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Why Do You Read? What Makes a Good Story? Q&A With Twelve Authors (Part Two)
What makes a great character?
What makes a great story?
Why do you read?
I asked these questions to several authors and game designers that I’m lucky enough to have met online, and their answers were eye-opening. They gave me permission to reprint their replies below, and I hope you find them as interesting as I did!
Part One is here. (we added an author since last time, hence why this one says Twelve authors)
Newton has worked as a computer programmer and a table top games designer, but now writes horror full time. He has eleven titles on Amazon, including The Horror at Hargrave Hill, The Ballad of Barnacle Bill, the upcoming novel Nestor Lynch, and an upcoming short story collection, Tales of the Macabre. Check out his SubStack too.
Why do people read horror?
We all gravitate to reading horror for different reasons, so I can’t speak for everyone. But for me, it’s the adrenaline rush of fear, the thrill of being scared in a safe, controlled environment, and the opportunity to confront and overcome one’s own fears. I find horror is a form of therapeutic entertainment that allows me to experience intense emotions in a controlled setting. I left a lucrative twenty year long career in IT after my boyfriend committed suicide and I succumbed to crippling anxiety attacks. Reading horror serves to explore and help process the emotional fallout from that, such as anxiety, panic, and fear, in a safe and constructive way.
What makes a good story?
Different people look for different things in a story. For example, I was explaining the other day that ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ is a classic horror story with moralistic undertones. I focus on writing creeping horror, which is a subgenre of horror characterised by a slow, gradual build-up of tension and unease, hopefully leading to a terrifying climax. A good creeping horror story keeps the reader on edge throughout the narrative, with subtle hints and clues leading to the inevitable, terrifying conclusion. I try to focus on well-developed characters with their own thoughts and motivations, a believable setting, a subtle moral thread, and a sense of impending doom that is palpable throughout.
Author of Literary Horror Stories
What makes a great character?
I think flaws and a degree of ugliness are often keys to great characters, so long as we still manage to empathise with them beyond their contradictions and ambiguity. Moral binaries are less useful than 'bad' characters in which we can see 'the good' and vice versa.
What makes a great story?
Great stories are likely those we return to often or at least more than once. Less-than-great storytelling can feel compulsive while reading or watching but as soon as it ends our desire for it dies. This isn't really answering the question as there's much that can make us want to return to a story, but one key thing might be that it continues to 'speak to us' as if in dialogue, because it makes us active readers as opposed to passive consumers. In this sense, maybe great stories turn reading into an art form.
Why do you read?
I wish I was a better reader than I am to be honest. One simple reason is that it makes you a better writer of course. Another benefit of reading (and of writing) as opposed to primarily visual or auditory mediums is that so much is left to the reader's imagination, which also means that textual storytelling is really only limited to the human imagination, which is a far-less burdensome than limits imposed by technology and economics for example.
Visual Novel Writer and Developer
She coaches me on writing and I generally rely on her constantly for advice. Her unannounced visual novel project is very exciting.
Well, I think it depends on what you're writing?
Because the things that make a good mystery/horror story aren't the same elements that make a cute slice-of-life comedy.
I like Otome because what I'm looming for in a story is character dynamics, I guess if I were to break it down simply
Otome games are all about relating to other people.
In Detroit: Become Human, it's about whether androids can be human, I guess so it's more about “what makes a person a person (or android),” and “what are you willing to fight for?”
But Alan Wake, for example, is more about Alan trying to figure out the strange environment and the mystery.
I like this just fine, but- I prefer stories where the character focus is the driving part of the story.
Both are good. Both make great stories.
Author of Em(erald) Dash
Garrett also founded two digital literary journals and wrote one of my favourite short stories on SubStack: Trisomy. I liked it so much I asked to interview him, and he agreed! That interview is coming soon!
It’s often very hard for me to not read like a writer. Most of the time, even if it isn’t my intent, I find myself keying in on technique and how the author is executing everything—how many balls they’re throwing into the air, how/why they’re being thrown, whether or not they’re all getting caught, etc. But I think when I’m able to let go of that and read as, well, just a reader, what’s resonating with me can often be pared down to narration. I hate to sound redundant in that (thinking of the question above), but what keeps me reading is this idea that the narrator—whoever they may be—has something that they need to show me. They’re an authority on this “ride,” and I trust that they’re getting me where I need to go in order to see what it is they have to show me.
In that way, I get to just “buckle up,” to continue exhausting the metaphor. And it’s when those defenses are down, when disbelief is suspended, that the stickiness occurs, where I read something that DOES hang with me for weeks/months. As for what sticks with me, I think oftentimes it’s the choices of a character. But they’re “earned” choices, in that it doesn’t really matter whether or not they’re choices that I agree with, disagree with, or choices that even make total sense. It’s just that I’ve been able to experience those choices alongside someone. To put on a different hat for a while, then when removed look at what has transpired and be like, “Whoa. That was pretty wild.”
Author of Excess Reality
Augustin is writing one short story per day for a hundred days, and the stories are really fun. There is a project page for this here. I find this endlessly motivating, and you should check out her SubStack to see her in action for yourself. She has finished and published more short stories in the last 26 days than I’ve finished in my entire life.
Why people read:
I think there's a huge range of reasons why people seek out stories: comfort, escapism, arousal, novelty, the potential to be challenged, the chance to experience something that is otherwise inaccessible, to see things from another point of view, and so on.
For me, what makes reading different from other mediums (TV, games, podcasts) is that it feels so much more personal. The images and ideas that a book conjures in my mind mingles with who I am as a person and my experiences. I bring myself to the story, as I am not automatically being fed all the sense-data (visuals and audio) you get from other mediums. I also think the ability to get inside a character's head is unparalleled. On TV someone's internal self can be relayed by a narrator (often clunky), or to some extent by their actions when they are alone. In written stories, the internal thoughts of a character feels utterly natural to read, even if their thoughts are utterly unlike my own.
What makes a good story
That's a far more difficult question. Some people like fast-paced thrillers, others like slow, lyrical pieces with focus on characters over plot. I'm all over the place with my taste. It's much easier to say what makes a story bad: wildly inconsistent pacing, deus ex machina, or a plot where the main characters' choices or actions are irrelevant. Even then, plenty of stories are well regarded despite falling under those categories.
What I often treasure is a plot or style that is uniquely suited to the written word. Pale Fire by Nabokov, for example: a 999 line poem by a fictional poet, alongside a foreword and commentary by his colleague. It would be impossible to translate into a film.
Besides that, I would perhaps cheekily suggest that the best stories are the ones the writer truly wants to tell - stories that don't let themselves be confined to what is currently in fashion, or is edited down to be most palatable to a certain demographic.
Editor in Chief for The Howl Society
He has also published several short stories, including The Lady of Leer Castle and Jaws, as well as novelettes such as Possess and Serve, and Our Migraine.
A great character is someone who has strong opinions, beliefs, love, and hates. Someone with a concrete goal, flaws that get them into trouble, and talents that do the same 😅
A great story has a bunch of these motherfuckers interacting, inconveniencing, loving, and hating each other.
I discuss his story, The Lady of Leer Castle, here:
What do you think of these answers?
The idea that jumped out at me most was how varied the experiences of reading can be. There isn’t a single reason why people read, or a single type of story that is ideal. Peoples tastes, and the types of experiences they seek while reading, vary widely!
Please let me know in the comments if you have your own answers to these questions!
My flu continues. I might miss a week or two of posting soon unless it lets up. But, partially, I’m also busy with worldbuilding for a story series I’d like to start on soon…
And work. Work is about to get crazy.
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