there is something to be said for writing style: for finding an authorial voice that has general and broad appeal.  But this is not a lesson that can easily be applied, in principle.  Each writer must find his or her own authorial voice, and it’s something I’ve yet to see a standard or formula that could replicate success in this regard.

So, my thoughts continued.  It was not Rowling world-building.  While her world was interesting and at time immersive, there were nonetheless numerous inconsistencies that would crop up from time to time.  But they were not central to the plot, nor to our enjoyment of the book, so as readers they were easily forgotten or missed entirely.  It was not her meticulous plotting.  While engaging, the plots were almost entirely self-contained from book to book, with only a handful of threads continuing across the entire series.  But… we’re getting closer.

And that’s when it hit me. The characters.  The relationships.  This became clear to me, especially, while reading the last book of the series.  All throughout the series we’d been introduced to a wide array of characters with interesting backstories and, more importantly, a complex web of relationships between them.  And, as the stories progress, we see the consequences of the interactions of the characters – both those that take place within the timeline of  the books and those that took place in the past – play out in the climaxes of each book.  What the villains do – whether Severus Snape or Draco Malfoy or even Lord Voldemort – is influenced by their pasts and the relationships they had with the people around them.  And the same is true of the heroes. 

As I realized this, I knew I was onto a profound discovery.  We human beings: we’re social creatures, even the most introverted of us.  We crave human interaction.  We crave relationships.  It’s woven into the fiber of our beings.  And stories?  Stories are about people.  People who have relationships.  The more interesting and dynamic those relationships, the more interesting and compelling the story.

A quick survey of my fantasy favorites confirmed my budding theory.  The Lord of the Rings?  You’ve got the powerful friendship between Sam and Frodo.  Boromir’s betrayal, fueled in part by his (offscreen) relationship with his father, and strained relationship between Boromir’s brother, Faramir, and their father.  You have the growing friendship of Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn, and the (mostly offscreen) love between Aragorn and Arwen and the attendant angst related to it.  You have the friendship of Pippin and Merry.  And so on.  Whilst writ large, at mythic scope, the story is nonetheless fraught with relationship complexities. 

Or the Prydain books of my youth?  Here, you have the conflict in Taran between who he was – a question of his relationship with his unknown parents and with his mentor, Dallben – and who he has become, in light of his new relationships with the princess Eilonwy, the bard Flewddur Fflam, the creature Gurgi, the dwarf Doli and the prince Gwydion.  Or how about “The Wheel of Time”?  There are so many characters and complex relationships that it becomes rather easy to lose track, and you need a half-dozen online encyclopedias to keep track.  (If anything, “The Wheel of Time” sometimes seems to suffer from relationship overload.)

Yes, my friends, I did and do believe that I discovered the secret of greatness in writing.  Which is not to say I’ve discovered a magic formula for best-sellerdom.  What I have found is the secret ingredient.  There are a lot of ingredients that will make the stew of a great novel a savory and steamy affair.  You need an interesting plot, and an immersive world.  You need attention to detail, and an eye for the setting details that bring your story to life.  You need clean prose and a style with wide appeal.  You need some new idea or some new take on the conventions of your genre.  But if you fail to deliver a perfect tale in any of those regards, you may, I believe, still have a perfectly fine and publishable book.  But what you cannot do without, I have come to believe, is a caste of interesting characters caught in a web of relationships.  It is these relationships that will drive your story.  Without these, your story will ultimately be forgettable.

At least, that’s what I’ve come to believe.

Happy writing.