Books with characters who you feel like you get to know as real people
July 25, 2011 4:07 PM   Subscribe

Literature distinguished by its richly drawn characters

I'm looking for books where the richness of the characters' lives is the thrust of the work. I'd contrast this with books that are distinguished by either elaborate prose, heady contemplation, humorous content, or action-oriented plot. I think examples will best illustrate:

East of Eden -- John Steinbeck
House of the Spirits -- Isabel Allende
Prayer for Owen Meany, Cider House Rules, Garp -- John Irving
Germinal and Nana -- Emile Zola
Adventures of Kavalier and Clay -- Michael Chabon
To Kill a Mockingbird -- Harper Lee
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn -- Betty Smith

These kinds of books are often epic or saga-like, but need not be; often involve families and large casts of characters (which is desirable); often involve humanist themes (which is also desirable); and are frequently long, but need not be. I'm looking for books that really get you to understand, appreciate, and deeply care about the characters as whole people.
posted by grokfest to Media & Arts (43 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
These kinds of books are often epic or saga-like, but need not be; often involve families and large casts of characters (which is desirable); often involve humanist themes (which is also desirable); and are frequently long, but need not be. I'm looking for books that really get you to understand, appreciate, and deeply care about the characters as whole people

This describes exactly why I love novels by Rohinton Mistry.
posted by beau jackson at 4:11 PM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

How about Donna Tartt? I'd say both The Secret History and The Little Friend fit your criteria.
posted by stellaluna at 4:11 PM on July 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Anna Karenina, War and Peace -- Leo Tolstoy
Infinite Jest -- David Foster Wallace
posted by millions of peaches at 4:13 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's A Confederacy of Dunces with Ignatius J. Reilly who is certainly memorable but not exactly sympathetic.
posted by Durin's Bane at 4:15 PM on July 25, 2011

Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy hits every one of your check-boxes and is an outstanding example of the form.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 4:21 PM on July 25, 2011

The Route - Kevin C. Wilson
posted by JXBeach at 4:23 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

All of Edith Wharton's books!
posted by takoukla at 4:29 PM on July 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Love in the time of Cholera.
posted by bleep at 4:30 PM on July 25, 2011

Washington Square, Henry James
posted by Right On Red at 4:31 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Gone to Soldiers, by Marge Piercy. Fits all your criteria and is one of my all-time favorites.
posted by min at 4:38 PM on July 25, 2011

How do you feel about historical novels? Dorothy Dunnett's characters are some of the most real and three-dimensional I've ever encountered, and the world in which they live is fleshed out just as richly, which is a plus for me. I find her novels immersive and immensely satisfying. You could try Niccolo Rising, and then if it works for you, you've got another seven books to spend with those characters.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 4:38 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Peter Straub's novels are often shelved in Horror. However, they contain some of the finest, richest, concise characters in fiction. When I read one of his recent novels, I get the sense that his characters unknowingly strayed from the path of literary fiction and found themselves deep in the dark forest, surrounded by wolves (or prey, in the case of Dick Dart from The Hellfire Club). In Straub's novels, the preternatural and homicidal serves as a foil to the banal evil and mundane strangeness of the lives of his characters.
posted by infinitewindow at 4:40 PM on July 25, 2011

Rita Mae Brown's fabulous Rubyfruit Jungle
posted by honey-barbara at 4:44 PM on July 25, 2011

The Gormenghast Trilogy.
posted by Splunge at 4:47 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Definitely the books I've been reading recently, that were in turn recommended to me:

Perdido Street Station and undoubtedly anything else by China Mieville
posted by DisreputableDog at 4:50 PM on July 25, 2011

White Teeth by Zadie Smith.
posted by frobozz at 4:51 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Anne Tyler is pretty much all about her characters:
The Accidental Tourist
Celestial Navigation
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant
Morgan's Passing
Back When We Were Grownups
posted by flex at 4:52 PM on July 25, 2011

IMO - Anything by Alice Munro or Jonathan Franzen
posted by tempythethird at 5:04 PM on July 25, 2011

The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, little Oskar stays with you a long time.
Just as an aside, A Prayer For Owen Meany was written partly in homage to this novel.

Some of the most famous characters in literary history can be found in Joyce's Ulysses. They have extremely well realized interior lives.

The same goes for Woolf's To The Lighthouse.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 5:05 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

George Eliot, especially Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda.
posted by thomas j wise at 5:14 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Kate Vaiden by Reynolds Price meets your criteria very nicely.
posted by Wordwoman at 5:22 PM on July 25, 2011

Best answer: I think you want the amazing Independent People, by Haldor Laxness. Unquestionably saga-like (right down to being set in Iceland) and deeply concerned with large families and humanist themes (if I understand correctly what "humanist themes" means.)

Alice Munro and Edith Wharton are great answers to this question, as is "much of the rest of Steinbeck." Perdido Street Station and Confederacy of Dunces maybe not so much (these books possess serious virtues, just not, I think, the ones you want.)
posted by escabeche at 5:24 PM on July 25, 2011

Best answer: David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens. Can't get more character driven than those.

Also, The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano - some of the most compelling characters I've ever had the pleasure to read about.

And lastly, The Convalescent by Jessica Anthony. It's one of the best book i've read in the last 5 years. I dare you to read the first paragraph and not want to read the whole book in one sitting.
posted by AngryLlama at 5:28 PM on July 25, 2011

Response by poster: Man, so many responses already! Thanks everyone!

