In Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, Kate Wilhelm wrote, “Great fiction reveals that there is no such thing as a common, everyday uninteresting person. They are all interesting if you learn enough about them to discover who lives behind the facade.”
So we asked members of the genre community:
What is one of your favorite novels in which the characters sucked you into the story? What about these characters sets them apart?
Michael Damian Thomas
Michael Damian Thomas is the Hugo- and Parsec Award-winning editor-in-chief and publisher of Uncanny Magazine with his wife, Lynne M. Thomas. Michael was co-editor of the Hugo Award-nominated Queers Dig Time Lords (with Sigrid Ellis) and the anthology Glitter & Mayhem (with John Klima and Lynne M. Thomas). He is also a member of the Down and Safe Podcast with Amal El-Mohtar, L.M. Myles, and Scott Lynch.
In general, I am a sucker for characters. A great character means a lot more to me than a thousand clever sensawunda ideas or world-building concepts. When I read a novel, I’m spending time with these people. I need to be fascinated by their lives. I need to be emotionally invested in their successes, failures, relationships, dreams, and outcomes. If I don’t care about the characters, I will stop reading after a few chapters. And if I love these characters, I will literally run up to friends and sing their praises in order to convince them that they need to spend time with these fictional people, too.
The fantasy character type I’m almost always most interested in is the rogue (I blame imprinting on David Eddings’s Silk from The Belgariad at an early age). Whether it’s Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora from his Gentleman Bastards series or Kelly McCullough’s Aral Kingslayer from his Fallen Blade series, I can’t get enough snarky, slightly morally ambiguous, but ultimately heroic characters. My current favorite, though, is Eugenides from Megan Whalen Turner’s untitled series which includes the books The Thief and The Queen of Attolia.
Eugenides is a smartass, self-destructive, and sulky. He’s also extremely loyal, clever, and loving, though not always in expected ways. I want to go into the details of his life in the series, but there are too many delicious twists and misdirections which I don’t want to spoil. He has a phenomenal character arc, and there’s another character in the series who is just as wonderful and fascinating and turns out to be the most fantastic foil for him possible. They both have such unexpected depths and pain hidden behind their facades. More importantly, they have an extremely complicated and layered relationship with each other. Yes, I am being vague, but trust me on Turner’s books. These are characters who you will be thinking about years later, which ultimately is what makes literature great to me.
Cheryl Morgan is a science fiction critic and publisher. She is the owner of Wizard’s Tower Press and the Wizard’s Tower Books ebook store. Previously she edited the Hugo Award-winning magazine, Emerald City (Best Fanzine, 2004). She also won a Hugo for Best Fan Writer in 2009.
Historical fiction tends to center on important people and their role in great events. That’s as true in fantasy worlds as it is in actual history. Guy Gavriel Kay’s books are a subtle blend of the two, being based on real events with the identifying marks filed off. He has written, albeit obliquely, about Justinian and Theodora, about El-Cid, and about Chinese emperors.
His latest book, Children of Earth and Sky, is somewhat different. It specifically focuses on ordinary people caught up in great events. Kay has his own names for the countries involved, but if you are new to his work it is easier to say that the events take place in the Eastern Mediterranean a few decades after the fall of Constantinople.
Pero, a young artist, is given an amazing commission that perhaps fell to him rather than others because he’s not expected to return alive. Leonora, a disgraced young noblewoman, gains political power in a foreign land though fortuitous circumstances. Danica, a young woman with a talent for archery, is determined to use her skill to fight for her country, unaware that her beloved younger brother, stolen as a child, is being trained to fight in the enemy army.
The lives, loves and hopes of these characters and more carry the reader through the story beautifully. They also show ways in which women could have agency in past times, though this hasn’t stopped male critics from decrying the book as “unrealistic”.
Jana Nyman is a lifelong reader who currently contributes to FantasyLiterature.com; though she likes to read more broadly than just science-fiction and fantasy, those are the genres she always comes back to. When not reading or writing, she enjoys hiking in the Rocky Mountains and playing fetch with her dog. You can find her on Twitter as @JanaNyman, where she tweets about comics, books, fandom, and the occasional video game.
One of my personal criteria for a “good novel” is that there has to be at least one character which captures my interest; in order for it to become a “favorite novel,” one I’ll read and re-read for the rest of my life, that character’s job is to pull me into the story so completely that I lose all track of time and place. Setting, plot, and dialogue all have important parts to play, but without the mental sensation of someone taking my hand and dragging me down the rabbit hole alongside them, it’s hard for me to escape the fact that I’m sitting somewhere comfy, flipping the pages of a book with a cup of tea nearby. I want to be able to suspend disbelief and lose myself in the idea that the story I’m reading is wholly plausible, no matter how fantastic the circumstances.
