One of my favorite parts of being a librarian is reader’s advisory, or recommending books (or other media) to patrons. And one of my favorite parts of being a writer (other than actually writing) is studying other writers’ work. I’ve decided to combine these two favorites with a series of recommended reading for writers, focusing on different elements of craft and the books/authors that I think make good use of those elements.
This week’s post will focus on characterization. From Holden Caulfield to Tyrion Lannister, memorable characters stick with us long after we’ve finished reading their stories. Their unique ways of looking at (and telling readers about) their worlds, the ways they rise (or fail to rise) to the occasion, and their interactions with other characters make them real, breathing people who we could imagine running into on the street. Here are just a few books that I look to when I’m studying well-crafted characters.
My first recommendation is Paper Towns by John Green. Really anything by John Green, but The Fault in Our Stars is getting so much media love that I wanted to highlight another of his books. The characters’ quirks — Radar’s obsession with the Wikipedia-like Omnictionary, Margo’s fascination with ambiguous capitalization, Quentin’s obsession with finding Margo — and their intelligent banter make them charming and undeniably human.
For those writing teen characters, Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park is spot-on. These characters talk like teens, think like teens, and act like teens — real teens, not overly angsty or juvenile cliches. Rowell creates characters who struggle with abuse, isolation, and insecurities we can all relate to, both in Eleanor & Park and in her other novels. If you’re looking for a rich, character-driven contemporary story, try anything by Rainbow Rowell.
I can’t talk about strong characters without mentioning one who significantly shaped my teen years. Alanna from Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet is a strong female character who is not afraid to be herself and do what she thinks is right — even when it gets her into trouble. These and other books by Pierce are also great for those writing young adult fantasy. The Song of the Lioness books are a bit older, but Pierce’s receipt of YALSA’s Edwards Award in 2013 is a testament to her work’s endurance.
Other books/series with great characters include Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In general, any writer who makes you cry when he or she kills off a character is someone to study if you’re trying to strengthen the characters in your own writing.
What books or authors do you recommend for a look at great characterization?