5 Good Examples of Character-driven Novels

My third novel, Perigee Moon, is done! That is to say, it’s written and mostly edited. I find I edit and edit some more and edit a little more. Then I let it sit around for a while, reread it and edit it once again. I’m at the point where I’ll “edit a little more” then leave it alone. Put it on the backburner for a week or two.

I have the critique of my first reader, my very good friend, who pronounced it “a very good book”. My friend said “I think you’ve got something here.” My friend didn’t like Second Stories but did like Whatever Happened to Lily? and says this is my best work so far.

I like your writing, my friend said, it’s very polished and I like your style. But nothing happens in your books. I keep waiting for the payoff, and it doesn’t come, or if it does come, it comes much later than I would have hoped. And then my friend said that the humor works well and that parts of it are, in fact, pretty funny.

Happy though I was with the news, that the first person likes it enough to say this, I was disconcerted about the “nothing happens” part. My books are more about characters, developing them such that the reader comes to really understand them, which is “character-driven” as opposed to “plot-driven”. This might be the problem. My friend is more of a plot-driven aficionado, who wants action.

In thinking about some of the books I had read in the past and whether they are character-driven or plot-driven, to the last, they are all about the characters, how they evolve, how they think and make decisions and change as time goes on.

In novels that are plot-driven, action takes priority and the characters are there to have things happen to them in order to advance the plot. In a character-driven novel, it’s all about the people, and what they think and how they interact with each other, with the emphasis on emotion and reflection and what happens to them, the action, is there to advance the development of the character.

Occasionally, it’s both. A good plot-driven novel that has characters you care about is likely to be a winner.

Here are five excellent character-driven novels. There are many more but these are a sampling of what I consider to be some of the best:

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler – All of Ms. Tyler’s novels are character-driven. Stuff happens to them but sometimes not much, and the reader gets the impression that the stuff that happens only contributes to how the character will react to it. This is a bit darker than some of her novels, but I thought the characters were diverse and interesting and quirky. Some are not likable at all, in fact most of them have things about them not to like, except for one, a guy who is the solid steady one, who just wants a family and a normal life. He is lovable and kind and you find yourself rooting for him. Unforgettable book, but like I said, dark.

Say When by Elizabeth Berg – I was hooked from the first page. The story of a divorce, and in first person POV as the man, Griffin, who is such a wonderful character it doesn’t matter whether the plot is good or not. In fact, the plot wasn’t not too believable (at least in my opinion), but a great character study of a guy who wants a normal life, a family, and comes to wonder if he is a bit too boring. I like stories about regular people because what we find is that while each one of us might be “regular” we still are all different. Ms. Berg does a really good job of thinking like a guy. She is a consummate women’s fiction author. She doesn’t write romance, or include a lot of sex, but covers topics which are interesting to women, or anyone for that matter. Stories about families, and problems, and breast cancer, and friendship. And in Griffin’s case, how he comes to know himself better because someone he cares about no longer wants him in her life.

Endless Love by Scott Spencer – This dark love story leans towards obsession rather than love. It is deep, emotional and depressing at times. I guess an apt description would be that it is complex. The longest sex scene probably ever written is in this book and it is as explicit as erotica, so be warned about that. It seems a bit superfluous in its detail. The reader gets to feel David’s love and obsession, as well as his eventual loss and wants so much for it to end well. David simply can’t get over Jade. He can’t let go, it wouldn’t be possible and the reader feels his misery. The last lines of this novel are some of the best I’ve ever read. There was a movie made of this book. Don’t bother, it was cheesy. It’s not possible to capture the emotion in film that is in this story, in my opinion, because it is internal to David. It isn’t anything he talks about or can tell anyone, it just is.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – The consummate character-driven novel. It’s 400+ pages of pure joy of reading, about the funniest dysfunctional family on earth, yet they are all kind of believable somehow. Enid, the semi-crazy, ditzy housewife and Alfred, the stoic, male patriarch who is now in failing health, so the tables appear to be turning as to who is in charge, and neither Alfred nor Enid is completely comfortable with that. Their three grown children Gary, Chip and Denise are all delightfully screwed up in their own ways. My favorite was Gary, who’s wife was a control freak, and it was maybe the best example of “Show – Don’t Tell” I’ve ever read. There is a lot that can be learned by studying Gary and his familial situation. The underlying theme is Enid’s hope there can be one last Christmas in the old homestead with everyone in attendance, and a lot of the action is in the backstories of the characters. It was very funny to me, but a lot of people don’t seem to care for Franzen’s particular style of humor. Probably the best example of character-driven fiction in the www (Whole Wide World).

