Many stories seem to want to do more than tell an exciting story. For lack of a better phrase, they "have something to say"--above characters and plots they want to make a point about something. Sometimes they have points to make about human relationships and human nature. Others have a moral to the story, like "Crime Doesn't Pay." And still others incorporate a social commentary into the story.

I am interested in everyone's take on this. How important do you consider these elements? Do you like them?

When reading, do such things distract you, or do they add to the story? What are some common and uncommon themes that you've read?

When writing, how conspicuous do you make them? How conscious are you of their part in your writing?

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I love anything with something to say, either be it about society or human relationships or a situation into which the story is placed. Not desperately interested in moral lecturing - unless the moral is subtle or demonstrated and I'm allowed to draw my own conclusions. I'm pathologically allergic to being preached to.

That sort of sub-text or illumination is more and more what I'm seeking in my reading these days.
What authors are you drawn to, so far?

From the W.R. Burnett I've read so far Fate and Crime Doesn't Pay go hand in hand, and the characters are all real people (I dislike characters that are two-dimensional so as to prove a point).
I guess authors who are saying something that I can hear would include Louise Welsh, Karin Alvtegen, Karin Fossum, Sjowall & Wahloo, Jo Nesbo, Fred Vargas, Adrian Hyland, Friedrich Glauser, Jan Costin Wagner...

And now that I've typed that list and I'm about to click on add your reply I bet I think of a dozen others.
I think all good books have something important to say about human nature. For me, the characters are all important and the book has to show how they deal with the circumstances they get themselves in, or are thrust into. Social commentary is great - again, books should reflect the society in which they are set. However, what I definitely DON'T like is A Book With A Message. I tend to steer clear of books with a message which appear just to have been written to get that message across. Fine, if there is an underlying message or theme, then that's great. I just don't want to be whopped over the head with a bloody great stick that says "feminism" or "the plight of the Mexican donkey (that one's for Vincent :o) ) or "I wrote this book because I learnt an awful lot about GM Foods and it's really scary". If it takes over everything else then it doesn't work for me, no matter how well meaning it is - even if I agree with that message I don't want to be lectured.Shallow? Moi? Probably. I DO like books that make me think about things. But for me it's all about the characters. For example, Barbara Seranella's Munch Mancini struggles to get her life on track after years of physical, mental and substance abuse. There's a message in there, but it's not written on a big sign and brought out every five pages.

It all comes down to anything which takes me out of the story making the book a less than perfect read.
How well do you like characters to be defined? By the end of The Maltese Falcon Sam Spade has wrestled with his moral code and decides to hand Brigid O'Shaughnessy to the police. There is still some ambiguity about the character, however. We know the outcome of his struggle but we don't know the process by which he comes to it, or even if his stated reasons are the real reasons.
It's maddening not to know for sure, on one hand, but it will also keep me thinking and analyzing it for years to come!
This is a real issue in my writing group. One member likes everything spelled out, every motivation must be shown, the seeds sown. Others like ambiguity, to figure out why the character is doing something with only faint hints. Oh, to write for just one audience. Yes, writing a character that resonates for the ages is so rewarding but rarely done. We remember the plots, the settings more than the characters in the average book. Ken Bruen is a good exception.
What side of the issue do you fall on, or are you split in some way?
I just read To Have and to Hold. The character's actions speak loudly, and there's still just enough left untold to keep me guessing. Great story and thanks for the reference!
It does depend on the author's skill. Especially in making ambiguity work. The spelled out ending is probaby easier if not often as artful.
To Have and To Hold? The Jane Green novel? Or something the movie with HB and LB was based on?
Sorry for the vagueness. I meant the short by Ken Bruen here.
Oh, what collection is it in?
Spring 2006, Borderland Noir, I think.
I like ambiguity (after all, that's what real life is like) - but what the characters do has to fit in with what we DO know of them. Eddie Muller's Billy Nichols is a wonderfully ambiguous character. He's not always honest, not even to himself. The reader knows enough about him, but that bit that you don't know makes him exciting, intriguing and edgy. I like to be kept on my toes :o) I don't need to know everything about a character - I just need to know enough to care about what happens to them (not necessarily LIKE them, but want to follow their story).

I'm just reading a really annoying book that's outside my normal dark and twisted fare. It has one of those annoying females who is of the type to go down into the cellar at midnight after receiving a call from the killer "Come alone, don't tell anyone, and don't bring a gun." She's so predictable, I know everything about her, and I want to strangle her. However, she STILL does little things that are totally out of character - just to help the plot along. So, even knowing everything about a character doesn't mean that I always understand their motivations.

Patricia said we remember plot and setting - not me - it's the characters first and foremost for me. If I read the first in a series where the plot is just 'eh' but the characters intrigue me and I enjoy reading about them, then I'm likely to pickup the second in the series. If the characters are 'eh' but the plot is the most exciting I've ever read, then I possibly won't pick up the second.


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