Characters are always an important part of any book, but they can often take a back seat to the story in a more plot-driven novel. Think about a suspenseful thriller or mystery where you become completely caught up in the twists and turns of the action – or a historical fiction where the real-life events are the main attraction. Characters certainly add depth and richness to these stories, but it is the narrative that is primary.
Character-driven novels, for me, demand a much slower pace. I want to savor them, taking time to really get to know the many facets of the character’s personality — their thoughts, hopes and dreams, their struggles, losses, failures and achievements. I’ve written about several novels in earlier blogs that developed rich, multifaceted characters. They were all books that I didn’t want to end because I didn’t want to say goodbye to the characters.
In Blog # 18, More Biblio-Books, I described that Loveday, the protagonist in Stephanie Butland’s The Lost for Words Bookshop, is a bookstore clerk and childhood trauma survivor who pays homage to her favorite novels by having their first lines tattooed on her body. She has withdrawn from the world into books to keep herself safe from the risks inherent in relationships, a dilemma she confronts throughout the course of the book. Loveday was a wonderful, endearing protagonist and the story was heartwarming, poignant, and enjoyable.
In Blog # 21, Psychologically Minded, I talked about Gail Honeyman’s protagonist in Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. A self-described “nutter,” Eleanor states that she is “…happiest in the background being left to my own devices,” and that “Asking for help was anathema to me.” But then an unlikely and compassionate friendship changes everything for her. Honeyman is masterful in unraveling Eleanor’s past trauma in a way that is both reassuring and surprising right to the end. This was a wonderful, uplifting read — laugh out loud funny at times, poignant at others. I came to love Eleanor and hated to say goodbye. This is one of those books I know will read again in the future – simply to “visit” with Eleanor again!
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin was another book I found hard to leave behind. An independent bookstore owner, A. J., has become depressed and cantankerous since his wife died two years prior. Everything he has valued and lived for now seems lost. But then a wonderful cast of secondary characters, including a baby that is abandoned at his bookshop, incite and support a transformation in both A. J. and his bookstore.
Another book with a similar plot is The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg. Also a widower, Arthur visits his wife daily at the local cemetery. On one such occasion, he meets and befriends a trouble teen, Maddy. As their friendship develops and Maddy experiences Arthur’s kindness to her and devotion to his deceased wife, she gives him the nickname, Truluv. I can’t imagine a more perfect nickname for this wonderful character. A quote from the book sums up Arthur’s nature for me: “Arthur thinks that, above all, aging means the abandonment of criticism and the taking on of compassionate acceptance.”
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, is another late-in-life reckoning. Harold Fry sets out to mail a letter to a woman from his past who is dying, but then decides he must deliver it in person. So he just keeps on walking, completely unprepared for the 600 mile journey, and leaves his wife uninformed of his plan. He understandably encounters many difficulties and obstacles, but also experiences a flood of memories and insights about his life. A story of loss, regret, and transformation.
Do you have a favorite literary character? Has there been a character who was difficult for you to say goodbye to when you finished a book?