These best character-driven novels will reel you in and keep you HOOKED as you dive deep into the innermost workings of complex fictional people.
I consider myself to be an expert on the subject as someone who reads 150+ books a year and most prefers books driven by characters versus plot.
This list of best character-driven novels contains some of my favorite books of all time, as well as some of the most memorable fictional characters so detailed and nuanced they feel real.
Naturally, many of these examples of character-driven books are so beloved they have also become binge-able movies and/or tv shows.
First, let’s take a look at some frequently asked questions about character-driven books (including the definition), then dive into my list of the best examples of character-driven novels, including both classics and modern fiction.
Frequently Asked Questions About Character Driven Novels
Character-driven novels focus on the development of the character versus the development of the plot. The reader learns the complex inner workings of the character and how the character changes as the story unfolds. The plot may focus more on how the characters react to situations versus what happens in the characters’ lives.
Character-driven books may feel slower-paced and more intimate, and the reader is more likely to remember the character by name and feel like the reader knows them personally.
Since character-driven novels focus on the development of the character, plot-driven novels focus more on what happens in the characters’ lives. There may be more action in the characters’ lives, and the book may be paced much faster. However, the characters may feel less multi-faceted.
Harry Potter is both character-driven AND plot-driven. Over the course of the series, the reader learns about Harry’s inner workings and struggles, yet also follows along as Harry faces a lot of suspenseful action.
(Since I characterize Harry Potter as both character-driven AND plot-driven I didn’t include the series in the list below.)
A few of my favorite examples of character-driven novels are The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, My Brilliant Friend, The Dutch House, and A Gentleman in Moscow.
Below you can read more about these books and more of the best character-driven novels to help you decide what to read next.
Best Character Driven Novels
Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane
- New York Times Bestseller
- The Tonight Show Summer Reads Pick
- Named one of the best books of the year by People, Vogue, Parade, NPR, and Elle
Ask Again, Yes is a modern favorite about many unique family members and their neighbors in Brooklyn, who relate to each other over the course of decades that include tragedy, love, and mental illness that bind their lives together. It’s a great book for exploring how several different characters react to the same set of circumstances.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
In The Awakening, a young wife at the turn of the century in New Orleans grapples with finding herself as an independent woman and creating her own unique identity, while also exploring more controversial romantic feelings. It’s an early feminist classic that will leave you gasping.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Bell Jar takes you deep into the mind of a depressed, anxious, and neurotic young woman, struggling with coming-of-age. The inner dialogue of this character is something I have remembered for decades, making it one of my favorite books of all time.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
Holly Golightly of Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of the most iconic characters in both literature and in film. She’s a New York socialite during the 1940s, both glamorous and flawed. And as independent as she is, she’s also lost. It’s entirely a character-driven story told by an outsider, Holly’s neighbor, Fred, enamored by her mystique. She’s one of the most complex characters about which I have read, and the audiobook read by actor Michael C. Hall is one of my favorite audiobooks of all time. It’s also a very short read!
For more, read my full review of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Readers of all ages, everywhere, recall with fondness the journey taken with Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. It’s an intimate portrait of a troubled boy in New York that may be considered by many as one of the best novels of all time.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
- Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize
- New York Times Bestseller
- New York Times Book Review Notable Book
- TIME Magazine’s 100 Must-Read Books of 2019
- Named one of the Best Books of the Year by NPR, The Washington Post; O: The Oprah Magazine, Real Simple, Good Housekeeping, Vogue, Refinery29, and Buzzfeed
At this point, Read with Jenna book club pick The Dutch House is probably the book I have mentioned most on this blog to date. It was my favorite book of 2019, one of my favorite family dramas (my favorite genre), and one of my favorite audiobooks of all time (narrated by TOM HANKS!)
What’s unique about this character-driven book is the point of view. It’s narrated by a man named Danny, telling the story of his love for his sister Maeve throughout their lives, in which circumstances made her a mother figure to him in their childhood. In this way, the book sets forth the complex characters of both Danny and Maeve.
