Wednesday, August 10, 2011

I Can’t Believe I Read the WHOLE Thing by Jen Forbus

After the stork accidentally dropped Jen Forbus in the wrong place - NE Ohio for God's sake - she has spent the better part of her life not knowing what she wanted to be when she grew up: she’s worked in the high school classroom, as a tech writer, a spec writer and a software programmer. These days she’s back in the education realm, coordinating adult professional development at the National Association of College Stores. Her love of crime fiction was ignited by Linda Fairstein and Robert Crais who hooked her on their respective series. From there the obsession snowballed and Jen’s Book Thoughts was born. Jen contributes to CRIMESPREE MAGAZINE, SHELF AWARENESS and is proudly a member of Team xuni.

 I Can’t Believe I Read the WHOLE Thing
by Jen Forbus 

In quite a few circles the question of “do you finish every book you start?” has come up. There was a time when my answer to that question would have been, “Absolutely! Are you kidding me? It’s sacrilege not to finish a book.” In the last few years my response has done a 180, “Life is too short for bad books.” Or rather, “Life is too short for books I don’t like.” I’m sure the towering pile I want to read has a lot to do with my change of heart. And reading is my hobby, why would I want to torture myself in my free time forcing myself to…wait, that sounds a lot like the time I spend at the gym…never mind, I digress. 

 The real question is what makes me want to stick with a book to the end? What grabs me and won’t let go until I find the resolution?

  The key for me is character. A book could have the most amazing, action-filled plot, but if the characters fall flat I’m gone by page 30. The book could have stunning imagery and flowery, poetic language, but if the characters aren’t interesting to me I don’t care.

 So then that begs the question, what makes the characters interesting to me? There are many factors that can come into play here. I look for characters with character. We’re all unique people and I look for that uniqueness in my characters. When I was young, I loved MacGyver but I don’t need seven different versions of MacGyver. I’d like something different, please. 

 I look for realism. I’m far more likely to connect with a character I believe I could meet on the street, work with, or live next door to, than say a super hero or a zombie. While Superman is fun, I know I’m not going to see a grown adult in blue tights flying overhead anytime too soon. But an ordinary person doing something extraordinary because of special circumstances; that grabs me. Alafair Burke pulled me in to Dead Connection with Ellie Hatcher experiencing online dating. I experienced that! I made a connection.

 I look for depth and dimension and growth in characters. While growth takes a little more time to establish, depth and dimension show up fairly quickly in a book if they are going to be present at all. And that’s important because if they aren’t there by page 30, I’ve moved on to the next book. The character doesn’t even need to be a “good” person to keep me interested. If the character is a felon, but has depth and dimension, I’ll be just as hooked as I am with the cop who might be pursuing him/her. A great example of this is Robert Crais’ last book, The Sentry. I was absolutely fascinated with his antagonist and thought I’d love to read a whole book about just Daniel.

As for growth, this is especially important to me in a series. There have been many very popular series that after two books I’m done. The main reason is the protagonist. He/she is fun in the first book but after that the character is exactly the same. I know some readers are comforted by that predictability but personally, I’m bored and moving on. Craig Johnson’s Vic Morretti never fails to surprise me. And I’m always anxious to find out what Linda Fairstein’s Mike Chapman is going to pull.

In genre fiction there are a series of loose rules that govern the structure, but with character there’s a lot of freedom. I look for the books that take advantage of that freedom and create characters I want to spend hundreds of pages getting to know…and love. That, above all else, motivates me to finish a book.

Your turn! What grabs you and engages you so that you want to finish a book?  


Sheila Beaumont said...

I love a good, fast-paced, action-packed story, but if the characters are cardboard, I'm not likely to keep reading. I want characters who are intelligent, likable and interesting.

For me, they don't even have to be human. They can be werewolves, cats, dogs, vampires, etc. (Yes, I enjoy urban fantasy and paranormal mysteries.)

Two series I think have wonderful characters (and fast-paced plots): (1) Shirley Rousseau Murphy's Joe Grey series, in which I love both the human and the feline characters; (2) J.A. Jance's Ali Reynolds series, which has one of the most enjoyable regular casts of characters I've come across.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Jen - Thank you for being here!!! Always my pleasure!

Sheila, Hi! And thank you too! I want characters also. And if the setting is a fascinating character, more the better.


Lesa said...

You got it, Jen, Character, character, character. And, I'll quit a book partway through if I'm bored with, or don't like, the protagonist.

Terrific article, and I'm glad you quite reading the whole thing!