4 Characteristics of an Epic Book

booksHave you ever read a book, and for some indescribable reason you simply could not feel a connection with it?  Perhaps you’re a person who can put a book like that right back on the shelf without a problem, or drop it in the library’s return slot and never think about it again, if you begin reading it and realize it’s not for you.  But not me.

In the past, when I came upon a book like this – one I could not get into at all – I put myself through torture, made myself finish the book even if it bored me to tears.  Now that I have finished my third decade of life, I realize I simply don’t have the time to do that, and I finally admitted to myself that I just don’t like it, either.  Who says I have to finish every book I start?  What a freeing feeling!  Why did I ever think differently?

The problem is I am always left with a sense of …. well, something being wrong.  Maybe it’s a need for closure.  Not in the sense of needing to know how the story ends, necessarily, but rather in needing to understand why I couldn’t connect with it to begin with.  I have been writing stories since I could hold a pencil, and this has created a keener sense of a story’s mechanics, an author’s style, than I might have ever been aware of otherwise.

Lately this happened to me.  And instead of just dealing with the uncomfortable feeling the book gave me, despite the fact that I actually quite enjoyed parts of it, I decided to sit myself down and figure out exactly what I felt was missing.  I soon realized if you want to know what’s missing from a recipe, you have to know the recipe to begin with.  So, I decided to write down my “requirements” for a great book.

Don’t get me wrong.  If a book doesn’t have one or two of these characteristics it doesn’t mean I won’t read it.  Because books don’t follow rules.  Sometimes there is a mysterious x-factor that keeps me turning pages, surprising even myself.  So – the list is not a strict one; but it did, in the end, help me realize what was “missing” from the book I had been reading [sigh of relief!].

My list is not genre or age-specific, since these characteristics span all types of fiction books.  Here goes:

  1. A compelling plot.  No matter how great your prose is, or how handy you are with turning a unique phrase, your book simply won’t stand without an intriguing storyline that keeps the reader wanting more.  This is not an argument for fast-paced, action-packed scenes – not a bit.  It just means that the plot simply needs to be interesting.  It needs to take me somewhere unexpected and exciting.
  2. A protagonist who is human.  But you like heroes who happen to be dragons, you say?  Okay.  I still say your dragon needs to be human.  The protagonist needs to have relatable struggles, whether internal or external, that draw me in and form an emotional connection.  Because, let’s be honest, if I can’t relate to the hero, I’m not gonna care what happens to him, even if the author kills him off.  If I have the capability of shrugging my shoulders and saying “Eh,” when something horrible happens to the hero … the author is doing something wrong (and yes, I have done this before).quill.and.ink
  3. A journey.  Whether the characters stay in one place, or even in one room, for the entirety of the book, a journey needs to take place.  A journey of understanding, of love, of coming to terms with self or others, of forgiveness, of strength or acceptance … the list could go on and on; take your pick.  And if the journey happens to be an actual physical journey – well, that’s fine, too.  But my favorite books, I’ve noticed, usually incorporate the physical and emotional journeys together, intertwining them in such delicious ways that you can barely discern the difference between them (The Lord of the Rings, anyone??).
  4. Good writing.  I’m not talking about good grammar here, and I’m not even talking about writing that “flows.”  I mean writing that is unique to the author.  Writing that shows me this author has a voice and knows how to use it.  This is a hard one to describe, really, because it’s more of a feeling than anything specific you can pin down when reading a book.  But if you are a reader, you know what I mean.  And this one is also very open to preference.  Believe me, some authors have a definitive voice … and I just don’t happen to like their voice.  But it doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it.  And when I come across a book with the three former characteristics, and find that the author is just one darn good storyteller on top of everything … well, those are the books that find homes on the shelves in my house.

But that’s just me.  I’m curious to know … what makes (or doesn’t make, for that matter) a great book for YOU?

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About AshleeW

Reader and writer of fairytales and fantasy, walker in the woods, studier of people, believer of mercy and peace, mother, wife and child of God.

Posted on July 18, 2013, in authors, books, List, readers, writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I think I may need to work on 1 and 4, but this is definitely helpful having been put into words what would make a story epic. Thanks!

  2. Let’s see… 4 things that make a book epic:

    1. A believable villain. I can overlook a lot more flaws in the hero and other characters as long as the villain has realistic goals and as long as I can believe their motivation fits in line with their wants.

    2. A quick introduction of the conflict, building tension and increased risk related to the conflict, a climatic resolution.

    3. Intelligence/Credibility– I’m getting to a point where I don’t enjoy reading books with characters that I feel are lacking maturity for their age.

    4. Romantic tension.

  3. Your four are important to me, too. (In order of priority for me: 4, 2, 3, 1.) I guess I’d add that I get really excited about a book when there’s a deeper layer to the story. It’s about more than one thing at a time, not just about this one character’s dilemma. (Like LOTR: Greed, loyalty, temptation, power–and beauty. Like motifs in a symphony.) In fact, lacking that deeper dimension I’ll usually forget the book after I’ve read it, if I do.

  4. I definitely agree, John. My favorites through the years have been, without exception, the ones with a deeper, more universal meaning. That is the type of book I also strive to write – that’s what makes a true classic!

  5. Reblogged this on The Novel List and commented:
    Remember I was talking about how character development was one of the most important things in a good book? Well, faerietaleforest just published a blog post that hit on some of the other things I agree on. Check out the blog post, it’s pretty awesome. And thank you, faerietaleforest, for twitting this at me. It’s definitely a topic that needs to be touched on.

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