For more, read my full review of The Dutch House.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a popular, very well-liked Reese’s Book Club book about an introverted, yet quite likable, recluse woman. As the story unfolds, the reader learns why she is the way she is and awaits what may change her and how.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
New York Times bestseller with more than 2 million readers
When I think of the best character-driven novels, A Gentleman in Moscow is the ONE book that pops into my mind first. It’s about a man (“The Count”) sentenced to house arrest in a glamourous Russian hotel and how he changes and finds purpose over the decades of time, based on his circumstances and those he meets in his very limited world. Both he and the hotel are simply unforgettable!
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Even if you haven’t read The Great Gatsby, I am sure you have heard of Gatsby. His character is that influential in popular culture.
This character-driven classic is another book in which point of view matters. It’s told by an outsider, longing to inhabit the glamorous, lavish 1920s New York lifestyle of Jay Gatsby. This narration gives the reader a close look at the inner workings of two very different men in the same place at the same time.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
East of Eden is a classic Oprah’s book club pick that is also one of my favorite books of all time. It’s uniquely about how two families in California farmland manage the struggle between good and evil — a theme that is characteristic of all of our lives as well as in many of the best character-driven novels, but perhaps none as much as this, which is filled with Biblical references you’ll pick up on. For this reason, it may be said to be the ultimate character-driven book.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
- Named Book of the Month Club’s Book of the Year, 2017
- Selected one of New York Times Readers’ Favorite Books of 2017
- Winner of the 2018 Goldsboro Books Glass Bell Award
Cyril of The Heart’s Invisible Furies is one of the most memorable literary characters in this gushed-over book about his life as a gay man throughout several decades, primarily in Ireland. What’s truly special about this one is how carefully crafted (and funny!) dialogue shapes the characters — notably, Cyril and his long-lost mother, who unknowingly weaves her way throughout his life.
Ultimately, it’s about why Cyril’s mother left, and how he copes with his sexuality.
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
- A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR: Washington Post • NPR • Entertainment Weekly • Real Simple • Marie Claire • New York Public Library • LibraryReads • The Skimm • Lit Hub • Lit Reactor
- AN INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
The Immortalists is one of my favorite family dramas. I absolutely LOVED this book and kept it for my personal collection (although I donate most books) so I can re-read some of the richest, most meaningful passages about the meaning of life.
It’s about a family of four siblings in New York who are each told the dates on which they will die by a fortune teller. These predictions cause different reactions in the four siblings over the course of time as each of their predicted deaths looms. It’s a great book to discuss each of their personalities and how and why they changed by knowing the date they would presumably die.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
- NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
- USA TODAY BESTSELLER
- NATIONAL INDIE BESTSELLER
- THE WASHINGTON POST BESTSELLER
- Recommended by Entertainment Weekly, Real Simple, NPR, Slate, and Oprah Magazine
- BOOK OF THE YEAR (2020) FINALIST―Book of The Month Club
- A “Best Of” Book From: Oprah Mag * CNN * Amazon * Amazon Editors * NPR * Goodreads * Bustle * PopSugar * BuzzFeed * Barnes & Noble * Kirkus Reviews * Lambda Literary * Nerdette * The Nerd Daily * Polygon * Library Reads * io9 * Smart Bitches Trashy Books * LiteraryHub * Medium * BookBub * The Mary Sue * Chicago Tribune * NY Daily News * SyFy Wire * Powells.com * Bookish * Book Riot *Library Reads Voter Favorite
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue was the darling book of 2020 and so, I had to dive in, even though I am generally not one for fantasy. It’s about a young woman in the 1600s who bargains for immortality, but at the cost of never being remembered by anyone she meets. Over the course of several hundred years, this impedes her from doing everything from living to loving like a “normal” human.
When she meets a man who does remember her, things become more complicated. Ultimately it’s about how someone, even in Addie’s very unique set of circumstances, may make a mark over time.
