“It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it.”- Oscar Wilde
I have committed to reading for 15 minutes every day. No, really. I would love to read more, but life just doesn't seem to support that right now. So, 15 minutes it is. That I'm actually multi-tasking during that time is beside the point....
So, that said--knowing I have only 15 minutes to read changes things a bit. I've always been a tough sell on books, but now I'm even tougher. If I'm not enjoying a work, I drop it to find one I will enjoy.
Take, ferinstance, my recent experience. Somebody recommended Hominids, by Robert Sawyer, to me as a good read. The book won the Hugo in 2003, so it couldn't be bad, right? And it wasn't. It just--well, it wasn't good. I know, it's sacrilege to say that a Hugo Award winner isn't good, but it really didn't trip my triggers. No zing for me. I stuck with it to about 1/4 of the way in, hoping I'd learn something about the characters that would endear them to me, but by then I figured I'd given Sawyer long enough.
It's tough, incidentally, for a reader--me, specifically--to get into characters emotionally when the characters are foreign. That's why I haven't even tried with Matt and Sorscha in my books. They're there, certainly, but they're treated as the cement blocks upon which the more engaging characters' stories are based. Sawyer runs into this problem. His main character is a Neanderthal guy from a--well, a different place. He talks different. He thinks different. He's a physicist, but none of that really comes out. I can't even remember his name; the only reason I remember that he's a physicist is that it's a major plot point that he's constructing a quantum computer. I vaguely recall something about him losing a loved one, but it was so foreign that I didn't get it. I didn't care enough to continue.
Don't get me wrong--there's nothing I see all that bad about the book. In fact, I even feel strange saying I didn't like a Hugo winner. On the other hand, I looked over the Amazon reviews before posting this commentary, and it seems I'm not the only one. While every book ever published gets some 1-star and 2-star reviews, Hominids has 15-20% of its reviews in each category. Some of the comments: "two-dimensional characters" *ahem* and even "embarrassment to the Hugo" *ouch*. I guess there were, in fact, people who liked it even less than did I.
It does have an interesting overarching sociological commentary running through it, I saw in the short part of the book I read and through the reviews on Amazon.com. In fact, that seems to be what turned off many of the readers. It's one thing--and an important thing, at that--for a sci fi novel to leave you questioning life, the universe, and perhaps even everything. It's quite another for it to bludgeon the reader over the head with a statement. Some people apparently felt that Hominids was guilty of the second activity. I dunno; I didn't get far enough into it.
Bottom line--characterization is important. If a reader doesn't find a reason to care about the characters you've written, there's a chance he won't find a reason to finish your book either.