Lots of those mentioned are new to me, but of those that aren't, Love in the Time of Cholera (and Gabriel Garcia Marquez in general) is a good choice. Right on the money. And I've read I think 10 of Steinbeck's novels - East of Eden being the best example.

I've been thinking of reading Middlemarch for a while. I think it is right down the right alley. Dickens is one I've been meaning to give another shot, too, since I was turned off by his style the last time I tried reading David Copperfield.

On the other hand, the sophisticated style of Munro, Woolf, and Joyce (although I do like Dubliners and will give Ulysses it's own shot one day) is exactly what I'm not looking for at this time. Just as a reference.

As for historical novels, I'll give your suggestions a shot, but I generally prefer novels set in the present time they are written. Just a preference, though.
posted by grokfest at 5:38 PM on July 25, 2011

Anne of Green Gables, et al. Most of Lucy Maud Montgomery's work is character/family studies, mostly of young people discovering themselves. (A few books are straight-up romances.) Anne is developed the most extensively, over 8 books and throughout her lifespan.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:42 PM on July 25, 2011

Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver.
posted by mneekadon at 6:03 PM on July 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Victor Hugo's Les Misérables contains some of the most memorable and richly drawn characters in all of literature, and the characters are truly the heart of the story. It's also a long, epic novel with humanist themes. The characters' lives unfold across a seventeen-year period in the early 1800s, contemporary to the time in which the novel was written.
posted by datarose at 6:13 PM on July 25, 2011

The Namesake, or either of Jhumpa Lahiri's short story collections.
posted by brynna at 6:18 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I love these sorts of books as well- here are a couple of recommendations:

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Bel Canto by Ann Pachette

seconding Rohinton Mistry, Anna Karenina, and The Poisonwood Bible

Also, I found The Count of Monte Cristo had really great characters as well.
posted by emd3737 at 6:19 PM on July 25, 2011

Anything by Anthony Trollope--and he wrote 47 novels.
posted by uans at 7:09 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Have you ever read Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain? It isn't fiction, quite, but it isn't quite documentary either.

Anyway, the most important character in it is Mr. Bixby, the pilot who took on Twain as a cub. Mr. Bixby was an amazing man, and by the end you'll really know him.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:15 PM on July 25, 2011

Not exactly contemporary, but Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon by Jorge Amado has delightful characters in a sleepy Brazilian backwater town in the 1920s. Even the bad guys have their good points.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett, set in 1960s Mississippi, has vivid characters from both sides of the railroad tracks. Most of the characters are portrayed sympathetically, especially "the help" (the black housekeepers), but it's a fundamentally uncomfortable setting. Also, the black characters speak in dialect but the whites speak standard English, which kind of grates on a lot of readers. It's one of those books where you either love it or hate it.
posted by Quietgal at 7:44 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies. His central character, Dunstan Ramsay, appears in two subsequent novels and another trilogy.
The Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian... twenty novels centred around two characters.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 7:57 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Andersonville and/or Spirit Lake by MacKinlay Kantor.
posted by peep at 8:25 PM on July 25, 2011

Beloved, by Toni Morrison and As I Lay Dying by Faulkner are both pretty amazing for stream-of-consciousness narration that delve really deep into the character's psyche.

Khalad Hosseini (Kite Runner, Thousand Splendid Suns) is also good at drawing characters, although not quite as rich as Morrison, Faulkner, Dickens, Lahiri, etc.

What about Jane Austen? It still makes me cry to think Elizabeth won't get Mr. Darcy at the end of Pride and Prejudice...and I've read it WAYYYYY too many times....

Imaginings of Sand by the South African author Andre Brink is great for character development. So is Smell of Apples and Embrace by Marc Behr. SA lit is my specialty, and I can give you more recommendations if that's of interest to you.
posted by guster4lovers at 9:16 PM on July 25, 2011

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.
posted by Anitanola at 11:50 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might like Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet, four novels about expats in pre-WWII Egypt. The characters and the setting are both amazingly rich. I keep coming back to these books.
posted by rebekah at 5:04 AM on July 26, 2011

The Color Purple.
posted by Melismata at 7:01 AM on July 26, 2011

Balzac is your man. Look no further. In fact, I think he invented exactly what you're looking for.
posted by Philemon at 10:50 AM on July 27, 2011

Best answer: Another one of my favorite novels, is Another Country by James Baldwin. It's kind of forgotten, but I think it should be regarded as a classic. It's also about people very different from me. But it's absolutely absorbing in its close, masterful portrayal of several characters.

Another writer you might like is Dreiser. An American Tragedy is long but engrossing.

For a good, action-packed war novel full of great and finely-drawn characters, you could consider Mailer's The Naked and the Dead.
posted by Philemon at 10:55 AM on July 27, 2011

Someone has beaten me with the Patrick O'Brian Aubrey/Maturan series, so let's go for I Claudius and Claudius The God by Robert Graves.
posted by nicktf at 12:16 PM on July 27, 2011

For great character-focused stories, try the epic historical fantasies of Guy Gavriel Kay (eg The Lions of Al-Rassan, Under Heaven).


The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.

The Attolia series by Megan Whalen Turner, starting with The Thief.
posted by lirael2008 at 1:07 PM on July 30, 2011

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