What a Character!

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?




Filed under book review, characters

12 responses to “What a Character!

  1. I think that’s so true – that the characters are of utmost importance. For example, for a long time, I was completely disinterested in the plot synopsis of The Hunger Games – the idea just did not resonate with me at ALL. But once I read the first ten pages, I was emotionally invested in Katniss, and I could not put the books down, because the characters had become so important to me.

    • Same here–I think I was dragging my feet on The Hunger Games because it’s YA (which doesn’t make sense given my love for Harry Potter), but about halfway through, I was so invested that I downloaded the next two books to my Kindle so I wouldn’t have to wait in between them!

  2. Ange

    Hmm, on the one hand, I agree that characters have made me love the books that I love- the books I don’t want to put down and don’t want to end. And God knows I’ve become invested in too many series because of this (currently I’m seriously into Louise Penny’s Three Pines mysteries only because I love the Chief Inspector). On the other hand, there have been books that aren’t necessarily full of fleshed-out characters, but are so beautifully written they resonate with me long after I’m done. For example, I just finished Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson and that woman can set a haunting scene and writes so beautifully… but I still can’t really describe her characters fully. I felt that way about Plainsong, one of my most favorite books, but I can’t even remember the people in it, more of the ‘mood’ of the book, if that makes sense.

  3. Amy

    I just finished reading “Run” by Ann Patchett (I also loved “Bel Canto). Anyway, I did connect to the characters in “Run,” which, for me too, makes or breaks a novel. What I loved about Run, though, was that there were also so many interesting themes woven into the story — about social/community responsibility, politics, the meaning of family. Ultimately, though, I think if I don’t like (or at least understand) the characters, then I can’t enjoy the story.

  4. Jen

    I completely agree with you. When I love a character, I want more of them–not less! Goon Squad was great…but…I felt it left me a little cold somehow. It was brilliant constructed, but because there were so many narrators, and so much time passing, there was this sense of disconnect. At the same time, I’ve been thinking a lot about reading it again. That’s usually the sure fire sign that the book meant something to me.

    I definitely judge a book by its characters!

    • I may read it again as a reference, just because the multiple storylines were handled so skillfully. But I definitely felt that disconnect too–when characters popped up again, I didn’t think, “Oh, thank God–I was wondering what happened to Sasha/Bennie/whoever!” It was more like, “Huh. I guess this is Sasha’s future. Interesting.”

  5. Meghan

    My favorite books don’t always have bodly drawn characters, but my absolute favorite does Wally Lamb’s characters in She’s come undone are colorful, varied, realistic, and funny I highly recommend it.

    Another beautiful and almost quiet book is Nicholas Sparks’ A Walk To Remember.
    If you are looking for complex character work John Steinbeck’s East Of Eden is great.
    Charcter’s are important to me they almost always make the plot for me.
    I hope this helps you.

    • I’ve tried Wally Lamb and Nicholas Sparks, and I couldn’t get into them either, but my reasons are similar to why I didn’t get into Goon Squad: Those books you mention do have more fully drawn characters, but I didn’t like or relate to them in any way. For example, I found myself just getting more and more irritated with the protagonist in She’s Come Undone and it kept me from enjoying the book. For me, the characters need to be likeable and/or relatable.

      I haven’t given Steinbeck a whirl in a long time (probably since high school) so maybe I’ll try him again.

  6. Interesting points. I’m almost finished with Goon Squad and have been going back and forth on how much I like it. On the one hand, it started out as the kind of book I couldn’t put down (What will happen next?!?), but as it’s gone on, I’ve had trouble getting into new chapters (Who is the main character now?) and been frustrated that the story I’d gotten so into in a previous chapter had just disappeared.
    Glad to hear it’s not just me. :-)

    • It sounds like we had exactly the same experience! Even though I didn’t love the book, I do understand why it’s winning so many awards. It’s certainly unique, and I have to give the author a lot of credit for keeping track of so many timelines and secondary characters.

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