I Read for Characters

Posted March 13, 2015 by Debby in Lifestyle

If you’ve followed me for a while, you probably know about how I really wasn’t a reader growing up – in fact, I didn’t read much at all before 2012. So now that I’ve been reading steadily, truly a tremendous number of books per year in a wide variety of genres, I’ve been discovering some things about myself as a reader, the first and foremost being…

I read for characters.

Honestly, you can give me the most elaborate world building and creative story, but if the characters are flat and don’t have a personality, I will quickly lose interest. I’m delighted by complex characters, I love to see flaws and distinctive characteristics, and I need that voice to draw me in. It’s absolutely the reason why I love to read YA so much – because oftentimes the focus is on characters and their growth as they transition to adulthood or while they’re in that phase of “finding themselves”. I’m fascinated by the psychology of the complexity of humans, and I feel like I’m constantly learning about what makes people the way they are and how they can grow. It inspires me on a daily basis.

There are some obvious examples that come to mind.

I like my fantasy heroines fierce, snarky, and maybe a little selfish – so I will never stop loving Celaena (Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas), Nyx (Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge), and Aileana (The Falconer by Elizabeth May). I truly admire the heroines who have moments of truly impressive strength, but show their vulnerabilities during quieter moments too – like Katniss (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins) and Paige (The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon).

But it’s not always about pure strength.

Recently, I absolutely adored A Wicked Thing by Rhiannon Thomas – but I totally realize that for a lot of readers that book will be too slow and boring. It’s kind of like a character study – Aurora as a character comes first, the world building comes second, and the plot comes third. But her voice just LEAPED off the page for me, and I was totally absorbed by her fear, tentativeness, and circumstances. I thought the facets of her personality were perfectly realistic and fitting to the situation she was in. And that made that book an absolute masterpiece to me.

I’m also a HUGE fan of the Shatter Me series by Tahereh Mafi, though I will be the first to say that that series is far from perfect. Indeed, especially in the third book, the world building was just mediocre. But that series is all about character growth. Juliette’s stream of consciousness struck me in my feels zone, and though she starts the series weak and scared and distrustful – close to insane – she grows so much from that. It again is a case of perfectly capturing a complex personality who makes 100% sense given her circumstances. The writing style which other people rant about as being too purple and ridiculous I felt was a perfect reflection of that complex personality. So yeah, it might not work for everyone, but it absolutely worked for me.

When it comes to contemporary books, growth and relatability are key for me.

Jeane from Adorkable by Sara Manning will always be dear to my heart – though I know other readers were extremely annoyed by her. Her snarkiness and judgmental nature just made sense to me, especially given how she came from a broken home. She was lacking love – particularly familial love – which created trust issues so deep that she wouldn’t let others close to her. I related to that in a big way, which is why it made me SOB. In a similar trend, Whitley from A Midsummer’s Nightmare by Kody Keplinger also made me cry. She’s not the most likable, but her parents’ divorce fucked her up in a really realistic and heartbreaking way. Likewise for Parker from Stealing Parker by Miranda Kenneally.

I also feel inspired when flawed characters who are struggling with some issue come to those great realizations that they’re okay the way they are or that there’s room for them to grow (in confidence at least). I got completely sucked into the personal journeys in The DUFF by Kody Keplinger, This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales, and The Art of Lainey by Paula Stokes.

And in that sense, contemporary books where that growth was absent are less of a hit with me than they are with other readers. The two biggest examples I have for that may get tomatoes thrown in my face, but they are Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell and Open Road Summer by Emery Lord. To be clear, I loved both those books and gave them each 4 oranges, but the character growth just wasn’t significant enough (or it was just absent) to get me to OVER THE TOP LOVING IT.

And for the record, the same will always go for love interests.

I don’t like a guy who is 100% good. I don’t like a cliché bad boy type. If anything wit, banter, and humor are more important than anything (which should surprise no one). That explains why, for example, I will always prefer Sturmhond over Mal (The Grisha by Leigh Bardugo) and Cole over Jack (Everneath by Brodi Ashton). I need a strong personality – not just a hot body.

In Sum

Now all of this is not to say that plot, world building, and writing style are not important to me – they absolutely are. If any one of those things is TRULY TERRIBLE, even the best characters can’t make up for it. But when it comes down to it, what makes or breaks a book for me are those characters and those voices. If I can’t connect with or be intrigued by them, even if I think a book is still objectively good, it won’t stay with me for long.

What’s most important for you in books?

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15 responses to “I Read for Characters

  1. It’s like you got in my brain and said everything I love about my favourite books. I love it when I meet a character while reading who develops, shows me their quirks, their vulnerabilities (what a shitty word to type) and just makes me RELATE to them because they are realistically written.

