The thing about the characteristics of a good novel is that it’s pretty subjective to taste and interest. Most stories that made me stay up at night when I was young are terribly written Wattpad stories, but that’s in the past. Despite how my taste has grown, there are things about good novels that are so universal. So, let’s talk about those.
Characteristics of a Good Novel
When I first read Purple Hibiscus, I wanted to keep reading the narrator’s thoughts. Her name is Kambili, a brilliant teenage girl growing up in Nsukka, Nigeria. The book is like eavesdropping into her mind, and what a mind she has!
I liked how she described her experiences, observations, and fears.
This brings us to the first characteristics of a good novel.
#1. Interesting Characters
What does this even mean? What makes a great novel character?
Well, I have written a longer post about creating good characters.
Overall, these are the things that make a character interesting.
They’re a keen, clever observer or calm narrator of things. They have a lot going in their head (not usually in their lives). You should read Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, for instance. The main character’s normal life has been snatched from her, but she still manages to narrate her past and present situation engagingly.
So good novels have great characters, with one, a rich inner life.
Two, readers have empathy towards them. When we read a good character, we should feel a sense of care, like if we had the chance, we should want to be their adviser or protector. I wish I could help Sansa Stark in Game Of Thrones. I wish I could change Cathy Ames’s behavior in East of Eden.
Authors let you feel empathetic towards characters in a couple of ways. You can find some of them in this post: a saner guide to writing a novel.
John Steinbeck got me with his style. He is like this god who has taken it upon himself to tell stories, though his way of writing sentences needs some level of intelligence to understand. Understanding him is like playing a board game at the easiest level; it’s a bit of fun once you get into his work. After reading a couple of passages, he has empowered the reader to become a god like him.
To talk about style, we have to talk about a couple of things. We can start with sentences. This is what Steinbeck wrote about a mountain in East of Eden:
I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother. They were beckoning mountains with a brown grass love. The Santa Lucias stood up against the sky to the west and kept the valley from the open sea, and they were dark and brooding—unfriendly and dangerous.
“Dark and brooding, unfriendly and dangerous” – those are personifications, giving human characters to inanimate things, but I am more enticed because of how the adjectives are combined.
Then, we will talk about intelligence, which is a bit complicated. In fiction, I see the author’s intelligence as somehow reluctant; it’s like they are trying not to let you see it, but you do because you are engaged and read between the lines.
Here is Steinbeck again:
When a child first catches adults out — when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not always have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just — his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone. And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck. It is a tedious job to build them up again; they never quite shine. And the child’s world is never quite whole again. It is an aching kind of growingJohn Steinbeck, East of Eden
One thing about a good novel is that it’s not usually written simply in sentences but intelligent ones. It’s a blend of sentences that has depth and rhythm. Steinbeck says, ‘And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck.’ Before that, he writes about when a child finds out how adults do not know it all. It’s not just simple words. It’s intelligent but simple to understand. When I see chapters like this, I want to know the kind of material the author sniffs before sitting behind a typewriter.
Styles Can Influence Your Taste
Zadie Smith said in her essay that as a writer, you pick authors and reread their style depending on what you want to achieve in your book. It’s the same thing when I am reading novels. If I want a style that flows like reading a street adventure (in Japan), I pick Murakami. Steinbeck for times when I want to meditate and enjoy the story simultaneously, and Annie Dillard for when I want essays packed with lots of verbs/action sentences like action films.
3. Plot (Element of Surprise)
Here, I would have talked about the plot, but that will assume that all stories are planned out from the beginning to the end or that they follow a structure that can be put into a template.
But no, East of Eden, for instance, is hard to plot. It’s a fourth and back between the narrator’s life and his family’s history. It’s hard to place in a plot.
And plot doesn’t necessarily mean a story is good, but you know what’s one of the characteristics of a good novel: its ability to surprise. This is a part of plotting but a little more specific.
How often does a good story surprise you? If you pick Kafka’s Metamorphosis, you’re hooked on the first line. Surprise! Gregor Samsa has been turned into an insect one morning. But our example here is not even the length of a novel.
The boy who lived
A better example is J. K Rowling’s Harry Potter Series. In the first book in the series, we read about a small boy who is already born for greatness. He has a radiant, glowing mark on his forehead. Surprise! Someone out there wants him dead. And he’s left alone at the front door of his family. In chapter one (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), you see a lot of little surprises that make you wonder what kind of life is meant for this little one in this world, poor little fella.
What are the characteristics of a good novel?
You could say plotting, but being more specific is important. Imagine a story with suspense: will the boy get to defeat the villain and save the world? Or, will he lose the fight and the world crumble? Those are two possible results, and one is satisfying for the reader. They want the hero to win. But instead of getting their preferred results, they get something else. The boy doesn’t defeat the villain but gets to save the world – for now.
That’s what happens with Harry Potter book 1.
The psychology of surprise
A study says getting unexpected rewards makes monkeys experience unexpected neuronal firing in their brains.
If you get what you desire to happen (the death of the villain), would you keep reading? The answer is no. The book will become boring. You won’t see a need to finish it or, like in some great series, a need for book 2.
Every great author uses this process to keep the readers engaged, though it works because of point one: an interesting character is already present. Keeping the readers surprised is part of the characteristics of a good story.
So, one of the characteristics of a good novel is the element of surprise. Not that they have scene after scene that makes readers restless and sweating, but they have little surprises that lead to grander ones that capture attention from the start to the end of the book.
I never forget to include this in all of my books, and if you want to see this element in practice, you can start with The Mystery Around Lola. Or check my other books by checking the menu and selecting Buy My Books.
4. Theme (it answers a complicated question about life)
Margaret Atwood said in an interview that the inspiration behind The Handmaid’s Tale is from reading and studying history. Something like, some extreme ideologies are meant to limit women; what if they are taken to the extreme? And that’s what we get in the book.
Harry Potter, I think, answers the question: do all heroes really should look like heroes? Harry wears glasses and looks like a boy who needs to eat more protein and add some weight, but he is the hero.
Americanah is a book with many themes around being black and being an immigrant black in the United Kingdom and America. It’s like the themes have been developed, and the story was written around them. The book answers questions like, can you truly become a citizen in another man’s land? Is it true that you can belong anywhere if you obey the rules and keep your hands clean?
I’m particularly fascinated with The Handmaid’s Tale because of its depth. And depth is what makes a good book great.
When you listen to the author talk about the book, you understand there is a depth or a desire to address a concerning issue.
In the Thirties, during the Depression, it was considered bad manners and not permissible, once you got married, for you to have a job if you were a woman. You were supposed to give up that job so that some man could support his family. Then it was the Forties and “Step up, gals, roll up your sleeves. We need you to work at a factory, have a victory garden,” do all of those things. Women were doing all kinds of things they never would have in the Thirties: driving trucks, earning salaries. A very big social stir-up, fermentation, and an equally big unsettling of previously received sexual mores. How can I put this? A lot of partying while the bombs were falling!
….My ever-present question, since I was born in ’39, is: If there were to be a totalitarianism in the United States, what would it look like? What would be the slogan? What would be the excuse? Because they all come in with: “We’re going to make things so much better, but first, we have to get rid of those people.”Margaret Atwood, Rollingstone Interview
So, What Makes A Good Book
To begin, it has to do with tastes and preferences. Some people prefer genre literature, and others love literary fiction a lot more. One side wants to see magic or flying planes or two people trying to fall in love, and the other wants to see fiction imitating real life as closely as possible. In all of this, there are usually important characters and interesting characters, surprises, themes, and styles.
There will be other things depending on who you ask, so, again, it depends on tastes.