Plenty of books captured my interest as a child and adolescent, but the first time I fell head-over-heels into a book as an adult was when I read Gregory Maguire’s Wicked. At the time, I was working as a barista in my local Barnes & Noble, and I hid my copy under the counter so that I could read it in gasps between stints of milk-frothing and grinding espresso beans. Customers and co-workers said that I seemed to be in a daze, and I barely remember doing any work that week; I was too thoroughly spellbound by the intricate world Maguire created, the one that makes L. Frank Baum’s original idea seem like a pale shadow in comparison. Suddenly I had access to a child’s, and then an adult’s, perspective on the grimness lurking in the margins of Baum’s books via the complex and discordant life of Elphaba Thropp—mechanical creatures and talking animals, the strange politics of Oz, the supposed Utopia built on compliance with an old charlatan’s whims and demands. Maguire writes Elphaba’s struggles for justice and knowledge with a compassionate eye, transforming a one-note character into a woman whose triumphs and losses make the reader’s heart alternately soar and shatter. Female anti-heroes aren’t as rare as they once were, thankfully, but Elphaba was my first, and her story will always have a place of honor on my bookshelf.
Agneiszka, from Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, was a lovely surprise to me—I suspected I’d like her, but I had no idea how much so. Novik strikes the perfect tone for Agneiszka’s voice: innocent and optimistic, yet with an honest intelligence that acknowledges the harsh truths of her world. Her unexpected journey from common villager to participant in plots, schemes, and magic is all the more enchanting and thrilling because it’s as much a shock to Agneiszka as it is to the reader. Through her eyes, we see the beauty of her homeland, Polnya, and we learn about the vast capabilities of magic as practiced by court-appointed wizards. By making Agneiszka an outsider and allowing the reader to learn alongside her, Novik avoids plot-stopping chunks of exposition and, instead, offers a streamlined narrative which carries the reader along like a leaf on a river so that we can share in her joys, sorrows, fears, and rage. Reading Uprooted is like listening to a very dear friend tell a story, and when I finished the book for the first time, I actually gave it a hug! And then I checked the clock, discovered that I’d been up all night reading after promising that I would just read the first couple of chapters, and resigned myself to a very long day at work. But it was so, so worth it.
Lastly, I don’t read much contemporary YA literature, but enough of my friends told me that I had to read Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl because “Cath reminds me of you in college!” that I gave in and, well…Cath reminds me of me in college. She’s awkward-at-best in social situations, deeply passionate about a long-running fantasy book series, writes a tremendous amount of fan fiction, and would prefer to eat alone in her room than in the dining hall. Rowell is wise enough to present Cath’s flaws, too: she shuts people out in order to focus on her digital life, reacts badly to stress, and isn’t as supportive as she could or should be when her loved ones need help. Fangirl covers Cath’s freshman year at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and it’s packed with the drama and turmoil many of students encounter in their first year away from home. It was astonishing to read a novel in which fanfiction writers aren’t treated like thieves or kooks, people with anxiety issues or learning disorders are given respect for their daily challenges, and the solution to a difficult family life isn’t the reunification of divorced parents. And the excerpts from Cath’s fiction are so much fun to read, reflecting her growth not only as a writer but as a young adult. I’m far enough removed from Cath’s circumstances that I can exult in her successes and view her mistakes with a tolerant eye—growing up is hard, but I have faith that someone like her will turn out okay in the long run.
Sabrina Vourvoulias is the author of Ink (Crossed Genres, 2012), a novel that draws on her memories of Guatemala’s armed internal conflict, and of the Latinx experience in the United States. It was named to Latinidad’s Best Books of 2012. Follow her antics on her website, on Twitter at @followthelede, and on Facebook.
I am fond of Sierra, the young Afro-Latina protagonist of Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper for her courage, her sharp wit, her artist’s eye. Likewise, I love Onye and her (quite dissimilar) friends Binti, Luyu and Diti from Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, all of them complicated young women for whom tradition is both trap and power. But the characters that have been with me the longest are from a somewhat obscure, not very critically acclaimed, late-1970s novel by Peter Beagle, The Folk of the Air.
It was one of the first speculative novels I read in English (I happened upon it in the library some time in the mid-’80s) and I was captivated by the character Sia (which, it has to be said, is not the main protagonist). An older woman, frumpy, fiercely intelligent, harsh and compassionate—a forgotten goddess, both powerful and powerless. Beagle wrote one of the most satisfying older woman protagonists in SFF, and even if I didn’t understand that it was the truest, least fantastical (but magical) aspect of the book way back when I first read it, I do now as I navigate the world as a middle-aged woman.
