I had someone on Goodreads ask me recently if he could pick my brain a bit on what makes or breaks sci-fi/fantasy books, and just recently followed up on that to go a bit more in depth on things like world building and static characters. Because these are things I feel like I talk about a lot, and because they really can be deal-breakers, I thought I'd share my response to his questions.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this, as I think it's a good conversation to have, and it tells us a lot about ourselves as readers, and helps us pinpoint what makes a book an instant fave vs. an instant DNF.
What pulls you into a story? Is it the characters, the plot, an interesting setting? What keeps you in a story?
I'd say it's probably plot that makes me PICK UP a book (some cool concept, something I have a weakness for), but it's ALWAYS the characters and world that keep me there. Characters pull me in the most, and I'd say that's true of most people - you have to connect with them in order to connect with the story - they are your vehicle, after all. Excellent world building can keep me in a story if the characters aren't great, though only to a point, but good characters can keep me in a story, regardless of any other deficiencies. Crappy world, bland plot, but hilarious/memorable/generally awesome characters? I'm in. I'll probably even forgive a lot more than I would otherwise.
Now, that being said, characters may keep me in a story, but really good world building will excite me more than any of it. A solid, memorable world that is seamless and not "infodump-y" will have me talking about and recommending that book, for sure.
Do you prefer characters who remain the same, stubborn against the world, or ones that change and grow--and why?
I don't think that every character has to be dynamic - but if none of them are, chances are I will a)dislike the book, and b)rant about it. I talk about static and dynamic characters a lot in my reviews, and when talking about books in general. Cardboard characters are a HUGE pet peeve of mine, and it seems like laziness on the part of the author, to me (which means I inevitably respect the author less and less).
Now, I do think it needs to be a natural and believable progression - force it, and I'll hate it just as much. And occasionally, static characters can be interesting or beneficial to the story BECAUSE they don't change. There certainly is a place for it. But just like you want progression in the plot, you generally want progression in the characters.
In regards to what you mentioned about world building: How much is too much? And how much info-dump is too much?
I don't think it's even about amount, it's about concentration. World building worked throughout a story, slowly revealed as it needs to be or makes sense to be, works. It's peeling away the layers of an onion, and it doesn't make you feel that you've just been buried under onion skins or are juggling WAY too many onions, to carry the metaphor. It needs to be done judiciously, so that you're getting a full, glorious picture, but not being smacked in the face with it.
If I walked up to you and told you my life story the first time we met, you'd be like, Okay, that's nice, I'm out, and you'd never look back. But if we became friends over a period of time and you learned the exact same things about me, but in a manageable way, it's a totally different story. You develop a connection, instead of a headache.
Also if you had to choose: are you more interested in world building of the world itself or the cultures/creatures within the world?
Always, always the characters. They are your in to the world. You interpret things through them. And culture is one of the most fascinating, most memorable, most concrete things a story can have (much more so than the, um, actual concrete).The world should reflect its people, and the people their world, but without them, it becomes a bit pointless.
A very nice dress on a mannequin.
I just want to be clear: I stand by what I said that good world building will make me talk, and will make me really excited about a book, when it's spot on, but you still need the characters to get you there in the first place, or it feels a bit hollow. Characters can carry a story with unimpressive world-building, but no amount of "cool world" can save a story with bland characters you care nothing about.
For you: What makes characters hilarious/memorable/generally awesome?
Ease. No matter their "type" they need to feel authentic and not forced. There needs to be an easy realness to them.
It seems like you are dead set against static characters, and yet you have to admit that there are people in this world who will not change/refuse to change. Are you saying you don't want to see that at all in a novel, or used sparingly? Do you find that most antagonists are static? If yes: How would you suggest changing that. If no: Can you tell me who so I can check them out?
I'm not in any way dead set against static characters. There's a place for them. But static characters need to either be peripheral, or it needs to be purposeful - and almost always, it's not.
As for antagonists, I think too many are static, and that's a shame - think how much more interesting we find villains when we find out what it was that made them villainous. It's always much more fascinating to know why someone chose a certain path, and it adds an element of psychology and realism (again with that authenticity thing); complexity of character gives the reader so much more to work with (and the writer, too). There's room for debate and questions and exploration. That will always extend the shelf-life of a story, and make readers want to talk about a book. And that's a win.
Also, there have been books I love that break some of these "rules" (which are more wishes than rules): for example, Dune and Daughter of the Forest - info-dumps galore, villains lacking gray area, etc. Still good. Talent will win out, despite some of these things, but the talent HAS to be there, or these things can be dealbreakers.
So that was my answers to the questions, and my thought on what I'm going to call "World-Building vs. World-Breaking " - as I said, I'd definitely be curious to hear what you guys think on all this!