The term “novel” encompasses so much territory that it seems silly to talk about them as a whole. Everything from Anna Karenina to the Twilight series falls in that category. Nevertheless, I’m going to try to explain what kinds of features that I enjoy in a novel and why I like them. Obviously, these are just my preferences. I don’t expect everyone to agree.
According to Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams, “Movies and books form a mental structure in your head of what is possible and what is not. But these are artificial structures based on the rules of fiction. They do not necessarily represent what is practical or possible in the real world.” By this, he means that the principles of cause and effect work differently in fiction than in real life. If, say, someone in a movie punches a jerk in the face in the middle of school, and everyone respects him for it, you might get the wrong idea about what would actually happen in real life. Probably something closer to a long term suspension. He’s saying that if you read a lot of fiction, you might start to confuse reality and fantasy, resulting in some mistaken impressions of how the world really works. That’s one reason why I like books that have good internal consistency.
This means that everything that happens in the book makes sense in its world, even if it doesn’t in our world. An example of this is the Inheritance Cycle, by Christopher Paolini. That series of four books, beginning with Eragon, takes place in a world of magic entirely unlike our own. However, every difference that exists is a logical extension of the world that Paolini has created. Magic has its own strict rules that cannot be broken, just like our own laws of physics, characters never betray their own personalities just for the sake of the plot, and everything fits together well. This means that when I read Eragon, I never confuse it with reality. I can fully immerse myself in its world, accepting the internal logic of the story, and when I stop reading, it is immediately obvious that I have stopped reading and have reentered reality.
Another feature of a novel that I will enjoy is a funny and engaging first-person narrator. There are lots of great novels written in the third person. But I honestly prefer a book to be written in the first person. This really allows me to connect with the protagonist in a way that is difficult to achieve any other way. An example of a novel that does this really well is the Bartimaeus trilogy. It actually only half in first person. Half of the chapters are narrated in first person by the titular character, the Djinni (genie) known as Bartimaeus. These chapters were the reason that I reread the trilogy twice. By the end of the first book, The Amulet of Samarkand, Bartimaeus seemed like a close friend. For a character-driven novel, the first-person narrator is unbeatable. Novels like the Harry Potter series do well with an omniscient third person narrator, but it has an epic plot and incredibly detailed setting to carry it. For me, that level of connection is rare without a first person narrator.
Finally, I look for a book where the characters are happy for at least some of the novel. I think there’s a conception that a book isn’t “literature” if it isn’t depressing. I don’t know about that, but I do know that’s it’s no fun (at least for me) to read a depressing book. On the other hand, you don’t want a book where everything is cake for the characters either. I like it when the characters face adversity with good humor and positivity. An example of this is the book Out Standing In My Field. This is definitely a book for younger readers; the protagonist is eleven or so. But when I was younger, I read that book many, many times. I believe the author, Patrick Jennings, said that “his only weapon was gallows humor.” Meaning, he is overwhelmed by his situation, but he responds with humor and does not succumb to moping or frustrated anger.
That, after all, is the most important lesson that you can learn from books: no matter the logic of the situation, or the actions of everyone and everything around you, the one thing that you can always control is your attitude. And that’s true no matter what universe, fictional or real, that you venture into.