Consider this: No book has ever been universally loved. Nada. Zilch. Whatever title you bring to the table, if you spend time looking, you will find a few mehs in the room. (If the room holds all of humankind, that is.)
Universally hated? We might come up with something, if we tried to make it so. Even then, statistically, someone somewhere might claim to like it just to be artsy or contrary.
Classic literature, often favored by critics (and me), still inspires yawns in many everyday readers. Those same critiques often scoff at today’s popular books and films. Yet, they are popular. And yes, this is a bit of an oversimplification. There are exceptions, but those exceptions spawn from individuality, and individuality is why we won’t find anything universally loved by all of humankind. (Go ahead—try to find one.)
Yet, how easy is it to find some blog, book or forums post claiming to tell you what good writing is. Or, how many story structures were born from supposedly analyzing thousands of “good stories” without ever analyzing what the word “good” means?
Some will say it’s purely subjective. Many will say it, in fact. Yet, there are some measures of quality involved in the craft of creating and telling a story, and we shouldn’t forget popularity either. We can’t. Does a fantastic sales-record—often driven by clever marketing—indicate that a book or film is good? If so, then a poor sales record would indicate a book is bad. Yet, both will have admirers and haters.
Thus, the problem, I think, is one of category and definition. Or lack thereof.
Aside from execution and technique, here are the over-arching categories of good that I see:
Reading the list, you might realize that many of the examples could fit into several categories. Disney’s Up is entertaining as well as emotional, and offers a little in the way of interesting ideas too.
In fact, my belief is that a good deal of strength can be found in a story that scores high in several of those categories. Frank Herbert’s Dune, for example, is quite fun with its giant worms and adventure. There is a healthy dose of emotional punch too. And it’s not short on philosophy or cool ideas, either. No wonder it was among the bestselling science-fiction books of all time.
By strength (yeah, I avoided “good” there), I mean all-aroundness—potential to be enjoyed by critics, consumed by readers, and general just be appreciated by more than just a handful of friends and family. It gives it a greater chance to appeal to an individual reader. (Again, this is putting execution and technique to the side for a moment.)
So, I say, good fiction doesn’t exist, despite our constant struggles to create it and understand it. Instead, I think we gain quite a bit of traction by discarding the word and understanding general categories of what might make up good fiction.
Now, of course, taste matters. And this is where it becomes subjective. The philosophy of Dune might escape some, and might be rather light to others. Similarly, I like survival stories, but other readers like dragons or vampires or zombies or weirdness or a certain kind of narrator. Big huge etcetera. We all have our own preferences, both in subject and in category. Some just want a good time. Some crave an emotional experience, and others are interested in ideas.
That is where writers need to not only write what they know, but write what they enjoy and want to read. If you have zero tolerance for philosophy and no stomach for emotion, then you’d probably well advised to skip those in your story and focus on a roaring good time and cool ideas instead. You’ll have an audience, you glorious heartless monster you.
I wrote recently about how some writers don't understand Superman's true weaknesses, but I think there is another flaw in the Superman mythos—just not in the traditional sense. The flaw is in his villains. Who do we have: beings like Lex Luthor, Metallo, Zod, Darkseid, Brainiac and Bizarro?
While some act as a mirror to the hero—and villains work best as mirrors and foils—they do so in comical ways. Their motivations are greed, hate, revenge and a lust for power and control. Who cares. They even go after Superman in less-than-creative ways.
(Side-note: perhaps the single exception is Mr. Mxyzptlk, who began with cartoonish designs on conquering the world merely because of a whim. Those devolved into just tormenting Superman for fun. But Alan Moore changed that with the Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Storyline. Here, a childish naiveté has him experimenting with a spectrum of moralities until he lands on nightmarish evil, which manifests in truly interesting ways. )
Batman, on the other hand, has a more interesting gallery of villains to explore: Joker, Two-Face, The Penguin, The Riddler, Hush, Scarecrow, and Bane. These guys explore humanity and Batman through their very existence. Many of them exhibit stories of self-inflicted tragedy-turned-insanity, and offer interesting studies into the dark side of humanity. There are arguments that few of them have the kind of clinical insanity that would qualify for a legal defense, but they glow with a rainbow of psychosis, obsessive compulsions, and dissociative identity disorder. (Two-Face rarely switches personality, but he is obsessive about letting a coin make decisions between good and evil—at times, he slips into a truly dissociative state. The Riddler struggles to not leave a riddle, but he cannot, even though he knows it always turns self-defeating.) And all of these typically call back to some tragedy.
Of themselves, they can be mildly interesting, but the real interest is what they say about the Dark Knight himself. There are moments where Batman notes the similarity between himself and his villains. Batman is loaded with psychological questions about PTSD, obsession and delusion. He has noted that he didn't become Batman because of his parent's murders, but that the event shaped him into the hero rather than yet-another Gotham villain—but the seeds of crazy were there simply because that is what Gotham does to people. Deep down, everyone there is crazy. Arkham Asylum is just a magnifying glass for what the city itself offers. And some writers have even suggested that Metropolis and Gotham are just caricatures of New York City's awe-inspiring and ugly sides—so even the settings reflect the characters.
Where Superman is a boy scout whose villains press him to find creative ways to avoid moral gray areas, they are often flat cutout characters like the Man of Steel himself. Batman is a traumatized, obsessive-compulsive anti-hero whose villains reflect his obsessive, delusional, dark path.
I watch stories, not movies (and that, rarely); nevertheless, I looked forward to American Hustle not for it's story but because of actors and a director I respect, plus it has over 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is usually a promising factor.
And while the movie was technically well done all around, I could not enjoy it for a basic story-level reason: a general lack of characters to care about.
Other than Jeremy Renner's character, there are no heroes in the movie—I don't mean a classic hero, but someone to care for, someone trying to do something good or respectable. I noted a few surface-level good intention, always masking some deeper narcissism or corruption.
It's interesting to note how even an unlikable character like Sherlock can draw us in so long as we believe they have nobility and loyalty to their friends. Contrast that with Walter White of Breaking Bad—an overall likable character for several seasons who ultimately loses the viewers respect when he finally admits he did it all for the power, not for his family as he had claimed all along.
(Now, I will note a little redemption when a few of the characters changed their ways in the end, but the movie had built up so much apathy in me, that the ending was dulled by that point. The movie did try to show them progressing towards this end, but it failed in a too-little sense.)
So a technically brilliant and well acted movie with otherwise strong story elements and top notch story construction can leave a viewer apathetic simply because there was no one to care for? Absolutely.
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.