Good writing, compelling story, engaging characters. These were my answers to the pseudo-question “I am most motivated to buy a book for these three reasons”. This was my top-of-the-head stimulus-response answer, but after I’d given it I started thinking about these three factors, these three things that were important to me, and I felt the need to go into them in more depth. And so:
This isn’t important for some people (for a lot of people, actually, an entirely surprising number of people) but for me it really, really is. I’m not even really talking about proper grammar and comma placement and so on, although these things are, of course, important. Mostly I’m talking about voice and (for lack of a better term immediately leaping to mind) ‘cleverness’. When I read a book I want to go ‘hm’ at least every few pages because the author has constructed a sentence or turned a phrase or even just used one specific word in a particularly pleasing way. I want the dialogue to be interesting and original, I want the author to make good use of tropes–to have thought about what they’re doing and the why and how of their choices–and I want reading the book to be smooth and pleasurable. Basically, the writing should make me want to spend time in the author’s world, and also to make me think, as often as possible, “Gosh, what a clever author”.
Of course, all the good writing in the world isn’t going to make up for a weak plot or a dull story. Although a book has to be well-written for me to enjoy it (or at least written to a certain minimum standard) (which is, I won’t lie, pretty high for me), I’m not going to bother reading it at all if the story doesn’t catch my interest (well, I might if the characters are really good, but more on that in a minute). First of all there’s the concept, which is important. Especially for fantasy or scifi or YA stories, a good, original, well thought-out concept will definitely capture my interest. Conflict, of course, should be at the heart of the story, personally I go more for external conflict than internal, but a good mixture of both will really grab me. Then there are the stakes, what’s at risk, what does the protag stand to lose–or gain? The more personal the stakes the better for me, even if the story is epic in scope I want the main characters to really WANT to win, and to have intensely personal reasons to do so. Then there are other things–mysteries, relationships, and that mysterious X-factor that some authors have, where they can be writing about nothing much at all and make it utterly compelling. However, as much as I enjoy good writing for the sake of good writing, what I really love is a good plot with satisfying climaxes and plenty of crowning moments of awesome/funny/heartwarming/etc
A book can have the greatest concept in the world, the best writing, the most compelling storyline … but if I don’t like the characters then I’m just not going to read it. This is where most books I try fall down for me. Whether it’s cliched, unoriginal dialogue or lack of distinguishing characteristics or just plain old unattractiveness, it seems that creating good characters isn’t a high priority for many writers these days. This is especially true of scifi and fantasy books, many times it seems writers only care about the ideas, concepts, gadgets, worldbuilding etc. and tack characters on almost as an afterthought, for me the story has to be about people–it doesn’t matter how rich and detailed the world is or how amazing your ideas or how intriguing your concepts if the character reactions don’t ring true. Because ‘truth’ is, for me, the single most important part of any book. If the characters don’t feel true, I find it difficult to engage with them. If I don’t engage with the characters, then I don’t care what happens to them. If I don’t care what happens to them, why should I bother reading the book? Sometimes I will struggle on despite not connecting with the characters, due to a compelling story or interesting world or whatever, but I never feel satisfied in these cases.
So anyway, there you have it! What I look for in a book, and why these three factors are important to me. If I had to rank them I’d go Characters, Story, Writing, by which I kind of mean that the story should serve the characters rather than the other way around, and good writing ties everything together.