Recently, I started thinking about what my favourite literary works of fiction are. And then I started thinking about whether there are certain qualities in a book that draw me to it.
To help figure this out, I went over my bookshelves and Goodreads profile, and ended up with a list of 58 fiction books or book series that I especially enjoyed. While a book doesn’t have to belong to a particular genre for me to enjoy it – if it’s good, it’s good – I am often drawn to certain kinds of books: of those on my list, eleven were historicals, eleven were mainstream or otherwise had genres that were hard to pin down, nine were science fiction, six were fantasy and five involved vampires. Some of these are my favourite genres to write, as well: of the twelve original projects (i.e. not rewrites) I’ve completed for NaNoWriMo or Camp NaNoWriMo, five were historicals and four were fantasy. (The other three were fanfiction, a collection of short stories and a vampire-based thriller.) Maybe I should try writing science fiction for a future NaNoWriMo.
I know why historical fiction and science fiction appeal to me; I’ve simply always been interested in history and science. Fantasy is a little more tricky as I tend to only like certain fantasy books. My favourites, such as American Gods, Harry Potter and The Night Circus, tend to involve a hidden world within the more familiar one that we know: perhaps this makes things easier to grasp. I’ve often found it harder to get into a fantasy book that takes place in an entirely separate universe, such as The Name of the Wind or Assassin’s Apprentice. My favourite book series of this sort is The Gentleman Bastard Sequence: Scott Lynch focusses on his characters rather than getting bogged down in the rules of the world they inhabit, and has a knack for giving centre stage to fantastical elements that are especially engrossing, like gladiator fights with sharks.
So then I thought about just what I liked about each of the books on my list and what they might have in common. So here are the things I like most in a book (not that all my favourite books have all of these features, of course):
- Naturally, I’m drawn to a book that appeals to my interests, whether that be history, dinosaurs (e.g. Dinotopia), space travel (e.g. The Martian), autism (e.g. The Rosie Project) or just travel (e.g. The Beach).
- I like a book that teaches me something or encourages me to think, particularly those that really delve into the human mind and the thought processes behind why people do things (e.g. The Humans, War and Peace). With having Asperger’s, I can sometimes still find it hard to read other people or understand why things happen the way they do, so it’s nice when a book gives a little extra guidance.
- Linked to that, I want to have really great characters whose heads I can get into, or especially compelling dynamics between characters. Even if a character does morally reprehensible things (e.g. Perfume, Watchmen), I still find them fascinating if it’s explained in detail why they want to do it and how their thought processes are different from others. Features I like best in a character tend to be proactiveness and optimism (e.g. Mark Watney, Jacky Faber), a logical way of thinking (e.g. Jack Reacher, Sherlock Holmes) and a wry sense of humour.
- Speaking of a sense of humour, it’s a definite plus if a book can make me laugh, whether it’s primarily geared towards comedy (e.g. the Adrian Mole books) or just has funny parts mixed in (e.g. the Harry Potter books).
- I like a thrilling plot with plenty of suspense, though I don’t tend to be a fan of pure thrillers unless they’ve got something more to them – the Jack Reacher books, for instance, have their distinctive main character who’s got brains to go with his brawn and delivers no shortage of awesome moments.
- And I like inventive authors who give their books a unique style, or a detailed world that you can really picture or have fun spending time in. Easily the best thing about The Night Circus, for instance, is the quality of the pictures painted in the prose, which are so good you can practically smell the titular circus.
Here are my Top 20 favourite fiction books or book series, in alphabetical order – I can’t really put them into an order of how much I like them as it goes back and forth too much, more than my list of favourite movies does.
- American Gods by Neil Gaiman
- Anno Dracula by Kim Newman
- Dinotopia by James Gurney
- It by Stephen King
- Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
- Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer
- Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
- The Bloody Jack Adventures by L.A. Meyer
- The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
- The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
- The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
- The Martian by Andy Weir
- The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
- The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend
- The Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle
- The Stand by Stephen King
- The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
- Watchmen by Alan Moore
- Watership Down by Richard Adams
Is there anything that you particularly like to see in a fiction book? Let me know in the comments!