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.

24 thoughts on “From Whence Greatness?

  1. I recently picked up a book that I had a difficult time with. It was well written, had interesting characters, and a solid setting, but I was having trouble getting engaged in the story. It took me 2 months to make it through those first 300 pages and I normally finish a book in a week or two tops.

    When I finally started to enjoy the story, I literally had to stop and think about what changed. It turned out that this was the point where the main characters finally met. I couldn’t care for the characters before this point because they existed as lone silo’s, devoid of friendship and companions. The characters hated each other, but it was still a good deal better than having no relationships at all.

    So I think you have hit on something vital here.

  2. I think if after you finish a book you want those characters to be your friends, and you continue to think about them for years after and wonder what happened to them, then the book is a success.

    • I agree with that general assessment – and I’d add that having characters with deep and meaningful relationships (whether positive or negative) is a key mechanism by which readers will form these sorts of lasting bonds with the characters.

      And, lol, no. That’s me coming up the ladder to the top of an ancient watch tower in Ireland. But I can understand the confusion…

      • I have a picture somewhere of a priest’s hole entrance, in Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk, where the entrance is reached by lifting the seat/lid of a garderobe in one of the towers. You have to lift the lid, hold it while climbing in, then you slither halfway until your knees reach the stone below, then you have to twist round and wriggle until you slip through, WIThOUT dropping the lid on your fingers or head. I’ve done it a couple of times and it is worth the minor gymnastics to get in; the priest’s hole is such a strange place, even with an electric light. You sit there and you can hear and feel the fear impregnated in the walls…..

      • Wow. There’s some interesting story in that. It makes me wish I had another opportunity to get back to that side of the pond and do some more exploring. I simply love old castles and ancient ruins.

  3. You can find stories anywhere. I spend a certain amount of my time at work sitting at airports, ports and stations, waiting to meet students arriving in Britain. I sit and watch and make up stories about the people whom I see.
    I love castles too. We did one summer camping holiday in Wales but we overdid the castles…. it became… the NOT ANOTHER BLOODY CASTLE trip and we started to crave something else. I didn’t go back to castles till we did Devon and Cornwall and I got vertigo at Tintagel in the rain….

  4. sorry….
    some parts of England it feels like there is so much history, you can’t breathe.
    I live along the east coast, only 3 miles from where the oldest human implements/tools/evidence in the whole of northern Europe was found a couple of years back; dating from a good 700,00 years ago, to a proto human probably either Homo habilis or Homo heidelbergensis. This makes my beach walks extra exciting but so far my best find is a (probable) mesolithic arrow head.
    I guess that’s why your country invented/created Disneyland…

    • I suppose there’s some truth in that. It’s easy for us to romanticize and fantasize about castles and medieval life because we’re so far removed from it. And that’s probably why our fantasy for a long time was so clean and pretty and unrealistic (I think, for the longest time, the only good fantasy was coming from over in Europe-land and the various islands (England, etc.) thereabouts).

      • A year or two back I visited the palace of Versailles, just outside Paris, for work. The place was spectacular, but because I’ve read the history, it kind of put a crimp on it to remember that a) there were no bathrooms as such and b) many aristos were NOT potty trained. Seriously. People just used to hide behind the curtains for a pee or worse, or did it where they stood. Makes the mirrored ballroom seem instantly seedier.
        I’m something of a fan of Stephen Donaldson, especially the lesser known series The Mirror of her Dreams. It took me months to crawl through the latest offering in The Land series. Can’t call any of his clean or pretty, can you??

      • Ahh, touche!

        I’ll be honest though, while I’m familiar with Donaldson’s novels, I’ve never actually read any of them (though my parents owned several of the Thomas Covenant books – I think they owned both the first and second chronicles – I’ve no idea what motivated me to read one book over another at that age).

  5. I am ambivalent about them, the land ones and the Gap series. the Land I read when my daughter was a small baby who only slept in motion, so I read with the book in one hand and the pram handle in the other, giving it regular rocking movements.
    It took me some years before I could read the final installment of the gap series, it was that bleak, and as a depressive, I have to be careful.
    The Mirror of her Dreams is much more accessible and less convoluted and less prone to weird strung out vocabulary(I don’t mean jargon; words like plangent and eldritch and other words you never read anywhere) and overall a much more optimistic series.
    I also quite enjoyed the Shannara series, for mindless entertainment. His writing has perceptibly improved in the year since the first Shannara novels were released.
    I’m not really big on fantasy and sci fi; pick and choose from what appeals to ecclectic tastes. My daughter writes fantasy though; I’d never dare. My brain might explode with the effort of remembering all the details of the world I’d created….

