Discussion: What’s The Most Important Part of a Book?

I’m taking a class this semester on reader’s advisory, which is exactly what it sounds like: chatting with a library patron about what they’re looking for, what books they’ve liked and disliked, and then offering them some suggestions based on what’s available in the library’s collection.

According to reader’s advisory expert Nancy Pearl (the only librarian to have an action figure made in her image) there are four storytelling “styles” in every book: plot, character, language, and setting. Pearl theorizes that while readers will hem and haw and say that they can’t possibly choose just one, their reading choices show that individuals tend to show a strong preference for one of these “styles” over the others.

So now I’m wondering, what’s the most important part of a book for you? Regardless of genre, regardless of topic. Do you crave a fast-paced read above all others? Are well-crafted characters an absolute must for you? Do you find yourself reaching for books with writing styles described as “lyrical” or “poetic”? Are you someone who only enjoys books that take place in fantastical, atmospheric settings?

Jess knows what I'm sayin'
Jess knows what I’m sayin’

I am, of course, one of the readers who’d rather not pick just one style. But if I examine my leisure reading very closely, one style emerges the clear victor: character. It doesn’t matter what the genre or subject is, if the characters are well written and I feel connected to them, I will love the book.

When I take stock of my favourite reads over the last few years, it isn’t a particular kind of plot pacing that I prefer, nor is it a specific style of writing or a type of setting that I prefer. Books like Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier, The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, Saga Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples, and The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch don’t have much in common on the surface. But what made me rate them all very highly – and more importantly, what kept me thinking about them long after I’d finished reading – was the characters.

Whether I related to them or experienced something new through their eyes, the protagonists and secondary characters in these novels all taught me something and made me really feel for them. For me, those are the two major requirements for a great book – and I seem to have the most success finding them when I read books with compelling characters or character-driven stories.

I’m not convinced of the usefulness of identifying a preference for one storytelling “style” over another (it feels a bit essentialist and arbitrary, what do you think?), but it’s certainly an interesting exercise in reflection. Plus I do enjoy being forced to make an impossible choice, so long as it has very low stakes!

Which is your preferred “storytelling style”: plot, character, language, or setting? Let me know in the comments!

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  • This is a tough one! I’ll have to go with plot, personally. Even in a book where every other aspect is full of unoriginal tropes, if the plot is driven forward by cliffhangers and crazy twists, then I’ll keep reading it. I’m a huge sucker for any kind of situation where a protagonist needs some wild plan to overcome impossible odds (…which is probably why I read so many fantasy/adventure novels).

  • Lisa (@TenaciousReader)

    If I had to guess, I would say character. I know I’ve read books where people complain about lack of movement in plot, etc and generally as long as I feel engaged the entire time (typically because of attachment to characters), I really don’t much care about anything else.

  • Jolien @ The Fictional Reader

    Like you, I’d guess character as well. Sometimes books can be really slow plot-wise but have amazing characters and I’ll love it. Like Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe! I loved that book, and it was mostly character-based.

    Great discussion post!

  • I don’t know, but it’s really interesting to think about. I think it depends on the book. I don’t know if I necessarily look for one of these things but if I’ve never thought about it it’s not like I can say. I’d like to think good characterisation is what I look for but god knows. I am going to sit and think about this now because this will bug me otherwise.

  • Maraia

    I completely agree! Characters are what make (or break) a book for me. If I can’t connect to a single character in any way, I’m very unlikely to enjoy the book. Some of my favorite authors write books that don’t have a ton going on plot-wise, but the wonderful characters more than make up for the lack of action.

  • Hmm, I have a tough time choosing. While every part of a story has a role to play, in general if one aspect is lacking I find I can still enjoy myself. I used to think characters are the most important to me, and to an extent that’s still mainly true – like if I can’t connect to the characters, then it’s highly likely that I won’t enjoy the book as much either. However, lately I feel that I’m getting increasingly frustrated with books that don’t provide enough world-building. It never used to be that big a deal to me, and I have no idea what changed in my reading habits…but more and more I am placing heavier importance on environmental and social context.

  • Huh, this is a really good question. My first impulse was to say character but then I’ve read books where I liked the characters a lot and nothing happened or they were too slow or badly written or whatever. I like the whole package to work. Maybe “plot” would be a better way for me to get recommendations. I think I’m every librarian’s nightmare, though, I’d probably listen to you talk for five minutes and then choose something else entirely (well, not YOU, I’d trust you any day with book recs but then I know you have excellent taste. I think it’s pretty important you trust the person who recommends books to you, so building a relationship with a librarian might be a good idea).

  • MaddalenaSpaceandSorcery

    Character, no question about it – a story can be gripping and carry you away in breathless anticipation; the writing could be beautiful and evocative; but without strong characters to carry all of the above on their shoulders, no story can hold upright on its own, in my opinion. Because it’s with *characters* that we form a sort of emotional bond when we care about them – or even hate them, why not? – and it’s through them and their journey that the story comes to life.

  • Well…everything. But characters, I need to be invested, cos if I do not care about them then why would I care for reading

  • I’m with you all the way. I think I’m the most motivated in stories by character. If I look over the books I consider my favorites the things I love the most and remember best about them are certain characters.

  • Greg Hill

    This is thought provoking, and I’m not really sure. I do like characters and character driven stories, but sometime plot is important too , and setting. I would have a hard time deciding but probably characters if i had to. Then again I’ve enjoyed books where maybe the characters weren’t super likable but I loved the story overall. Maybe that just means the characters were strong or done well even if not likable. Great topic!

  • Yay, impossible choices! 😉
    I do love it when there’s just something about the language that pulls you in. Like W. Somerset Maugham just always does that to me.
    But I think I’d still go with you and say the characters are the most important one… maybe. I mean, the characters are what the rest of the book depends on, right? The plot follows the character. If there’s nothing to a character, there’s probably not much to the story. (Also yay Locke Lamora!)
    LOVE this topic. I’ll need to think on it some more 🙂

  • First of all that sounds like an awesome class! Second of all, I love Nancy Pearl. Third of all, I am with you that it’s hard to choose one of those things – when a book is strong in all four elements, it is best – but if I have to choose, character will always win. With plot coming in second. I like pretty writing but poor writing will have bigger impact on how I feel about a book (in a negative direction). I also enjoy unique and evocative settings but if that is all a book has going for it? *Yawn*

  • Oh that’s a tricky question to pick one fo those four. I think I am mostly a character person, a good character can compensate for a lot of other things in a book. Having said that if the rest of the book is very good I can still enjoy it even though I don’t care for the characters.
    I don’t quite care about lyrical writing styles, but there are some authors who’s writing style is just perfect for me and sucks me right into the story. Oh and I love a well done setting! That can definitely add a lot to the book. And without an engaging plot it’s hard to enjoy the book as well.
    I am not a fan of picking favorites, no mater what topic or subject. And I do wonder if that’s really how things work. I always review my books based on plot / writing, characters, romance and world building or setting. One of those is really bad I can still enjoy the book if the rest compensates for that, if one of those is really good it can still make me enjoy the book even if the other fall short. Picking one favorite style just seems a bit too limited, but it’s interesting to think about it!

  • Lynn Williams

    To give a very simple answer, for me, characters. All the way. If I don’t like the characters then I’m not going to invest.
    Lynn 😀