You’ll love the whimsical writing. And be sure to get a hard copy for the illustrations that are important to the storyline.
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
New York Times bestseller
The Joy Luck Club so perfectly captures the characters of four Asian women that it definitively changed my way of thinking and made me feel a unique empathy I hadn’t understood before.
It’s about four modern Asian mothers and daughters in San Francisco and the struggles between them, but more importantly — the events long ago in different places that shaped who the mothers are today and how and why their modern relationships are strained. It’s a book I will likely never forget (and the movie is really good too!)
The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe
FINALIST FOR THE 2021 PEN/FAULKNER AWARD
The Knockout Queen is such an underrated highly character-driven book. I hadn’t heard a whole lot of hype about it, but it was so exquisitely written with such nuanced characters that I never wanted it to end.
It’s a coming-of-age story about a 6’3″ teen girl and her secretly gay high school male friend, who narrates the story. An act of violence binds their lives as they yearn to find their own identities and human connection.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
#1 New York Times bestseller
Little Fires Everywhere is a popular Reese’s book club selection that unpacks all the onion-like layers of a small Ohio town in the 1990s. The characters of many women, mostly mothers and their daughters, are explored through the eyes of different races and classes, and how these identities shape one’s views on what makes a good mother.
It starts with a house burned to the ground, then completely unpacks the tensions the characters experienced to get to that penultimate moment.
(The Hulu tv series of the same name is also fantastic!)
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
#1 New York Times bestseller with more than 2 million copies sold
A Man Called Ove is so well-loved that the name “Ove” has become synonymous with this book by beloved author Fredrik Backman. On its face, it appears to be the story of a grumpy old man. But, the novel uncovers the grief that caused his current mood and whether an unlikely friendship with a neighbor can give both characters new meaning in life.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
New York Times–bestseller
My Brilliant Friend is my favorite book of all time! It’s actually a series of four books, set in the decades that followed World War II in the slums of Naples, Italy. As the name suggests, it’s about a lifelong friendship between two girls, both of whom are smart, but only one of whom becomes educated. It’s nowhere near as straightforward as it seems, as the books twist and turn over the years as the characters change and do things that literally left me thinking, “I can’t believe she did that!”
The reader learns every single thing about these characters, from their best traits to their absolute worst. It’s really a masterclass in character development.
For more, read my full review of My Brilliant Friend.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
- NOW AN EMMY-NOMINATED HULU ORIGINAL SERIES
- NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
- ONE OF THE TEN BEST NOVELS OF THE DECADE—Entertainment Weekly
- TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR—People, Slate, The New York Public Library, Harvard Crimson
- AND BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR—The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, O: The Oprah Magazine, Time, NPR, The Washington Post, Vogue, Esquire, Glamour, Elle, Marie Claire, Vox, The Paris Review, Good Housekeeping, Town & Country
Normal People is a book that people either love or love to hate. I happened to love it (as well as the Hulu tv series!). I think some readers’ hatred comes directly from the characters themselves — they are really flawed, and they often get it all wrong.
Ironically, that’s actually what makes it one of my favorite love stories. The reader really gets a sense of what a relationship between two young people struggling internally may look like in real life.
In high school, Connell is popular and so, he hides his relationship with introverted, unpopular Marianne. In college, the tables have turned, and so begins years of a cat and mouse chase between two people who love each other, but seemingly never the right way at the right time.
For more, read my full review of Normal People.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The premise of The Old Man and the Sea is simple: a battle of man versus fish. But what lies beneath the lines are an intimate portrait one man’s inner courage and personal triumph.
Olive Kitteridge and Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
- WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE
- NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
Olive is a middle-aged curmudgeon in Maine whose inner thoughts on the people and events in her life teach her and the reader larger truths about life, love, and the growth of one’s spirit.
For more, read my full review of Olive, Again.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
- #1 New York Times Bestseller
- Over 5 million copies sold
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of my absolute favorite character-driven stories. Charlie is a 9th-grade introvert coming of age while harboring trauma, some of which the reader is aware, and some of which even Charlie cannot recall.
