Top Ten Character-Driven Novels

  1. Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. This is more or less a plotless novel; it relies entirely on what you think of its protagonist Meg. I think she’s great: Thomas has a real talent for writing characters you care about despite their mistakes.
  2. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. The ensemble cast who lead this novel – another one that’s pretty much structureless – range from a vilely racist human to a polyamorous sentient lizard. They all have their own backstories, their own struggles; Chambers gets under the skin of all of them, to try and help us understand why they are who they are. If this book is about anything, it’s about very different people working together to support each other. It’s lovely.
  3. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. OK, this one technically does have a plot, but it’s only perfunctory. Really, we’re reading for four broken strangers, their wretched humanity rendered beautiful by Valente’s infinitely sympathetic gaze and her prose precious as hoarded gold.
  4. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy is Gothically strange and dense: its characters are at one and the same time Dickensian grotesques and deeply, richly psychologically imagined. It’s not quite like anything else I’ve read.
  5. Special Topics in Calamity Physics – Marisha Pessl. There’s some postmodern trickery going on here, but unlike many novels that play with textual authority it has character at its heart: specifically the character of Blue van Meer, a lost, precocious teenager scrabbling for a deeper meaning to her life.
  6. Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov. I’ve only read this once, a few years ago, but it’s stuck with me. Like Pessl’s novel, its postmodern trickery is all in the service of building up a character, as Charles Kinbote’s commentary on his neighbour’s unfinished poem spirals further and further away from its initial performance of cool criticism.
  7. Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter. At the heart of Carter’s novel is Fevvers, a larger-than-life circus woman who resists all attempts to define her or pin her down. She’s awesome.
  8. Temeraire – Naomi Novik. It’s not individual characters that Novik’s interested in so much as their relationships. Temeraire is a Regency comedy of manners, really, and Novik’s excellent at delineating the rigid social structures and codes that define her characters’, behaviour.
  9. Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie. Like Naomi Novik, Leckie’s fundamentally interested in social structures and how they define and proscribe relationships. Unlike Temeraire, though, Ancillary Justice has a protagonist with a degree of complexity: an AI who has lost her hive mind and who’s bent on revenge.
  10. Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood. At the heart of Atwood’s novel is convicted Canadian murderess Grace Marks, a woman born into poverty who spends her life fighting the male gaze.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

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