Character-Driven Novels I Couldn’t Put Down

September 6, 2018 Book Lists 31

Character-Driven Novels


These are not the novels that are driven forward by action…the yearn to know what will happen next. Rather, these are novels that I can’t put down because I just can’t stop reading about these characters. But, the end result is the same as an action-oriented page turner. I flew through the pages…no matter how many there were (and some of these are LONG books).

As I was putting this list together, I realized how many of my very favorite books were on it…leading me to realize that character-driven novels I can’t put down might be my favorite type of book out there. Part of the allure is that character-driven novels can easily feel slow and boring. It’s rare to find a character-driven novel that grabs you so hard you can’t put it down.

A couple other random observations about the books on this list:

  • 9 were on my Best Books of the Year lists (and another two will probably make this year’s list).
  • 4 gave me big enough reading hangovers to qualify them for the Alcohol sides of my Alcohol & Advil posts.
  • 10 have a spot on my real life bookshelves…which are (surprisingly) not very crowded and only my very favorites make it onto the shelves!

This post contains affiliate links (plus: here’s your Amazon Smile-specific affiliate link).

Latest Addition(s) (July 12, 2019)

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert (my review)
The characters make this story come alive…they’re unapologetically frivolous and fun and most of them are bawdy, badass ladies in an era when ladies weren’t generally badass or bawdy.

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

Character-Driven Novels I Couldn’t Put Down

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne (my review)
The story of an author who is single-mindedly focused on becoming world famous (despite having trouble coming up with story ideas) and will use anything and anyone to get there. This book features one of the best villains I’ve ever come across in fiction.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (my review)
Spanning 30 years, the story of four male friends (Willem, J.B., Malcolm, and Jude) trying to make their way in New York City while dealing with the implications of Jude’s tragic childhood. 
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
During a Little League baseball game, Owen Meany kills his best friend’s mom when his foul ball hits her in the head…and this is the story of their journey from there.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

Ask Again, Yesby Mary Beth Keane (my review)
A family drama about mental illness, addiction, and how these characters cope during the aftermath of a horrible tragedy. I was riveted…5 stars.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (my review)
An ill fated christening party is the catalyst that ruins the Keating and Cousins marriages…and creates a blended family trying to navigate their new world.

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (Full review coming)
An oral history of a fictional 1970’s rock band that felt so real I kept forgetting it was fiction. I’m predicting this novel will be my #1 book of 2019. 
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg (my review)
The story of June Reid, who loses her entire family (her daughter and her fiancee, her boyfriend, and her ex-husband) in a horrible tragedy on the night before her daughter’s wedding.

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

Normal Peopleby Sally Rooney (my review)
This is the kind of relationship book that is utterly riveting, but also made me feel a little uncomfortable in the best way possible (like White Fur and Tender).
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (my review)
A sweet, calm, and uncomplicated novel about two older people (Louis and Addie) who stopped caring what everyone else thought and did what they needed to do to be happy.

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler (my review)
Four childhood best friends from the small town of Little Wing, Wisconsin reconnect at a wedding and try to find their places in the adult world.

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel (my review)
A story of the simmering dynamics of a string quartet and that explores the implications of having an essentially business relationship that supersedes all other relationships in the members’ lives.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

The Female Persuasionby Meg Wolitzer (my review)
Greer is a shy college student still in love with her high school boyfriend when she meets Faith Frank, an icon of the women’s movement, who changes the trajectory of Greer’s life.

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai (my review)
A group of gay friends and their female friend (Fiona) navigate the AIDS crisis and deal with the death of one of their own in 1980’s Chicago…and decades later, Fiona sets out to Paris to find her estranged daughter and encounters the past in the process.

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The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne (my review)
After Cyril Avery was born out of wedlock to an Irish country teenager and given up for adoption to a wealthy, Dublin couple, he wrestles with his identity and how he fits into the country of Ireland over the course of his life.

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer (my review)
Jules Jacobson becomes best friends with five teenagers at a summer camp for the arts in the 1970’s, remaining friends despite completely different experiences in adulthood.