What’s unique about this story is that the reader gets a direct view inside his mind through letters he writes over the course of his first year of high school, in which he comes of age through friendship, family, and art.
It’s exquisitely crafted with beautifully complex humans, whose lives will both haunt you and give you hope.
For more, read my The Perks of Being a Wallflower summary with quotes.
Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
After reading Practical Magic, I felt the need to binge Hoffman’s books. I wasn’t expecting it to be so character-driven, but I ended up feeling so immersed in the world of the Owens sisters. They are two women, raised by their witchery-loving aunts in a small Massachusetts town, and they believe themselves to be cursed in love.
One copes by marrying and the other, by running away. But the bonds they share bring them back together, as each sister’s truest nature is revealed.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
Evelyn Hugo is another one of those characters that feel real, and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is one of those books that everyone raves about. It’s one of the books I most often recommend to others for that reason.
Evelyn is an aging Cuban American actress from the days of Hollywood glam, and she is ready to tell the story of her life with all seven of the men she married and why, but there’s a catch, as Evelyn is hiding a huge secret about her true nature.
It’s proof that we don’t really know everything we think we may know about a given celebrity.
For more, read my full review of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.
There There by Tommy Orange
- One of The New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year
- Winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award
- National bestseller
There There gives voices to several Native Americans in present-day Oakland, as they prepare to attend a Pow Wow. Each of the many characters has reacted differently to their identity as a modern Native American in chapters that alternate the narrator, and these multifaceted characters ultimately converge in a big way.
I recommend a hard copy of this book so you can keep track of the characters! It’s incredibly memorable.
This Is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel
This Is How It Always Is is another one of Reese Witherspoon’s book club picks, and it’s probably my favorite. It’s about how a modern family copes when one of their young children wants to change his gender. It’s delicate and intimate, and as the reader follows the family’s evolving consideration of the issue both within the four walls of their home and outside of it, you’re bound to think, “How what I feel? What would I do?”
For more, read my full review of This Is How It Always Is.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
- #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
- 2021 WOMEN’S PRIZE FINALIST
- NAMED A BEST BOOK OF 2020 BY THE NEW YORK TIMES * THE WASHINGTON POST * NPR * PEOPLE * TIME MAGAZINE* VANITY FAIR * GLAMOUR
The Vanishing Half was my favorite book of 2020! It’s about two light-skinned Black twin girls raised in Louisiana, and how the color of their skin shapes each of their identities and how they feel about race over the course of several decades apart. It explores how two of the “same” people may differ when it comes to who they are at their cores, and why.
For more, read my full review of The Vanishing Half.
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- Voted America’s Best-Loved Novel in PBS’s The Great American Read
- Pulitzer Prize-winner
You’ve likely read To Kill A Mockingbird, the classic coming-of-age story of young Scout in the prejudicial South, as her lawyer father Atticus Finch defends a Black man unjustly accused of a crime. It’s a masterpiece of both point of view and character in a very specific time and place.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Marie Semple
Bernadette is one of my absolute favorite literary characters. She’s a quirky, funny, artistic woman, who, after a string of comical events, escapes from her ordinary, suburban life, in order to find herself. While there’s definitely a lot of plot in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, the razor-sharp dialogue of Bernadette and the theme of her very personal, inward journey make this one of the best character-driven novels.
Writers & Lovers by Lily King
Writers & Lovers is another book that felt underrated to me at the time it came out. While it was a Today Show book club pick, it still didn’t seem to get the hype I believe it deserves. A twentysomething woman in Boston in the 1990s is dealing with grief and trying to kickstart her career as a writer, while also dating.
This exact point of view, and the unique struggles of someone in this lost place in life, feel so rarely publicized to me. This book puts you right into the heart and mind of a conflicted new adult on the cusp of her future, yet not having a clue what it will entail.
Those are the best character-driven novels you won’t want to miss!