    Also, I have yet to continue Fangirl (I have read a handful of pages) and now I’m nervous. Thanks for that.

    • 😀 this is what makes it so fun to push books on you lolololol

      ahh, Fangirl is still great, don’t worry. In Open Road Summer there was a clear lack in character growth – while the MC definitely needed it. Fangirl did have *some* but I kind of wanted more? I dunno. But I still love that book 🙂

  2. A great character who is all of those things you mention can truly make a book. I do need a plot though, but if I’m totally loving the main character, it matters less. I just cannot deal with a character that i cannot like/understand/empathize with, because it makes me not care about the story.
    I only read Shatter Me, but I totally loved it! I really loved the writing 🙂
    And yeah, Sturmhond over Mal any day!

  3. I love thinking about the psychological process of characters too. I think the books that fascinate me more than anything on a psychological level are Froi of the Exiles and Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta. There is just so much character going on in those books. The characters change so much during the process of the story that it just makes my MIND EXPLODE.

  4. This is so true! I’m glad I’m not alone in this. I like some amount of world building & plot, but if the character is completely captivating then I’m okay if the other stuff isn’t perfect. It’s what makes me connect with books.

  5. Characters are very important for me in a book as well, although I find story and world building almost just as important. If one of those points really stands out it can compensate for the other points, but I prefer books who hit the right points on al those three aspects. I like characters that are interesting, that I want to know more about, who have depth, who are realistic or to who I can relate. I like it when characters are complex and it’s fun getting to know the characters in a book. Great post!

  6. I always thought I didn’t care that much about characters and that it was more about the world-building and plot, but some books have showed me that I was wrong. Like with The burning sky; I still have no idea what is going on with the world-building there and that could have bothered me, but the characters (and their dynamic) made up for it.

    So I have to agree with you; as long as all the other aspects aren’t terrible, it’s important for me to feel connected to the character(s) and to see a certain development. There have been several books I DNFed, simply because I couldn’t stand a character. They can also make a story stand out; Throne of glass wouldn’t have been the same without this Celaena.

    Last thing I want to add: Sturmhond forever.

  7. Characters play a huge part in my judgement of a book.I personally think that one of the best things about reading books is that we get to know about different personalities.
    And I love character growth.A heroine who’s awesome by default is always great,but I prefer those who grow up on the readers gradually.
    Great post Debby!

  8. Oh yeah, I read for the characters, too. Plot, world building writing style – those are all secondary considerations for me. There can be all sorts of issues with a book, but if there are great characters, I will probably love the book. But not the other way around.

    But, that said, I’m not so into character growth. Well, of course I love to see characters grow throughout a novel, but that’s not necessarily what I’m looking for. I’m honestly just looking for characters that I like (although not perfect and flawless of course) and can root for.

  9. “Honestly, you can give me the most elaborate world building and creative story, but if the characters are flat and don’t have a personality, I will quickly lose interest.” – Yuuup. Sometimes, if plot and writing and world building are amazing, I can make it through without super lively characters, but that’s rare. Also, you know I read multiple things at once, and the only times I get books confused are those books with blah characters. Which blah contemporary girl did which thing? I DON’T KNOW. Even if they were similar in plot, the characters should be distinct enough to make it not an issue.

    YES SELFISH CHARACTERS. Because let’s be real, people are selfish.

    I actually mostly agree about the Shatter Me series, with the exception of the first book, which I thought was too much. But I did like the way that Juliette evolved, and I think that a lot of the purple writing worked.

    GROWTH. Main important thing for a character. I’m changing all the time, and I’m sure you are too, because stagnating means that life is boring and just no.

    I am side-eyeing your character growth commentary on Fangirl, but to each her own. Agree on ORS though.

    BANTER. Sturmhond forever.

    • Oooh, blah characters when reading multiple books at once must be the worst. I’m currently reading a blah character book, and I need to push through and finish or I never will. *sigh*

      I KNOW people don’t agree with me about Fangirl. It’s just. She grew, but only a little bit. And I felt like it could have been… bigger. And that meant I didn’t have that same sparkling love that other people did. I think the book was also just overhyped for me, so I kind of felt the need to overcompensate in my rating. Everyone gave it 5 stars, but I didn’t feel it was a perfect all time favorite… I guess I was reading more critically because I was so skeptical of the hype. MAYBE it wouldn’t bother me on a reread now.

  10. I agree with you, Debby. The characters are first and foremost. Characters can kill a book or save it. Some of my favorites are simply because of characters.

    I have to be able to relate to them and find them worthwhile.