Characters that you will follow anywhere, until the end of their story
October 28, 2017 1:33 PM   Subscribe

Please recommend short stories with (a) fascinating character(s). Ideally, a character or characters that you find interesting, want to read and follow within 1 page. Alternatively, recommendations (or a really good book that explains) how to write interesting characters. Filters: short stories, how-to write fiction books, Nanowrimo prep

One of the things that I can't wrap my head around when it comes to writing fiction is: characters. I have to be honest and state that when I read a story (often scifi), 90% of the time I'm oblivious to the character(s) in the story and read it for the ideas and that is the payoff for me as a reader.

However, because many people read because of a character or characters that they want to follow in a story, I'd like to learn ways to think about improving this skill.

I learn by reading samples and then tearing it apart and studying it line by line as to what is in that particular story/done by that particular author. So what I'm looking for are either short stories with a character that you will follow until the end of the story, because the character is interesting (this does not need to mean a likable character, but a character that you want to find out what happens to the person and if they achieve X or whatever. Ideally, I'm looking for characters that are interesting or pique your interest within a few paragraphs or a page. My preference is also for online and free, but I will get a book if it is highly recommended.

If you can write characters and were not able to do this (until you thought about X, or read books X and Y) - can you share how you think about this now or point to the references that you used?

As always, thanks in advance Ask Metafilterians.
posted by Wolfster to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if I'm allowed to answer in this way, but I'm going to say: movies. I also have a hard time getting into characters (reading or writing them), but in movies, there are actual people up there saying stuff, which, I think makes it easier to focus on the characters and not just their words. So, if you're interested, and you can get Netflix, Noah Baumbach's new movie THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND COLLECTED) is streaming now, and has some great, vivid, quirky characters. Or his earlier one, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, also has memorable characters.

Also a million other movies, but I'm not sure you're into this. Just remember -- those lines the characters are speaking were written by somebody sitting at a typewriter too.

I'm going through the same thing now, actually -- writing a theatre-type piece, for characters, and I tend to just think about what they're saying but have a hard time with THEM. The actual people. Some questions I'm asking about my characters are: what does she want? what is she afraid of? what is she ashamed of? what kind of person might she want to be partnered with? have sex with? what does she do for a living? what would she prefer to do? how does she dress? how much does she think about her clothing? her job? her friends? who are her friends? etc. -- even if you don't actually use this stuff in your writing, it can help to create real(ler) characters.

I'm interested to see what the others posters' recommendations for stories are going to be.
posted by DMelanogaster at 1:44 PM on October 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

I think Roald Dahl's short stories are excellent.
man from the south for example.
posted by 92_elements at 2:15 PM on October 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

With apologies in case this is irrelevant to you, I am going to suggest a couple of pieces of longer fiction. I know you want short fiction, but I think you might find it useful to read only the first chapter, or couple of chapters, of these stories. The character voices are so strong and compelling that I think you can get a sense of what the author is doing with the character in both cases--how the effect is made to happen--without finishing the novel.

Jane Eyre is well-known for being character-driven in this way. The first chapter introduces us right away to Jane's pretty distinctive voice, and inner world, and then instantly flings her into a situation of conflict and injustice that makes us sympathetic to her right away.

For a less sympathetic character-driven novel, there's Lolita. Humbert Humbert is repulsive, of course, but most readers of the novel become instantly fascinated by his character and want to know what he will do, or say, next. Again, it's a very distinctive and unusual voice and Nabokov uses every stylistic and verbal trick imaginable to get the reader's attention fixated on what it's going to say next. The opening of the novel (the 'foreword' is fictional and part of the story) is available online here, but I recommend getting hold of the whole book if you can and reading at least one more chapter of it. (Warnings, though, for very disturbing subject-matter and pedophilia).

Actual short stories with characters that are compelling/attractive/interesting in different ways

- The Jeeves and Wooster stories by PG Wodehouse. They have plots, of a sort, but most people who read them do so because the characters are so comic and ridiculous and we enjoy spending time in their ridiculous company. Some of the early stories are available online; here is a fairly typical one, and here's another.

- The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. A very creepy story, and wholly character-driven.

- For Esme with Love and Squalor, by JD Salinger. It's in his collection, Nine Stories, which is available online. I think it's a good example of a story that doesn't use first-person voice to present a character to the reader, but still makes the character compelling enough (via description and detail) to hold our attention. (I also recommend The Laughing Man in the same collection, as a pretty meta exploration of what fictional characters can mean to people and how to construct them so they're meaningful).

- Flannery O'Connor, Good Country People. This is another one where the characters aren't especially sympathetic, but the story works by building them up in small idiosyncratic detail so that the reader has a chance to become fascinated by them; it's also a nice example of using third-person narration but still giving the voice of the different characters with a lot of precision and particularity.
posted by Aravis76 at 2:31 PM on October 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

Robin Hobb writes great characters. Pick up any of her books and open it at any point and start reading. You'll immediately get caught up in the character's experiences and swept into the plot. Also, you might check out the graphic novel Nimona for its handling of characters.
posted by irisclara at 4:42 PM on October 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

I recommend Ursula Le Guin's collected short stories in Orsinian Tales. Le Guin's known for her speculative fiction, but these aren't fantasy or sf at all—they're set in a fictionalized Eastern European country.

