What do I demand from crime fiction—okay, from any kind of fiction?
I'd say I finish reading about 60 percent of the books I begin in any given year. Of the forty percent I don't finish, there are those I simply put down, those I put down with some resentment that my time has been stolen from me under false pretenses, and those that I throw against the nearest wall.
The ones I just quit reading are those that simply don't hold my interest. A whodunnit is in trouble if the reader doesn't care whodunnit. A thriller is in trouble when the reader doesn't care how the protagonist will get out of the fix. Any crime novel is in serious trouble when the reader wishes the killer would rub out most of the surviving characters.
The ones I actively resent and the ones that get hurled against the wall commit (to my way of thinking) cardinal sins.
So what's a cardinal sin? It's failing to meet the minimum deliverables of fiction, according to my personal scale.
Here's what I want. An interesting story about convincing characters that's well told and deals with issues that engage me. It wouldn't hurt if it also made me laugh or gave me goosebumps or brought tears to my eyes or dazzled me with language, but those are extras. They're great, but they're not deal-breakers.
The highest compliment a reader can pay to a writer is to turn the page. I'll keep doing that with a modestly interesting book about consistent characters, the kind of people I might chat with on a plane. I probably won't remember it a week later and I won't recommend it, but I'll finish it.
Take that same book—modestly interesting plot, okay writing, issues that are just above “meh” on my issues scale, but give it fascinating, fully-rounded, compelling characters, and I'll read it avidly, despite its other shortcomings. I'll remember it. I'll go back to it, trying to learn something.
By the same measure, create an amazingly structured mystery or thriller with a lightning pace, unforeseeable reversals, and a shattering climax, and people it with inconsistent, paper-thin dullards, and I'm going to be back at the library after fifty pages.
As I suppose it's clear (at least, to those of you who are still reading this) out of all my minimum deliverables, there's actually only one that's absolutely essential, and that's character.
Books for me are people, plain and simple. Everything else is garnish. Great characters will carry me through a boring story, but the greatest story on earth won't hold me unless I want to be with those people. And they can't betray who they are for the purposes of plot. If they're real people, they have to behave like real people. The minute they don't, I'm out of there.
They don't have to be realistic characters in the conventional sense. They can be elves or hobbits or even a teddy bear (in one memorable book) but I have to believe that they breathe, think, and care, and once I know what they care about, they'd better not violate it. I do have to confess that I have problems with narrators that are cats and giggling serial killers who regard murder as the setup for a punch line, but even one of those--sufficiently well done--will hold me for a few hundred pages. I'd have to open that kind of a book by accident, but once I did I'd stay with it if the characters were there.
What about you? What are your minimum deliverables? What have I left out? What's on my list that isn't necessary to you?