As writers, we pen the story that’s in our hearts, but it’s equally important to gauge what readers, those for whom we send our words out into the world, enjoy when they immerse themselves in a book. This begs the question, what is it readers want in a story? Recently I asked author and fellow blogger Pauline M. Ross to weigh in on the matter:

Anela asked me an interesting question: What elements of a sci-fi or fantasy story make for a compelling read for me?

Now, everyone will have their own answers to a question like that. For some, it will be the technology in sci-fi, or the all-guns-blazing space battle that draws them the most. For others, it might be that little hint of magic or the paranormal that pulls them into the story world. Or maybe it’s the epic fight between good and evil. For others it might be the connection to our real world that’s most important, an anchor for the flights of fantasy. We all have our own preferences.

But for me, it’s these factors:

1) A well-conceived setting with an intriguing magic system or technology.

This means, to me, something a little bit different. There are good reasons for basing fantasy in a vaguely medieval world, and sci-fi in some near-earth setting. They’re familiar, and readers can get into the nuts and bolts of the story quickly. But I love a story which surprises me, and that means a few little quirks here and there. They don’t need to be explained – a simple reference to an unusual religion, or an oddball animal or plant is enough to to give me that little frisson that says: we’re not in Kansas any more.

2) Some great characters who behave in a believable way.

This is a hard one to describe, because we all have our own threshold of realism. It’s most obvious, perhaps, in that cliche of horror movies: the heroine is alone in the house, when she hears strange noises in the basement. The lights are out but maybe she’ll just have a quick look…Well, no. It’s just not a sensible course of action, in most cases. Unless she’s a mage or a badass warrior, perhaps. So I like characters who don’t go looking for trouble or taking crazy risks or giving up everything to follow the love of their life (that they met three minutes ago).

3) A plot that’s driven more by the background and characters than the need for relentless action.

Obviously, in fantasy or sci-fi there’s usually some action, but I like the quieter, more introspective moments, too. A time for the characters to get their breath back before the next attack by the Flesh-Dissolving Mushrooms (or whatever). And this is also a time to get to know the characters better, too, so that they’re more than just masterful swords-people.

And finally…

4) A strong, satisfying romance.

Now, I realize this is optional. For many readers, fantasy and science fiction are about
setting and humongous world-shaking events, and shouldn’t have anything to do with love. But I like a little light romance in my fantasy, to add spice to the mix, just as I like some mystery and suspense and a touch of action/thriller, too. It should never dominate the story, to the extent that the characters start behaving wildly implausibly because of it, but it does serve as a pleasant counterweight to the scenes of high drama. So, how to wind down after that wild battle with the orcs? A bit of a kiss and a cuddle is just the ticket.

You might think that’s a tall order. Are there any books which satisfy all these criteria? Of course! Andrea K Host and Kyra Halland have both written a number of character-driven books with interesting settings and a side helping of romance. Host’s Medair duology has a surprise in every chapter, and Halland’s Daughter of the Wildings
series introduces magic into a western setting, to spectacular effect.

Newer authors on the scene who’ve caught my eye include S E Robertson (The Healers’ Road can only be described as literary fantasy), and for urban fantasy fans, Marina Finlayson’s Twiceborn puts werewolves and dragons in an Australian setting. For sci-fi fans, there’s Patty Jansen.

Naturally, I try to meet these conditions in my own writing, too. My plots are far more driven by the characters than by relentless orc battles (hint: there are no orcs). In my first book, The Plains of Kallanash, the heroine sleeps through a major confrontation (she has an excuse – she’s unconscious!). In the second, The Fire Mages, the heroine is sent travelling while a political upheaval is going on. The focus is always on the small, the personal, the intimate.

So skip the big battles. I’d far rather read (and write) about families and children and lovers and friends, and the minutiae of their lives. With just a sprinkle of magic, naturally.

About Pauline M. Ross: I live in the beautiful Highlands of Scotland with my husband, my grown up daughter and a mad cat. I like chocolate, whisky, my Kindle, massed pipe bands, long leisurely lunches, watching TV with my daughter, chocolate, going places in my campervan, eating pizza in Italy, summer nights that never get dark, wood fires in winter, chocolate, the view from the study window looking out over the Moray Firth and the Black Isle to the mountains beyond. And chocolate. I dislike driving on motorways, cooking, shopping, hospitals.

Pauline maintains her own author website and blog at The Brightmoon Annals and is also part of a blog collective at Fantasy Review Barn