    • I didn’t know at the time, when I had immediate access to the Thomas Covenant books, that they were so dark and depressing. I learned that years later (and that apparently Donaldson had taken the “flaw hero” idea to a pretty dark extreme).

      Ah, Shannara. I’d nearly forgotten those books. Just today I mentioned that The Redemption of Althalus (by David & Leigh Eddings) was the only fantasy novel I’ve ever put down unfinished, but now I remember that’s not entirely true. I’d tried reading The Sword of Shannara when I was younger and made it probably 1/3 of the way through before growing a bit bored and/or frustrated with it. I couldn’t even tell you anymore what precisely it was that I disliked about the book. I’ve always felt, though, that I should go back and give the books another try, because I didn’t hate them so much as I just couldn’t get into them, and I feel like I might better be able to today.

      • I think the Shannara novels were the write ups of role play games….At the time he wrote them, he really wasn’t much cop but he did improve. he’s still a bit heavy handed at times but its been years since I read any. I used to get them from the library as we are teetering on the edge of the Book Event horizon, and try and avoid buying more in case we tip into a Literary Black hole that will destroy the known universe.
        A friend used to rave about the Eddings’ novels and I picked one up at hers and gave up in a few seconds…I think I found it pretentious, over written twaddle. but what would I know? Lol!
        The book situation is worrying me because I am certain there are wormholes appearing which sneak favourite books away for months at a time and then redeposit them looking dustfree and strangely well thumbed. My copy of TS Eliot’s The Four Quartets has done this four times in the three years we’ve lived in this house. I know it isn’t any of the family as it’s only me that reads it. It seems suspicious that this book goes, but today, my copy of Pliny’s letters has vanished just when we needed it.
        *sigh* I ought to get out more, no?

    • I strive to be likeable 🙂

      I was kidding a bit, though. There’s a lot of wonderful things to see out in the world, and I wish it were possible for me to see more of them. If someone is able, I certainly don’t begrudge them the opportunity to see it.

      As for books… well. I try not to let it become something that damages my relationships with other people, especially the ones that I love. (I strive for the same balance in all things in my life, though I don’t always meet my own standard.) So that’s when to stop: before it becomes a problem. As for where to start? That’s a good question, and I can’t say I have a good answer on where to “start”, except to say, start with what you already love, and branch out from there. That could mean asking your friends and loved ones for their recommendations, or looking at books you’ve already loved and see if you can find others that are similar.

      • I too was kidding a little; I have about seven or eight books on the go at once usually.
        What I do find deeply frustrating is going into bookshops and not being able to find a single thing I fancy anymore. It all seems sameold-sameold these days. I very rarely buy books any more for this reason.
        I do get out and see the world, at least Europe, for work, which is exciting and very tiring. MY next trip is in about 10 days time, for six days in Northern France and then to Paris. I plan this time on taking my mini laptop and seeing if I can get online at some time, though the fleapits I often stay in don’t usually have wireless broadband… At least I can write, if I get time and energy. Usually it gets scribbled down in a notebook and transcribed later.

      • That makes sense. I’d have been surprised, based on your earlier comments, that you didn’t know what you wanted to read next.

        I’m sorry to hear you’re having trouble finding stuff you want to read now, though. I have a reading queue up so long that I don’t know what to do with it!

  6. I guess it comes of being about twenty years older than you(at a guess; you look very young. I am 44) a prolific,rapid(like read Moby Dick in an afternoon) and critical reader. It might make you jaded by my age.
    I do still find stuff at times; usually because it turns up either from Bibliophiles or browsing second hand shops or because a friend has thrust it into my hands telling me to read it and tell them what I think.
    A good criterion for whether I buy a book or not is do I stand skimming it in the bookshop until they start glaring at me…did that the other week and bought it: Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Angel’s Game. Sat reading it on a bench and didn;t even flinch or react when my colleague came up behind me screaming ARRRRRGGGHH to try and make me jump. I must find the time to read the rest soon….

    • In truth I’m not quite as young as I look, though I admit I’m not especially old – I do still have quite a lot of life left, statistically speaking. I basically haven’t changed in appearance much since high school, and the only give-away that I’m as old as I am is the collection of gray hairs that I’m acquiring – but in that picture they’re too few to see amidst all the dark hair at that size. My generally youthful outlook on life (which I imagine comes across in my writing) probably doesn’t help to dissuade the notion that I’m very young or much younger than I really am.

      Good luck, then, on finding some new books to read!

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