Stuff I like in fiction

(Wrote most of this in September '07, didn't post it 'til now.)

This started as an entry about what kinds of things SH is looking for that we don't see enough of. Then it became a list of things about which I'd said "I'm a sucker for X." Then it was going to be an entry about Ben R's "sources of reader pleasure" paradigm.

But in the end what it turned into is a long list of assorted things I like in fiction.

This is not a magazine wishlist. The presence of one or more of these things in a story is neither necessary nor sufficient to make me want to buy the story, and even if it were, Karen and Susan might not agree. Also, if I say "I want to see more stories of type X," and we get a hundred stories of type X that month, then we're not likely to take more than three or four of them; really, we're not likely to take more than one of them, if that. We start to lose interest when we see too many stories of a given type or in a given subgenre.

So this is just a personal list from me as a reader (rather than me as an editor per se), unlikely to be of any practical use to anyone.

Note that all of these are things I like only if they're done well (and "well" is a very subjective term). This is not a comprehensive list of things I like in stories, but it covers a lot of what I like.

I'll start with the three most important things I'm looking for in fiction:

  • Emotional identification with a character. If I get so drawn into a story that I experience the emotions that the characters are experiencing, chances are pretty good I'll like the story.
  • Evocative, vivid, compelling, poetic, entertaining, clever, and/or unusual prose style/use of language. I'm easily seduced by words. Empty wordplay isn't, by itself, generally enough to make me really love a story these days, no matter how dazzling; but skillful use of language will definitely make me like anything more.
  • Newness. Anything I've never seen done before. New ideas, new modes of expression, new societies, new scientific or technological ideas. Sense of Strange. Sense of difference/alienness. (I'm avoiding the word "novelty" because it has unintended connotations of being cheap, ephemeral, and tawdry.) Newness alone won't save a story, but it can cover for a lot of flaws. One particular aspect of this: a lot of people talk about alien-encounter stories as ways to look at aspects of humanity, but I'm much more interested in alien-encounter stories in which the aliens are as unlike humans as possible. (Though puzzle-stories as such do little or nothing for me.)

The rest of these lists are sorted kind of arbitrarily into groups to avoid having just one long list. Neither the lists nor the items within them are in any particular order.

Some tones/moods I like

  • Charm. I'm a total sucker for charm. I have often daydreamed about starting a new magazine called Charming Stories, where I could publish all the charming stories that Susan and Karen (who are big meanies) won't let me buy for SH.
  • Humor, if I find it funny.
  • Fun. Sometimes reading a story is pure fun; no deeper meaning, no angst or depth, just fun. Closely related to Charm.
  • Sadness--anywhere from melancholy to grief.
  • Hope.
  • Sense of wonder. Sadly, not a lot triggers my sense of wonder these days; good worldbuilding may be what does it most often.
  • Erotic charge.

Some character attributes I like

  • Witty, smart, and/or clever characters, and characters who are good with words.
  • Members of underrepresented groups. (Especially, but not limited to, well-portrayed queer characters.)
  • True Love--characters who really love each other.
  • Charismatic leaders.

  • Bravery and perseverance, especially against difficult odds or under terrible burdens--"I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way."
  • Honorable or noble characters, and characters with lots of personal integrity.
  • Characters who see themselves as part of a greater good. (This and the three previous items are often among the things I like about military fiction, when I like it.)
  • People comforting each other (especially if they have emotional scars).
  • Discovering that a character who we'd made stereotyped assumptions about is actually more knowledgeable/more aware/wiser/more accepting than we'd assumed.
  • Characters who are genuinely nice people.
  • Added much later, and related to a couple of the above: Moments of humanity, when (for example) one character is kind to another character in a way that emphasizes their vulnerability, their humanness; holding fast to one another as the only anchors in a harsh or chaotic world. Having a hard time articulating this one.
  • Also added much later, also related to the above: Moments of grace, when characters find a small space of peace and calm amid the maelstrom around them.
  • Sympathetic characters--not all characters have to be sympathetic, but it can be hard for me to like a story in which there are no characters I can sympathize with.
  • Protagonists who may or may not be figments of other characters' imaginations.
  • Stories where the narrator doesn't understand the implications of what's going on but the reader does--when such stories are done well, which they rarely are. [I have to clarify that I'm referring to narrators who don't have the ability to understand, a la "Flowers for Algernon," not narrators who take ten thousand words to figure out that their new acquaintance is a time traveler even though it's obvious to the reader immediately. I also have to clarify that little-kid narrators and quasi-sentient pet narrators and narrators from "primitive" societies who are faced with modern technology are also not what I'm talking about.]
  • Characters who have to sacrifice or give up something important to them.
  • Characters who've had such important or unusual or exciting things happen in their past that the author could've written another story (or book) about those past things.
  • Characters who undergo epiphanies.
  • Villains who are multifaceted, interesting, and hard to wholeheartedly hate.

