Friday, July 22, 2016

What Makes a Novel Memorable?

There are books we remember and books we forget. Sometimes we may forget most of the book but remember a character or a setting we found particularly appealing. Every writer hopes her novel or short story will be memorable. What, then, makes a reader always remember a book?
 Great characters. Atticus? Scout? They live in our memory long after the story has faded. Madam Bovary? Han Solo? Hannibal Lecter?  Memorable characters don’t always have to be good, but they have to capture our imagination. Every writer would like to know how to create characters so memorable they can’t be forgotten. I am thinking of Lolita and Humbert Humbert.  The reader won’t forget those two. It helps if a character is somehow unique. Think of Natasha and Pierre in War and Peace. Pierre is not your everyday hero.  War and Peace
I hope I have set you to thinking.

What else makes a book memorable? An intriguing setting will do that, be it Middle Earth or Tony Hillerman’s New Mexico. Empty spaces in the barren desert, but oh, how he makes us remember them. We remember Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, too. Do you remember each story? Maybe not so much, but you recall the characters and the setting.  Tony Hillerman

My friend and fellow writer Ray Daniel has a mystery series set in Boston. Ray is a native and he knows the area well and his descriptions are spot on. Be brings you to Boston. His character, Tucker is also memorable because he’s a little odd. He’s a techy, but sometimes he’s not very smart and he is likely to break into tears in the course of a book. The combination of Tucker and Boston are pretty much irresistible. Ray Daniel

 Which brings me to Voice. Tucker has a memorable voice, and we do remember voices in books. Think of Scarlet O’Hara. She had it in spades. Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone does, too. If someone ripped the cover off these books, you could still recognize the voices. The thing about voice is, it’s hard to teach.  You either have it or you don’t.

The last thing that makes a novel memorable is, of course, the story, and many writing teachers will tell you a good story trumps everything, but I disagree. Naturally there has to be a story, and we hope it will be good, but the best plot won’t be memorable with cardboard characters, generic settings and a blah voice. 

Writers work hard to bring you their best efforts. What books do you particularly remember? One of my favorites is the Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. Each book is narrated by a different character, all unique.  The city, Alexandria, comes alive. You can see it, feel it, small it, and immerse yourself into it. The stories have intrigue and politics and love affairs with quite a few surprises, but it is the characters and the setting and the characters’ voices that last in memory.

 The Alexandria Quartet

Here are some great bloggers with good ideas about what makes a memorable novel. 


  1. I agree, hadn't thought about voice, but what you say is true. Thanks for the links to the authors/stories you mention!

  2. Judith,

    I didn't even think of Voice! That's a good one. I've read books where, if they didn't add "So-and-So said" you would have no idea who was speaking because everybody sounds the same. Fun and informative post. :)

  3. Voice is central to a lot of memorable writing. Think Stephanie Plum and Lee Child. It's just another element in a writer's toolbox.

  4. I also missed voice and it's so true. Voice adds an extra layer. And you reminded me of a few books I hadn't read - yet.


  5. Yes, voice is so important. When I taught writing and students asked me what voice was, I asked them to think of their favorite guitarist or drummer. The likes of Clapton or Hendrix cannot be mistaken, nor drummers like Ginger Baker or Sandy Nelson. You'll hear a music track and you'll know it's them, and that's the same with voice, you'll recognize the author as soon as you start reading.

  6. I agree. Writers must avoid laryngitis.

    You've chosen some excellent examples. But I particularly agree with your saying that personal knowledge (e.g., of Boston) leads to vivid, and therefore memorable writing.

  7. Great post, Judith! I was going to mention Natasha and Pierre - and Count Bolkonski - in my own post. That story really sticks in my mind and certain parts of it still move me to tears today.

  8. Judith, great post! Yes, voice is so important.


Your comments are always welcome!