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 100+ books a year and 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.

Top 3 Character Driven Novels

My favorite book of all time

My favorite book of 2019

My favorite “required reading” in school

More of the 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 PeopleVogueParade, 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 was 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!


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.


Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

  • Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
  • Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction
  • A New York Times “Ten Best Books of 2022”
  • Instant New York Times Bestseller
  • Instant Wall Street Journal Bestseller 
  • #1 Washington Post Bestseller
  • Oprah’s Book Club pick

Demon Copperhead is one of the best books of the 21st century — a modern masterpiece. An homage to David Copperfield and a statement on modern institutional poverty, it begins with the unforgettable violent birth of an Appalachian boy to an addicted and single teen mom in their mobile home. He foreshadows that he was “marked from the get-out,” and yearns for superheroes and the ocean.

It’s a one-of-a-kind coming-of-age story told by Demon Copperhead himself, who grew up poor, in the foster system, and completely surrounded by addiction and death. This empathetic and colorful protagonist has a voice that’s uniquely his own (I don’t know HOW Kingsolver transported herself into his fictional brain so masterfully) in telling of his lifelong fight for survival amidst so much of the absolute worst in life.

Demon Copperhead offers the reader a firsthand look at the struggles facing many Appalachian Americans today in a very humanizing way. In fact, Kingsolver succeeds so well at telling this tale as if firsthand that many may find it reads more like a memoir than literary fiction.

Related Posts: Demon Copperhead Discussion Questions | Review for Demon Copperhead | Demon Copperhead Synopsis | Demon Copperhead Characters


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 SimpleGood Housekeeping, Vogue, Refinery29, and Buzzfeed
  • Read with Jenna Book Club pick

At this point, The Dutch House by Ann Patchett is probably the book I have mentioned most on this blog to date. It’s 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 information, read my summary and review of The Dutch House or get discussion questions for The Dutch House.


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.


Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a popular, very well-liked 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. It’s hard not to build a connection with Eleanor and empathize with her personal struggles in this one.


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!

Related Post: Discussion Questions for A Gentleman in Moscow


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.


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 Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride

Best for fans of character-driven literary fiction

  • Instant New York Times bestseller
  • a New York Times notable book
  • Barnes & Noble’s Book of the Year
  • a best book of the year by NPR/Fresh Air, Washington Post, The New Yorker, and Time Magazine
  • One of Barack Obama’s favorite books of the year

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store is known as a “love-affirming” character-driven novel about the power of community.

The plot is simple: In the suburban Philadelphia Pottstown, Pennsylvania, neighborhood Chicken Hill in 1926, where immigrant Jews and African Americans live, a young, deaf, and orphaned boy named Dodo is institutionalized at a local asylum and his Jewish Chicken Hill neighbors and extended African American family members plan to rescue him.  

But, the characters (numbering 100+) and the themes (religion, racism, disability, and more) are abundant as the story is teased out by describing both the townspeople and famous people of the time to show how they co-exist and how they affect each others’ lives. The novel also regularly compares and contrasts Chicken Hill to Philadelphia.

If you don’t mind a slow-burning plot or a lot of characters, this book is a must read.  It makes your heart swell, then leaves you with the kind of book hangover only the most meaningful books can.

Related Posts: The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store Characters | The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store Book Club Questions


Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano

In Hello Beautiful, William is a young man whose family endured a tragedy decades earlier that left him with parents who didn’t nurture him. 

As a college freshman, however, he meets a woman named Julia who lifts his spirits along with her three unique sisters, who hail from a loving family, hearkening to the sisterhood set forth in Little Women.

When the past resurfaces, William’s, Julia’s, and all the Padavano’s lives are inexplicably changed for generations. It’s an epic family saga told in beautiful literary prose that imparts masterfully woven themes of family, love, anger, forgiveness, and so much more.

This was one of my top reads in 2023 and, actually, one of my top reads of the past several years. The characters feel absolutely alive and real (I even referred to them as real people at one point), and their choices offer the most abundant amount of things to think about and discuss.

