Books & Reading · Commentary · Story & Characters

Reading Pet Penchants

In my last post, I highlighted my top six reading pet peeves. So for this post, I’m going to share my top six reading pet penchants – story elements that I enjoy! These are things that, for me, can take a good story and make it great and, hence, make it worth reading over and over again.

6. Hero with a Change of Heart

While all heroes should be flawed (though not outrageously flawed), I tend to enjoy heroes who start off with some less than desirable traits yet evolve and mature, eventually smoothing out these rough edges. One of the best examples for me is from Jane Eyre. When the novel begins, Jane is a cold, hard-hearted young girl and she can be a little difficult to relate to. However, over time, she allows her heart to soften and adopts a mature outlook on life, even finding it within herself to forgive someone who wronged her years before. Jane is clearly a flawed heroine to start but she doesn’t stay that way. Overall, a hero with a change of heart makes for a great redemption story, and there’s nothing better than watching a hero strive for positive personal change.

5. Immersive Worlds

As a reader of fantasy and science fiction, I’m accustomed to in-depth, detailed worldbuilding. But for me there’s worldbuilding and then there’s worldbuilding. I love being made to feel like a story’s world really could exist, as if you could visit it by some invisible portal. Story worlds that possess their own history, important figures, cultures, environments, rules, and even terminology make the space the characters populate come alive. Two story worlds that, for me, epitomize worldbuilding are Tolkien’s Middle-earth and Rowling’s Wizarding world. Both feel like they could be real places as they possess not only realistic, functioning settings but also workable cultures and histories that add a sense of depth and realism to the story. While a story’s setting shouldn’t trump its characters, it’s important for me to have a world I can immerse myself in so that each time I read the book, it’s like I’m paying it a long, welcomed visit.

Unlikely Heroes
Some of my favorite heroic characters are usually the least likely persons you’d peg with saving the day. There’s something deeply touching about seeing a character rise from obscurity or overcome obstacles to become a brave but humble savior. Without a doubt, one of my favorite unlikely heroes is Frodo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings and, for me, Frodo is a paragon for this character type. First, he’s a Hobbit, a race of little notoriety in Middle-earth. Not to mention that being a Hobbit also means he’s not exactly from the tallest or strongest of races – quite the contrary. Likewise, Frodo is more suited to a quiet, simple life, not for grand quests; therefore, he lacks the powerful presence of, say, Gandalf, Aragorn, and Elrond. However, in the end, it is little Frodo who willingly and humbly accepts the task of seeing the One Ring to its doom. Probably the number one reason why I love unlikely heroes is that they’re easy to relate to as well as root for: they’re good people who are worthy of being called heroes yet they’re not born heroic – they are made heroic by their choices.

3. Meaningful Messages
Sermonizing in a story is one of my reading pet peeves, but that doesn’t mean I automatically dislike all stories that have a message. Every story has a moral to share because no story is separate from its author’s worldview, which inherently permeates whatever that writer composes. However, the difference is that well-crafted stories don’t sport this on their proverbial sleeves. I appreciate stories that display the importance of virtue over vice, the rewards of perseverance, the elevation of the underdog, and the triumph of true love (not mere infatuation or superficial sexual attraction). All of my favorite books contain subtle messages that move me and ultimately exalt virtuous actions. However, most of these “messages” don’t come across using direct tactics but, instead, employ implied strategies. A direct tactic is a means by which to openly convey a message. For instance, if Bob says, “Stealing is wrong,” to a thief named Tom, that’s a direct tactic because the message is obvious and clear (i.e. “stealing is wrong”).

