I just finished reading A Visit from the Goon Squad, an extremely well-reviewed new book by Jennifer Egan.
Egan deftly juggles many different points of view, frequently shifting between characters and between first and third person. There are also numerous points in time, but instead of using headings, she gives us clever hints in the text that tell us where we are in time, such as mentions of the characters’ clothing or music choices. When I read that a character’s teenage friends are discovering grunge, I know we’re in the early ’90s.
She also uses the “we’re all connected” theme much more creatively than so many other authors and screenwriters who have tried. When characters we’ve met previously turn up in other characters’ stories, it happens seamlessly, without any ridiculous plot twists to engineer it.
From a writing standpoint, it’s a technical marvel. And yet… I didn’t love it.
In fact, there was so much that I liked about this book, I had to think for a long time to figure out why I felt so unsatisfied when I was finished. I eventually realized that it was because I never got the chance to get emotionally involved with any of the characters. With so many characters and so many points of view, Egan doesn’t give the reader a chance to stay with one of them for very long. I never had time to get really attached.
When I read fiction, emotional engagement is important to me. I want to feel good or bad based on what happens to the characters that I love or hate. I want to miss them when the book is over. Unfortunately, no one from the Goon Squad stuck with me long enough for that to happen.
I recently read a book on novel writing where the author said that the characters are the most important part of a story, that everything else should be driven by the characters. I have learned that, at least for me, this is absolutely true. Some of the characters in my novel are just sketches, and before I keep plowing ahead, I think I need to fill some of them out more.
How about you? Are the characters the most important element of the books you love? What book character is your all-time favorite and why?