I returned Folk of the Air to the library shelves after that first reading, but its memory would pop up every so often and I’d be filled with the yearning to be back in Sia’s presence. None of my SFF-reading friends had ever read the book, nor even heard about it, and I came close to believing I had invented it. Some four or five years ago I decided to hunt it down. It was, and I believe still is, out of print but I secured a used copy and reread it every so often (forgiving the dated portions) just to hear Sia laugh and say, “But what a strange Odysseus you are. You keep having the same adventure over and over.”
And so, I do.
Arianne “Tex” Thompson
Arianne “Tex” Thompson is the author of Children of the Drought—an internationally-published epic fantasy Western series from Solaris. Now a professional speaker and writing instructor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Tex is blazing a trail through writers conferences, workshops, and fan conventions around the country—as an endlessly energetic, relentlessly enthusiastic one-woman stampede. Find her online at The Tex Files.
The general consensus about main characters goes something like this. They should have a daunting problem to solve—they should take an active, central role in solving it—and they should undergo some kind of change or improvement along the way. Bilbo will learn courage. Scrooge will learn kindness. Peter Parker will learn responsibility. And so on.
And that is exactly why my iconoclast’s heart beats for Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine. There is no outward conflict, no inner demons, not even a whiff of a hero’s journey. There is only Howie, a young 80’s office worker, returning after his lunch break with a paperback book, a bagged cookie, and a fresh pair of shoelaces. In the 150 pages it takes him to ride the escalator from the ground floor up to the mezzanine, he ruminates on everything from doorknobs to ties to paper towels. Sound dull? It would be, with just about any other character—you know, some protagonistic striver who’s too busy learning a Very Important Lesson to care much about drinking straws. But for Howie, that is a crucial, burning issue, and he will rant for pages—with passionate, fiery zeal!—about the superiority of paper straws (because the plastic ones will buoy up and tip over in a glass of soda, you see), the sublime, godly perfection of machine-perforated pages, the catastrophic collapse of hand-drying materials in the men’s room and what that says about our national character.
Those things might sound brutally trivial, and in some ways they are. But to me, Howie is a master-class in characterization: a fictional person so skillfully rendered, with such a refreshing, peculiar view of ordinary things, that he does not need to change one whit in the course of the story—because the reader has done all the changing for him.
Rachel S. Cordasco
Rachel S. Cordasco earned a Ph.D in Literary Studies from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and has taught courses in American and British literature, and Composition. She has also worked at the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. A Book Riot and SF Signal contributor, Rachel also runs a site devoted to speculative fiction in translation. You can follow her @Rcordas and on facebook at Speculative Fiction in Translation.
When I read this prompt, the first novel to pop into my brain was Perdido Street Station by China Mieville, for obvious reasons. You’ve got Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, the brilliant renegade scientist; the garuda (bird-like creature) who comes to him for help with flying again; Isaac’s girlfriend Lin (an artist who also happens to be an insect-like humanoid); and the massive dimension-shifting arachnids that are at war with hypnotic, grisly consciousness-sucking moth-like creatures. And did I mention the AI that emerges out of a massive jumble of old computer and appliance parts to help in the fight? It’s the urgency of the battle that Isaac must participate in (defeating the brain-sucking slake-moths) and Mieville’s brilliantly lyrical prose that is both dense and disturbing that make these characters so compelling. Even the dimension-shifting Weaver-spider (I HATE spiders, by the way) has a distinct, if horrifying, presence. Mieville has woven a world of magic and steampunk, but the characters, be they human or insectoid or garuda, are nonetheless familiar for their terrors, passions, and extraordinary skills.
Beth Cato is the author of The Clockwork Dagger series from Harper Voyager, which includes her Nebula-nominated novella Wings of Sorrow and Bone. Her new alt-history steampunk series just started with the novel Breath of Earth. Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.
I adored Becky Chambers’s novel A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. It’s about construction workers who spend prolonged time in deep space, drilling worm holes. The book has the whole ensemble cast aboard a space craft, like in Firefly, but these aren’t the Big Damn Heroes types. These beings—not all of them are human—are utterly flawed and relatable. This isn’t a book about people taking on bad guys and trying to save the universe. Nope. They are just doing their jobs as they deal with various little conflicts along the way. It sounds like it might be dull, but it’s not. I wanted to step on board the Wayfarer and hang out. I wanted to work in the kitchen with Dr. Chef and chat with the whole crew. I wanted to talk to Corbin and figure out how he’s related to me, because he’d fit right in with my family. Really, everyone here felt like family (the good sort), alien though they may be. The second book in the series, A Closed and Common Orbit, maintains that same cozy vibe even though it follows different people in different places. In both books, Chambers somehow made me feel profoundly nostalgic even as I met these characters for the first time.
What book made you fall for its characters?