They are beautiful and wrenching—stories of love and despair and hope and strength. Moreso than most short stories I've read throughout the years, these are focused on character instead of plot or Big Ideas. Each story stems from a character conflict or motivation and unfolds from there, and they carry a lot of insight about the human condition. You get a very good sense of who these characters are, even though the stories are quite short.
posted by fire, water, earth, air at 4:46 PM on October 28, 2017 [8 favorites]

Another thought, consider fairy tales. Are there any of them that you particularly like? That particularly irritate you? What is it about them that you like or don't like. If the answer is related to the characters, think about why they effect you. Aesop's Fables are also full of characters that you root for (the tortoise) and that you boo (the hare). It doesn't take that much to hook readers. Look at Firefly. Give each person a quirk and go from there.

Also, you're writing short stories. Deep characterization is less of a requirement for those unless you're writing romance or something emotion-focused. Most of the best short stories I've read have been plot-driven, with the characters as an afterthought. The few that aren't are mood pieces that use the characters as allegories of the featured emotions. "I represent passion", "I represent logic" sort of thing.
posted by irisclara at 5:00 PM on October 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

If I were forced to choose a favourite character-driven short story it would probably be Sherman Alexie's "What You Pawn, I Will Redeem." The narrator, Jackson Jackson, is a smart, dry-witted homeless man who embarks on a quest to recover his grandmother's stolen powwow regalia. I wish I could read an entire book about him.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:02 PM on October 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

I see Salinger has been mentioned! I'll incur some eye rolls by adding The Catcher in the Rye. Holden is a pain in the ass but he's a wonderfully drawn character from the first page. I'll give you the first sentence, in case you've never read it. If you hate him, you'll probably hate him immediately, which I guess is one of the virtues of the thing.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
posted by Smearcase at 5:19 PM on October 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

James Thurber - The Thurber Carnival - particularly
"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"
"The Curb in the Sky"
"The Cane in the Corridor"
"The Breaking Up of the Winships"
"The Catbird Seat"
"One Is a Wanderer"
posted by Daily Alice at 5:23 PM on October 28, 2017 [2 favorites]


I put Atonement but missed the short story part.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:35 PM on October 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

All of L. M. Montgomery’s (Anne of Green Gables) short stories are in the public domain and available via iBooks—she does an excellent job with her small-town Canadian characters.

Ed Gorman’s “Different Kinds of Dead” is collected short stories from various genres—he’s very good at plot, but his characters are what keep me rereading his work.
posted by epj at 5:51 PM on October 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Conan Doyle's less famous creation Etienne Gerard is worth picking apart.
In the public domain, and available here:

2nding Dahl, by the way.
posted by Calvin and the Duplicators at 6:23 PM on October 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

The prologue of Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai. Part of a larger book, obviously, but sort of a standalone story. I tend not to enjoy reading longish excerpts online but a friend once posted it and I was hooked (then went out and bought the book right away, and read it more than once).
posted by ferret branca at 8:21 PM on October 28, 2017 [2 favorites] has an archive of short fiction, much of which has strong character voices. (Can't remember specifics, though; sorry.)

For fascinating character studies in short fiction, there's some amazing stuff bouncing around tumblr:

Antler Guy and Neighbor Steve, a story with multiple authors

Grandma and Todd, from the story prompt, "An old and homely grandmother accidentally summons a demon. She mistakes him for her gothic-phase teenage grandson and takes care of him. The demon decides to stay at his new home."

Fanfic where the original character is the focus of the story: Allie's imaginary friend (gone from tumblr; wayback machine is awesome.)

... don't get me started on Stabby the Space Roomba.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:11 PM on October 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Jhumpa Lahiri's characters are just regular ordinary people but written in a way I find very compelling and interesting. She has a lot of short stories.
posted by JuliaJellicoe at 11:47 AM on October 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

Edie: A Life – Harriet Doerr
(It appears that you can check it out and read it from this linked page.)
I'm damn sure glad I met Edie, in that short story collection linked above. I'll not write anything about the twins, so as to not spoil it for you, and I'll damn sure not write anything about all of the invisible h's that clustered in every nook or cranny over the years.

A Small, Good Thing -- Raymond Carver
I love this story. It's not so much about any one character but rather four, tightly interwoven. Strong, powerful writing. Though it's not a pretty story, it is told beautifully, great writing.

The Falls -- George Saunders
I smile just thinking about George Saunders. Very, very funny, yet often a quick twist and you're hurting for his characters, hurting with his characters.

The Law Of Life -- Jack London
Definitely a strong central character, Koskoosh, looking back over his life, and looking forward, also, but not too far forward, he's knowing his time has come.
posted by dancestoblue at 4:17 AM on January 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

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