If you’re reading this thinking there’ll be an answer in this post, turn back now. I’m just cogitating out loud and, as always, inviting Argh Nation to co-cogitate.
I’ve been reading a lot lately thanks to Good Book Thursdays (and thanks to the Argh people who asked for them) and I just read two books that I shouldn’t have liked but read straight through, and I’m now reading one book that I’m having a hell of a time finishing. The first two are by a new-to-me author and the other is by one of my all-time faves. I’m trying to figure out why I read the first two at light speed, and why I keep putting down the other.
The first two have vivid characters that don’t arc at all, a protagonist who annoys me about a quarter of the time I’m reading her, and cheery-perfect-world outlook in which everything turns out great for no particular reason aside from Good People Win. The last one has vivid characters who are vivid because this is the third book they’ve been in, not necessarily because they’re clever on the page, a protagonist . . . . actually, I’m not sure this book has a protagonist, and a sense of been-here-before that is more boring than satisfying. The antagonists in the first two books are almost cartoons (although to be fair, the books are almost farces), and there doesn’t seem to be an antagonist in the last book. Yet. I’m on page 77 of 375 pages. I think an antagonist is overdue. The first two books deal with a clear-cut morality in which the protagonist and her pals never do anything wrong. They make mistakes, but they fix them. They are good of heart and clean of mind. The last book has the kind of squishy morality I like, but so far very few people are doing anything.
So I can say lack of a strong protagonist, lack of action, lack of an antagonist . . . the third book is just lacking. But why the hell am I reading the first two books?
I think the big thing is that the heroine is so vulnerable; vulnerability gets me every time. And she’s active, she’s trying to hard to fix her situation. But she’s also passive in that people do things to her and she doesn’t fight back, she just finds ways to escape. As it happens, that works out perfectly for her, but if I ever do a post on passive-aggressive heroines, she’ll be at the top. So the stories are about a nice woman whom people are trying to victimize, and about how the people around her fight to save her which gives her a feeling of worth, and how eventually she fights back, too. I think it’s the vulnerability. I want to see her saved. But she’s not my favorite character in the books (I’m not sure I have a favorite character) because everybody around her is so much more interesting. I read the first and second one and a short story that came between, but I think if there was a third one, I’d pass it by because it would be all about this woman being saved again. The quirky community and sunlit world is fun, but not for three books.
And yet I will persevere and finish that damn third book if it kills me. Because that world is not sunlit, it’s teeming with darkness and bright flashes of neon and the occasional explosion. The community isn’t so much quirky as cheerfully depraved, and the plot isn’t so much fun as . . . well, it’s not fun, but the books that came before it were wild rides that I adored. So I’ll see it through. There won’t be another one after this, so I’ll have completed the series. It’s almost an obligation to finish this book; it’s as if I owe the author for all the joy he’s given me in the past and this is how I’m honoring my debt. I will finish this book.
But when I look back at the books that came before this one, and at those two with the gormless heroine, I’m still trying to figure out why I read them so voraciously. (Okay, I read the second of the first example much less voraciously, but I finished it.) Those books are missing so much of what I think is necessary in a good book, but I still read on.
So let’s talk about what makes a story unputdownable, using examples, please. Fling book titles about at will. Cite specifics. I need to figure this out.