I read a lot. Constantly. And, being a lover of urban fantasy, I read a lot in that particular sub-genre. The thing about genres is that there is pretty much only a handful of story structures. There are also a lot of tropes which come up over and over again. So, you pretty much know what you’re getting – the fun is in how the author puts his or her own spin on the-real-world-but-with-magic.
The thing is, I can usually tell whether or not I am going to like a book within the first few pages. The plot has hardly got started, we’ve only just been introduced to the main character – and already I’ve got a pretty solid yes or no feeling.
Today, I was thinking about how and why that happens. Why is it that I’ve already decided whether or not I like a book before the author has really had time to get to the good parts? Isn’t that just a bit unreasonable?
Then I remembered Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat. It’s a book about screenwriting, but it’s applicable to writing any sort of fiction. And the point he is making in the title is not that he really likes kitties, but that a good way of showing your kick-ass hero(ine) in a human light, so the audience (or reader) can connect with him (or her) is to show him/her doing something spontaneously nice, or cute. This sounds like kind of crap, until you actually think about it.
Take Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files – Harry Dresden, the hero, is your standard hardboiled PI; he has no money, he’s behind on the rent, he can kick ass when required, et cetera et cetera yadda yadda. But he keeps (or did, at the beginning of the series) a box of paperback books in his office for when he’s got no work to do. That makes him human, and someone I could potentially like. I mean, he reads. That’s something I can relate to.
In J.D. Robb’s In Death series, Eve Dallas, kick-ass murder cop, thinks the vending machines are out to get her. Her department-issue car develops a new and interesting fault (or gets trashed) in nearly every book, and her very old office computer sometimes prints out in Chinese. And someone is stealing her candy… She may be the best at solving murders, but everyday technology tends to get the better of her (plus, someone is stealing her candy).
One potentially very good series that I’m sorry didn’t carry on was Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces series. Excellent books – although not for the squeamish. The series was cancelled by the publisher after only three full-length books. The reason, I believe, was that sales weren’t as good as projected from the reception of the first book. Looking at the reviews, I think one major reason is that readers were finding it hard to relate to the two main characters. Far from Saving the Cat, the reader was given the impression that one of them, at least, was far more likely to sacrifice it unhesitatingly. This is not hero-like behaviour. Personally, I liked the hard-edged storytelling, and I liked the fact that the main character, Ray Lilly, was an ex-con trying to put his life back on track – an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary events and attempting to cope. But Ray and his employer, Annalise Powliss, did not save the cat, and for that, I think, their series was axed. (Personally, I think they did save the cat, but I possibly I was seeing a different cat.)
So, to go back to my point, I think the reason why I can tell whether I’m going to like a book or not is whether – within that short opening section of the book – the author has given me a way to connect with the main character on a human level, rather than simply portraying them as the Kick Ass Hero(ine). Have they, in fact, saved a cat?