Plot elements

  • Eventual (but plausible) triumph (with a cost) against difficult odds.
  • Surprise twists that work. I'm delighted by stories that are so skillfully put together that I don't see a surprise moment (whether or not it comes the end of the story) coming until it happens. That's often a concentrated version of the pleasure I get from newness, and it often happens because I'm so caught up in a character that I'm not watching for a twist. But I can't stand surprise-ending stories where I do see the surprise coming; I generally don't like twists which are the entire point of the story, because that tends to feel like a cheap manipulative trick rather than skillful construction. (There's sometimes a fine line between those two things.) One thing I like about Connie Willis's early short stories is that even though I knew there was going to be a twist, her twists still caught me by surprise, in a good way.
  • Endings in which the romantic leads don't necessarily get together romantically--I heard "Atalanta" on Free To Be You and Me too many times as a kid for it not to rub off on me.
  • The old sf trope in which the Special Person finally finds the other Special People and they can be Special together and stop being lonely. (Especially if they don't end up taking the separatist option.)
  • Stories in which we discover that the parents of the protagonists had their own related adventures before settling down. (A particular currently popular TV series provides a good example of this.)
  • Stories that put characters through hell but then give them a mostly-happy ending.
  • Characters being faced with difficult choices. (But I don't like no-win scenarios; I generally find those contrived and annoying.) Especially stories in which someone is convincingly and sympathetically driven by strong personal emotion to make the "wrong" choice (bad for society or others around them). (But "convincingly" is key; most of the time, this isn't done convincingly enough for me.)
  • Complex backstory revealed gradually. (Which isn't the same as no information for half the story, followed by an infodump.)
  • When seemingly inconsequential character decisions lead gradually and plausibly to very real consequences. As usual, "gradually and plausibly" is key for me; I hate it when (for example) a character randomly chooses to go left instead of right one day, and as a result suffers a gruesome and painful death. (Or, relatedly, when characters with incomplete information are tricked into making choices that destroy them.) To me, that ends up just feeling arbitrarily nasty on the author's part.
  • When things that seem to be dangling plot threads turn into major plot elements later, showing that the author was keeping track after all. (But this has to happen soon enough that I haven't gotten turned off and given up before the payoff.)
  • Plots in which every little piece turns out to fit together into a complex and carefully constructed whole that all comes together in the end. (Especially if the audience was being skillfully misdirected all along.) The kind of plot that, in a movie or TV episode, makes me want to go back and watch it from the start, seeing where all the bits came in that I didn't notice as they happened, seeing all the clues that we were given that I interpreted as pointing in a different direction. I suppose this is a subcategory of the surprise-twist thing.


  • Stories set in a spacefaring future--but only certain kinds of such stories. The presence of spaceships is not, in itself, nearly enough to make me like a story.
  • Stories set in some completely Different place, with no connection to the real world--not a pseudo-medieval fantasy world, just someplace Else, where things are Different. I could say "where things are Weird," but I don't mean in a goofy or silly or surreal way.
  • Stories set during a time of transition from one paradigm or set of cultural values to another, especially near-future stories set after the introduction, but before the wide acceptance, of a new technology.
  • Settings that feature lots of ultra-cool high tech stuff. Generally has to be written by someone who knows something about technology and science, to avoid the nanotech-is-magic thing. But too much detailed explanation and I get bored; it's a fine line. Stross's "Lobsters" may be my favorite example of doing this in a way that works for me.