In contrast, implied strategies use character actions and the operation of cause and effect to convey messages. To revisit the previous example, if Tom gets arrested for stealing, then character actions and the sequence of cause and effect indirectly communicate the message that stealing is wrong (i.e. Tom was arrested for stealing, hence he was punished for his actions, ergo the message is that stealing is wrong). Granted, most books utilize both techniques, but for me, implied strategies show readers a greater respect by allowing them to determine a moral for themselves and apply it personally however they wish. By means of comparison, I love the moral in Vera Brosgol’s Anya’s Ghost as the message of being mindful of the influences you allow into your life is delivered chiefly through character action and cause and effect, not open exposition. In contrast, In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang openly touts a protest-laden social justice message in a very direct way that leaves nothing for readers to uncover or personally apply. I believe poet Emily Dickinson said it best: “The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind,” meaning sometimes the most potent truths are those that aren’t directly in your face.

2. Not-100%-Evil Villains

I love a good, compelling villain, someone who is on equal footing with and makes for a suitable challenge to the hero. A stupid or lazy villain provides little to no challenge, and a villain who is too smart or too powerful ensures no victory for the hero. So a happy medium is best. However, as much as I love rotten to the core, 100% pure villainy bad guys (like Harry Potter‘s Lord Voldemort), nothing beats a baddie who isn’t all bad and who might redeem himself in some fashion, even if he doesn’t make a full transition from villain to hero. Two such villains whom I place among my all-time favorite baddies would be Negan (from The Walking Dead comics) and Grand Admiral Thrawn (from Timothy Zahn’s sundry Star Wars novels).

While both of these figures are undoubtedly villains, they’re not utterly evil or always doing bad deeds. In fact, both of these characters possess traits and skills that, under different circumstances or utilized differently, would actually make them good guys! Negan is more than capable of holding his own in a fight as well as acting as a rallying point for his followers. Likewise, he has an established social structure in place that, despite its ethical standards being sorely askew, still reflects a system where “rules keep [people] safe,” and – oddly enough – Negan later aligns himself with the story’s protagonists. Concerning Thrawn, his key traits would certainly elevate him to heroic status were it not for the fact he’s an Imperial officer. He displays a high level of intelligence, incredible foresight, astute military tactics and strategies, a distaste of brutality for brutality’s sake, an ability to command respect, and a curious mind that appreciates and analyzes art. Thus, were it not for his alignment with the Empire, Thrawn would undoubtedly have been a hero; but even as a villain, Thrawn still isn’t actually evil. Thus, I enjoy villains who aren’t entirely or always bad; however, it’s their choices that decide on which side of the hero-villain fence they reside.

1. Happy Endings

It may seem cliche in a postmodern age, but I gravitate to, relate to, and obtain the most enjoyment out of stories with good payoffs for both their characters and readers. That isn’t to say nothing bad should happen in a story, that characters can’t make mistakes, or that everything is wrapped up neat and tidy. It’s in dire, dramatic moments where characters flourish and test their mettle. After all, if characters don’t experience and endure trying events then the ultimate payoff isn’t as sweet. I agree with Tolkien that the most meaningful stories don’t end with catastrophe but eucatastrophe. Rather than focus on the bad, eucatastrophe emphasizes the hope of a good future – the hero triumphs over the villain, maybe even some of the minor baddies are redeemed, the star-crossed couple is reunited at last, and the wayward child comes home. Happy endings don’t undermine everything a character goes through; instead, they function as a reward, a payoff where everything a heroic character endured was worth it and, by proxy, was worth it for the reader in terms of a cathartic experience.

The best example of this for me is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which marks the conclusion of the Harry Potter series. While each book ends on a relatively happy note, it’s the final novel’s ending that rings the sweetest. It’s an understatement to say that Harry goes through a lot throughout the course of seven books as he endures so much grief and anger that readers hope the ending is worth the pain. Rest assured, it is! Harry and many of his comrades are given happy endings, not the sort that make you gag on their sweetness but the authentic type that allows you to put a smile on your face.

Overall, happy endings are my number one reading pet penchant because they reflect what I think most of us, deep down, inherently believe: that everything we go through will be worth it in the end and that evil and darkness don’t triumph forever.


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