In my personal opinion, naturally. YMMV. If this were in any way authoritative, it would have been carved in stone by a finger of flame.
But I have been pondering, of late, the sort of things I like to read and watch, and I find myself mulling over some commonalities. There seem to be four recurring characteristics that mark a piece of fiction for me as enjoyable, memorable, and (if it’s in serial form) worthy of further attention. None of these by itself is either necessary or sufficient to make a story effective, but the presence of at least two of them is usually enough to pique my curiosity, and the presence of three or four almost guarantees that I’ll become a fan.
What are these oh-so-crucial characteristics?…
1) A well-balanced ensemble cast
It’s not that a good story can’t focus on the experiences or viewpoint of a single central character, but an ensemble of characters that can play off of one another, representing varying attitudes and emotional reactions to situations, adds extra layers of depth. This is particularly important in serial fiction, such as television or comics, where a single viewpoint character—no matter how charismatic—tends to constrain story possibilities and too often leads to creative stagnation. (Witness James Bond. Witness Superman.)
Even when there’s nominally a single “star,” in many cases an ensemble evolves as a creative necessity and winds up being critical to a concept’s long-term success. Among my personal favorites, examples range over thematic territory as widely varied as M*A*S*H, WKRP in Cincinnati, The West Wing, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Lost.
2) A cumulative mythos
One of the things that’s always fascinated me about science fiction, in particular, is the potential for “worldbuilding,” but it’s not actually limited to that genre. As even a cursory glance at my site dedicated to DC Comics history will show, I enjoy sinking my teeth into the kind of rich, complex fictional reality that an author (or authors) can only build up over time. Yes, I love continuity!
Outside of comics, Lost and Buffy again spring to mind as excellent examples of thoughtful worldbuilding, as do shows like Star Trek and (even more) Babylon 5… but this is a characteristic often found in prose as well. The Sherlock Holmes canon has kept generations of fans dedicated to exploring the minutiae of the Victorian world Conan Doyle created. For Tolkien, the actual story in Lord of the Rings was merely a brief glimpse of the history he’d conceived for Middle-Earth. Elaborate worldbuilding is an essential element of many of the best works of Isaac Asimov and Larry Niven and countless other SF writers, as well as of John LeCarre’s classic “George Smiley” espionage novels. One could even look at the classics and make the same argument about, say, Jane Austen or Mark Twain or Charles Dickens: although “realistic,” still the world the characters inhabit itself often emerges as a character in the story.
Conversely, one of my main complaints about much contemporary literary fiction is that it merely assumes the world the reader (or, more accurately, the writer) lives in as the setting. It is taken for granted, its history, technology, culture, politics and more left unelaborated and unexplored.
3) Intelligent exploration of moral/philosophical questions
Surely this is what all fiction is about, right?
Sadly, that’s too seldom the case. A great many authors—including many mystery, SF, and other genre authors, for whom I make no apologies—begin and end the creative process with plot alone. Granted, a clever and coherent plot is itself an accomplishment that seems beyond some writers (especially when it comes to conclusions, where Hollywood seems to have taught the lesson that the dramatic closure of a dénoument is superfluous so long as there’s an action-packed climax), but it’s no substitute for thematic content. Sadly, this is lost on some audiences as well: it’s commonplace to run across the argument “I just want to be entertained, I don’t want to have to think,” as if the two activities could be separated.
“Good vs. evil” or “love conquers all” are not really themes, nor is anything else so simple and one-sided. To be truly memorable, truly moving, a story needs to be both emotionally and intellectually engaging. All the examples I’ve named so far manage to do this, at least at their best, most ambitious moments. They place their characters in situations that unearth and confront social inequities, personal moral shortcomings, cultural conflicts, ethical quandaries.
The modern Battlestar Galactica, while it’s godawful at worldbuilding, makes up for that with superbly thought-provoking themes—allegories of our own political turmoil. Alan Moore’s Watchmen (and to a lesser extent the film based on it) is virtually constructed out of such penetrating questions, timeless yet timely: individual vs. collective good, strict principles vs. flexibility, violence and its excesses, ends justifying means, the corruptions of power, honesty vs. subterfuge, and many more—with few clear-cut answers. The film Casablanca has left viewers arguing over its climactic scene for decades because it uses the backdrop of war, not as a source for battles like so many lesser works, but as a fulcrum on which to balance romantic love against social responsibility.
4) Irreverent humor
This may be the trickiest criterion, as it’s very much in the eye of the beholder. I’m not talking about lowbrow stuff here, the humor of bodily functions or personal embarrassment. (I can’t stand the work of the Farrelly brothers, for instance.) I’m talking about humor that pokes at cultural conventions, that challenges social mores, that’s based on ironic juxtapositions, that uses absurd situations to generate wry insights. M*A*S*H and WKRP, again, regularly did this, as does the work of TV writers like Joss Whedon (Buffy and otherwise) and Aaron Sorkin. Mark Twain was perhaps the all-time master of this. Novelist Douglas Adams had a rare talent as well, and among current writers Jasper Fforde stands out in my mind, with his inimitable, uncategorizable (and hilarious) “Thursday Next” series.
This is what I’ve arrived at so far. There may be more criteria; there may be more nuances to the ones already described; but I’m not writing a book here. I’m just thinking out loud… or in print, at least. Just scratching the surface.
Still, examining the way these factors interact offers up some valuable insight (at least to me) about what I find enjoyable, about how tastes can be classified, and arguably about what makes fiction work in general. There’s an underlying logic—it’s not merely arbitrary—that I enjoy LeCarré over, say, Tom Clancy; that I like Big Bang Theory but not 30 Rock; that I prefer Star Trek to Star Wars; that I like Lost but not CSI; indeed that I’m drawn to SF as a genre.
I’m anxious to see what comments people may have, of course.Tags: Aaron Sorkin, books, continuity, genre, humor, John LeCarré, Joss Whedon, Lost, Mark Twain, movies, Star Trek, television, Watchmen