Writing strengths

  • Authorial chutzpah: where I think, "The author can't possibly be going to do that" and then they do, and it works. Often related to skill at breaking traditional rules. Also may manifest as the author setting a ridiculously difficult challenge for a storyteller or poet within the story, and then providing the story or poem that meets the challenge. (See Stanislaw Lem/Michael Kandel; also Kelly Link.)
  • Snappy dialogue.
  • Unusual and/or solid-feeling worldbuilding.
  • Good Construction: good pacing, good structure, compelling plot, attention to continuity, lack of plot holes.
  • Closure: endings that really feel like endings.
  • Having Something to Say; richness, depth. Often involves shedding light on what it's like to be human. In some sense, trying to figure out what people are like is one of my main pastimes; I like it when fiction adds to (or, I confess, reinforces) my mental model. I think explorations of religion and belief are a subcategory of this for me.
  • Complexity. And/or Evenhandedness. An avoidance of easy dichotomies and easy answers and heavyhandedness, an awareness of multiple valid points of view.
  • Exciting action scenes.
  • In-passing phrases and terms that imply significant and interesting things about the world of the story. (Neuromancer did this brilliantly, imo, with the references to The War, and all the brand names, and so on. But it's easy to take this too far, and I know some people feel Neuromancer did.)
  • Subtlety of presentation--when an author puts something neat into the story but doesn't put it in the spotlight or call attention to it, just leaves it there for readers to discover. As long as it's not so subtle that I can't see it at all.

Specific elements

  • Use of particular technologies that I have an inordinate fondness for: airships, funiculars, personal flyers (or wings), Victorian tech made of brass, steampunk kinds of stuff in general, etc.
  • The Blue Lady. (But I'm not sure it would be possible to write a better Blue Lady story than that nonfiction news article; I always want such stories to do something more than they end up doing.)
  • House-of-memory stuff.
  • Trickster gods.
  • In-jokes that I'm in on.
  • Stories that begin in media res with amnesiac protagonists.
  • Added later: AIs.

Types of stories

  • Fairytales.
  • Reality-change and confusion-of-reality-levels stories, when done well. (But if you have a character wake up from a dream, and then wake up from that, and then wake up from that, I lose interest; I stop caring when it becomes clear that nothing we're seeing is real (for the characters).)
  • Familiar stories told from unfamiliar points of view, in a way that sheds new light on the original. (Though I see so many of these that I'm beginning to lose a little patience with them.)
  • Literalized (or semi-literalized) metaphors, as long as they work on both the literal and metaphorical levels. Perhaps especially a natural disaster as literalized metaphor for the end of someone's world.
  • Alternate worlds that are similar to the real world in some ways but in which everything has always been Different in some significant way from the real world.
  • Stories about people (metaphorically) rewriting their own stories, taking control of their lives.
  • Stories that start at the end of an epic quest and then let us glimpse the backstory.
  • Stories in which protagonist discovers their own secret past that they haven't been able to remember until now.
  • Traveler-between-universes stuff.
  • Well-done alternate history.
  • Personal-scale stories against a cosmic-scale backdrop.


  • Explorations of gender issues.
  • Issues around xenophobia, immigration, foreignness, alienness, difference.
  • Future-sexuality stuff.
  • Stories about the relationship between language and reality, and/or in which words can affect reality.
  • Explorations of identity issues.
  • Piercing the veil--characters discovering what's really going on underlying their world.
  • Added later: explorations of intelligence and/or what it means to be sentient.

Note that there are lots of things that plenty of readers like that don't do much for me, and that a lot of the above don't do much for some other readers. For example, Vast Epic Cosmic Scope is one thing that a lot of readers are looking for that rarely holds much interest for me. (I like Vast Scope as a backdrop, but usually only if there's a compelling personal-scale story in the foreground.) And Susan and Karen are much more likely to value Ambiguity in a story than I am. And Puzzle-Solving generally leaves me cold, though clearly a great many readers love it. Likewise a lot of people like to experience Visceral Fear while reading; not an emotion I have much interest in experiencing in any circumstances.

So what are some of the things y'all like in fiction?

2 Responses to “Stuff I like in fiction”

  1. Sandra Barret

    You’ve hit most of them:

    – antagonists that are more than just evil
    – stories that explore the gray area, where it’s hard to say which side is Right(TM).

    and military SF.. loves a bit of military sf 😉

  2. Chaos

    Huh. A lot of the things on this list seem like things that people who read a lot of fiction would particularly like, in that they involve playing with conventions which may be overdone. I tend to be ambivalent about references to things in fiction, not because i think they’re a bad idea but because i usually don’t get them. So it wouldn’t occur to me to put on my list things which are effectively “references” to genre conventions. But i do think they’re neat when i actually recognize them as such.


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