Those questions are fascinating to me, and there are almost as many answers as there are blades of grass in the world.
For me, reading is a chance to explore other "modes of life," other cultures, discover new things, new words, vicarious thrills, see how others solve problems, and most of all, explore what it is that makes a human being tick.
Unlike a lot of readers, I avoid the heart-warming, the tear-jerkers, the super-woman heroines who weigh 90 lbs but stand 5'8" tall in fancy high-heels and tailored suits. Or the fun-loving hippy-chick who lets her emotions rule her beautiful life. I seek out the books about the overweight, the irrascible, the bitter cynics, misfits, the sarcastic, geeky, uncool loners who never fit in and know they probably never will. Those who like to think logic drives them but are often surprised at how many times obscure, deep-seated needs made the decisions for them. And they weren't good decisions.
Could it be that I bond more strongly with those I perceive to be like me? (I shudder to think what that says about me.) Or those who are portrayed with qualities I'd like to emulate? Is that part of what drives a reader to select certain books, certain authors over others? It's an interesting question and may in part help us understand why certain authors reach mega-stardom and others, who may even be better writers in the same genre, simply don't find a wide audience. Are the truly popular able to tap into the psyche of the "fat middle of the bell curve" of humanity (instead of the skinny ends), creating characters and incorporating themes that speak to most people?
To a large part, that may be true. The authors who can tap into the zeitgeist will undoubtedly do well.
For me, there are definitely values, themes, and characters that draw me into their stories and cause me to buy every book I can find about them.
The Inspector Rutledge series by Charles Todd, for example. This series of mysteries is set in England, right after World War I. It's a period when a shell-shocked population saw their world change forever in fundamental ways. The war itself was traumatic, but layered on top of that were changes brought about by technology. Cars were replacing horses, for example. Civilization was shifting into high gear. It was the start of an era we would recognize as the roots of our modern times.
While the shift is undoubtedly fascinating, what really draws me is Rutledge. This is a man who I can truly respect. He's been through horrific events during the war and returned home, shell-shocked and scarred both physically and mentally. His fiancee leaves him and his life is in tatters. And yet...instead of laying about whining, he returns to the work, hoping the challenges will give him time to pull himself together and heal. He shows enormous integrity and courage, as well as the drive to work through adversity instead of just giving up. He typifies all the qualities I admire most. He is why we will forever call those men and women who lived through the first half of the 20th century, the Great Generation. No one from that period would even think of eliminating cursive writing from school because it's too difficult to teach. (Okay, I had to add that, sorry.)
In contrast, I also read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson every year, sometimes twice a year. WARNING: SPOILERS. The main character draws me in as strongly as Rutledge and in many ways, she is much like him. She is also damaged and that damage leads her inexorably to her fate. I love the understated, vicarious chills of this horror story. There is no blood, no unspeakable acts of torture. It is more subtle and in may ways more horrible because of that. It is filled with irony. Eleanor is a character we can sympathize with, and perhaps even admire. She has sacrificed her own happiness and independence by spending most of her adult life taking care of an invalid mother. Exhausted by years of coming to her mother's call, day and night, she accidentally sleeps through one, final call. The one call that turns out to be the one she should have answered, for her mother dies. Ironic. And Eleanor can never quite forgive herself for that.
Then at last, she has one opportunity to find happiness and show her independence by taking her first vacation ever. At Hill House. Where whatever forces await her recognize that buried guilt and prey upon her. Her first attempt to find happiness, to show independence, results in...well. Ironic.
In contrast to that, are the works of P. G. Wodehouse. Particularly his stories set at Blandings Castle. Blandings Castle is the seat of Lord Emsworth. I adore Lord Emsworth. Mostly because he loathes his children, his family and only wants to be left alone to fatten up his champion sow, the Empress of Blandings. He makes me wonder how many parents really feel about their children, particuarly after said children reach the ages of around 13-25. I suspect Lord Emsworth isn't the only one who'd like to see them locked away and forgotten during that period. I wouldn't have blamed my own parents one bit if they felt like that. In fact, I can't understand how they avoided doing just that when I was in my teens.
As for my own writing...I find that I can't even start a book unless I have some pretty good conflict going and can include at least one irrascible, possibly down-right mean, character and a bit of comic relief. That's why so many of my stories end up with those elements somewhere around the middle when the going gets tough and I need a laugh or two to keep going.
My themes vary, but many have elements of "being trapped" in them, like Eleanor is trapped by her noble quality, her ability to sacrifice her happiness for others, and her guilt at failing her mother at the most critical moment. In my latest mystery, A Rose Before Dying, many of the characters are trapped in a variety of ways, both internally and externally.
Sir Edward is trapped by his lameness and circumstances. Someone may be trying to implicate him in a series of murders. In his efforts to extricate himself, he traps his nephew, Charles Vance, into investigating.
Charles Vance is trapped in a murder investigation by duty, a deep sense of honor and his love for his uncle.
As a woman in the early years of the 19th century, Ariadne Wellfleet is trapped by Society and legal obligations. She's engaged to be married to a man she does not like and restricted in her abilities to alter her situation for the better. She has a rose hybridization business she loves, but if she breaks her engagement she may lose it all.
This theme of entrapment is something I enjoy exploring, so I seem to return to it time and time again.
I'll leave you with two things: a question to ponder and a brief blurb for A Rose Before Dying.
What themes and characters intrigue you--why do you read?
A Rose Before Dying.
Only Sir Edward had the motive, the opportunity, and a garden full of the identical roses sent to each victim before their death.
The first victim was Sir Edward’s ex-mistress, a woman who threw him over for a younger man. After receiving a mysterious rose, she dies while alone with Sir Edward. Then a second rose is delivered and a deadly game commences, where roses are the only clues to save the next victim.
However, Charles Vance, Earl of Castlemoor, refuses to believe his uncle, Sir Edward, could commit the murders, even when the renowned head of the Second Sons Inquiry Agency warns him there may be some truth behind the rumors. "The roses are Sir Edward’s attempt to cast suspicion elsewhere." "Misdirection." Or so the whispers say.
Convinced he can prove his uncle’s innocence, Vance enlists the aide of notable rosarian, Ariadne Wellfleet, little realizing his actions will involve the Wellfleet household in the killer’s game.
Before the week is out, another rose is delivered.