Related Post: Guide to Hello Beautiful


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 WeeklyReal SimpleNPRSlate, and Oprah Magazine
  • Finalist for Book of the Year at Book of The Month Club
  • A “Best Of” book: 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 it comes 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
  • #1 Indie Next bestseller
  • Amazon’s Best Fiction Book of 2017
  • Winner of the Ohioana Award
  • Goodreads Readers Choice Award 2017 in Fiction
  • A Best Book of the Year by: People, The Washington Post, Bustle, Esquire, Southern Living, The Daily Beast, GQ, Entertainment Weekly, NPR, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Audible, Goodreads, Library Reads, Book of the MonthPasteKirkus ReviewsSt. Louis Post-Dispatch, and many more
  • Reese’s Book Club pick

Little Fires Everywhere 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!)

Related posts: Little Fires Everywhere Book Club Questions and Celeste Ng Books in Order


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 historical fiction series of four books called the Neopolitan Novels, 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.


Normal People by Sally Rooney

  • Now an Emmy-nominated Hulu 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
  • Best books of the year: The New York TimesThe 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, as well as a novel I think Rory Gilmore would read today. 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.


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 of 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

In my mind, Olive Kitteridge is a real person. And that’s because reading Olive Kitteridge and Olive, Again (an Oprah’s book club pick) is like reading her personal diaries.

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.


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 of 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.


Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

After reading Practical Magic, I felt the need to binge all of the Practical Magic 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 Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History is one of the best character-driven novels that somehow delivers both character development and a suspenseful, forward-moving plot.

Set in a New England college in the 1980s, it follows an outsider who makes friends with a unique group of students obsessed with the classics to the point that it leads them down a very dark path of morally questionable behavior.

The reader can clearly envision each character and their motivations in this unforgettable story. I had mental images of each of them while reading it!


The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

New York Times bestseller

Evelyn Hugo is another one of those characters that feel real, and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid 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.


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 one of my favorite books (as well as a universally beloved book) 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?”


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.

Related post: Best To Kill a Mockingbird Quotes


The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

  • #1 New York Times bestseller
  • 2021 Women’s Prize Finalist
  • Named a best book of 2020 by New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, People, Time Magazine, Vanity Fair, Glamour
  • Good Morning America Book Club pick

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.


Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Marie Semple

National bestseller

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

The Today Show Book Club pick

Writers & Lovers is another book that felt underrated to me at the time it came out. 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.


Frequently Asked Questions

What does character-driven mean?

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.

What is character-driven versus plot-driven?

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.

Is Harry Potter character-driven or plot-driven?

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.

What are examples of character-driven novels?

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.


Conclusion

Those are all the best character-driven novels you won’t want to miss and you WILL remember forever. To recap and help you decide where to start or what to read next, the top three picks are:

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6 Comments

  1. The Bell Jar shows that the author Silvia Plath is a talented author. But it also reflects her sense of racial superiority, perhaps subliminally. Here is a list of “racial slurs” a reader cites on Goodreads.com:

    • In one part, Esther Greenwood describes her reflection as “a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face,”
    • In another she says: “the face in the mirror looks like a sick Indian”
    • At one point she calls indigenous Mexicans ugly and says things like “dusky as a bleached-blonde negress”
    • In a scene where Esther is being served dinner while in the mental health institute. The man serving her is described as a stupid, laughing, indolent Black man with huge, rolling eyes, a racist trope made popular with books like “The Story of Little Black Sambo,” which was published in 1898. During this scene, the man commits the “offense” of serving two types of beans for dinner, and Esther punishes him for it by kicking him.
    • When Esther’s friend is telling her about a guy she’s interested in, who happens to be from Peru, Esther replies with: “they’re squat…they’re ugly as Aztecs.

    In addition, Plath speaks of “yellow as a Chinaman,” and refers to a handsome man as “Nordic.”

    In my opinion, the book doesn’t deserve to be censored, but at least a caveat should be included.

  2. I m in the process of writing my first ebook that I would like convert into audiobook. This article gave me some idea that I need to describe character rather than action plot.