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry – If you like stories about the Indian culture, this is for you. And if you don’t know whether you’d like stories about the Indian culture, try it. It’s a great character-driven novel and educational as to what life in India is (or was a few decades ago) really like. If you don’t know much about India, you will when you’ve finished this novel because there’s a bit of Indian culture on every page. Be forewarned that some of the back story of two of the characters is quite brutal. It’s the story of a woman, widowed unexpectedly, who strives to make it in a country where women are of little value, and three men whom she employs to work in her home-based dressmaking business. They come to really care about each other in the years they were together (not only did they work together but they lived together too), and develop a lifelong friendship. I guess it could be said that this is also a plot-driven book because there are plenty of things that happen, but the story of these four people and how they came to depend on each other was the main point of the novel.

The above five books have not been read by my friend who read Perigee Moon. My friend is a guy, who only reads non-fiction. So getting him to read this was a bit difficult, probably because he assumed he wouldn’t like it, and I assumed he wouldn’t either. But it seems he did.

9 thoughts on “5 Good Examples of Character-driven Novels

  1. “A Fine Balance” is my favorite book, so I was thrilled to see it on your list. I have never been so moved by characters or circumstances. My mother gave it to me to read, and I kept putting it off, thinking I wouldn’t enjoy it. Oh, how wrong I was!

    • A Fine Balance is one of those books which I felt grateful someone suggested I read, because I probably wouldn’t have found it on my own. What a great writer Mistry is, and I have read Family Matters too, as well as his collection of short stories. Thank you so much for commenting!

  2. I certainly agree that plot plus great characters makes for a good read. Thanks for the list. I think I read something by Elizabeth Berg, but it wasn’t the one you mention.

    I’m not sure it’s possible to completely objectify what makes a good book. When all is said and done, there’s always a bit of magic that the author him/herself probably can

  3. I was writing the previous reply on my phone and I touched the screen in a way that made it think I was done. So, anyway…here’s the rest:

    I was saying that even the author may not know from where the words come that make a story engaging. And this is coming from an overly-analytical English teacher! (At least I’m sure that some of my students have thought that.) How a book is written is at least as important as what is written. It’s the difference between the NYTimes and the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. The same event could be covered, but in the Times, the writing is so much richer, and therefore,more pleasurable. It’s all about vocabulary, phrasing, and thoughtful allusions and analogies.

    Congratulations on finishing your 3rd novel. I am so proud of you. Remaining focussed and committed cannot be easy. I look forward to reading Perigee Moon. (Love the title!.)

    • Nancy, thanks so much for this. Although I am a bit intimidated by it. I am not an educated English major yet I feel the need to continue to express myself in these ways. I love your NY Times / Democrat & Chronicle comparison. It’s like the difference between the national news and the local news. You can always tell – one is a lot more polished than the other.

      You like the title? Yippee, because I have been insecure about it.

      • No intimidation intended. You are included when I say authors. I’ll bet you experience times when the words just gush forth, and you have no idea where they come from. Ancient authors called it the “muse.”

  4. Lynn, I’m like you. I write character driven novels. There is something about discovering the remarkable within the ordinary. Of course I have a plot but I like to take the reader through the process with the protagonist, one emotional step at a time, to the outcome.
    Your blog is wonderful. I’m heading over to your website;)
    Good seeing you again!
    Leah

    http//

Comments gratefully accepted:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s