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The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin (my review)
The story of the Skinner family – the four Skinner children, their father’s unexpectedly passing in his thirties, their mother’s years long depression (which the children call “the Pause”), and how their lives unfold into adulthood. This dysfunctional family novel focused on family dynamics, reminded me of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth (my review), and was my first 5 star book of 2019!
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

The Mothers by Brit Bennett (my review)
While seventeen year-old Nadia Turner is mourning the shocking loss of her mother, she starts a relationship with Luke Sheppard, her pastor’s son, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy.

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugoby Taylor Jenkins Reid (my review)
Legendary film actress Evelyn Hugo recruits young journalist, Monique, to write her life story, including the stories of her seven marriages.

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The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides (my review)
In a Detroit suburb, the five enigmatic Lisbon sisters commit suicide over the course of a year and the neighborhood boys who were obsessed with them try to understand why.

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

The Wife by Meg Wolitzer (my review)
On a flight to Helsinki to watch him receive a prestigious literary prize, Joan decides to leave her famous novelist husband, Joe, after a decades long marriage. 

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This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel (my review)
When Claude, the youngest son of a family of five boys, starts to realize he wants to be a girl, the family must learn how to best support Claude and adjust to the situation.

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

This Must Be the Placeby Maggie O’Farrell
A family drama / love story…involving a Hollywood actress that the world had presumed missing and an American divorcee on the run from his problems. It feels like an epic, but reads easily.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (my review)
The story of Zelda and author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s relationship as told from Zelda’s fictional perspective.

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What character-driven novels have you not been able to put down?

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31 Responses to “Character-Driven Novels I Couldn’t Put Down”

  1. Susie | Novel Visits

    Great list, Sarah, and I’d have to say i totally agree with you on your choices. Good character driven novels are the best. The only two I haven’t read here are Shotgun Lovesongs and Our Souls at Night. Judging by how much I loved the others, i should get to those two ASAP!

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I think you’d love both – and Our Souls is super short! You could read it in an afternoon.

  2. Aj @ Read All The Things!

    I’m glad that so many of these are on my TBR list. I like character-driven stories. I read A Prayer for Owen Meany when I was in high school. I still remember a lot about it, even though that was a LONG time ago.

  3. Gabby

    YES character-driven stories! They’re my favorite kind of books. Most of these I’ve already read (The Virgin Suicides is my all-time fave!) and I’m adding the ones that weren’t already on my TBR to it!

  4. renee

    Not surprisingly we have several of these favorites in common! A Little Life tops my list and is still my favorite book ever with Heart’s a close second. I do think I’m more partial to character driven books when it comes to what stays with me the most. Great post!

  5. Amy @ Read a Latte

    This is such a mixed list for me! Some are all times favorites, some I couldn’t make myself even finish! And I’m still too scared A Little Life will just ruin me. Also, you’re so good at bite-sized summaries! I always go on forever even when I try to keep it short.

      • Amy

        Commonwealth, This is How It Always Is (I tried for sooo long, like 200+ pages and I just couldn’t), The Interestings, and The Virginia Suicides (i want to try this one again though!)

  6. Carmen

    I have two of these novels on my TBR, The Heart…and Z. I have to expand my general fiction tastes. Next year, per your endorsement, I will be reading The Heart Invisible Furies. I prefer plot-centric books with good to great character development, but I haven’t really thought whether a character driven book is that important for me or not.

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I think HIF is a great place to start. One of the best characters I’ve read in ages.

  7. Beth F

    Nice list, though a DFN’d at least one of these. Others, though, are also favorites of mine. I generally like character-driven novels.

  8. Allison

    Love this list! I’ve read half of these and loved them all–which means I definitely need to read the rest. I haven’t heard of Shotgun Lovesongs but it sounds like one that would hit home. (I’m from WI and my 20th reunion is coming up–though I’m not going 🙂 )

    Have a great weekend!

  9. Rebecca Foster

    I’ve enjoyed eight of the ones you mention…so I’d better pick up all the rest too! I like how you’re gradually chiselling out this picture of the books you love the most. It should help you when picking out books in the future?

  10. Claire at A Novel Look

    So many of these are on my TBR! And I absolutely loved Commonwealth, The Mothers, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, and Z. I generally love character-driven novels, but I have to be in the right headspace for it. The Virgin Suicides is on my Fall TBR list; I’m excited to read it after hearing about it forever.

  11. SueAnne Robinson

    I’ve read almost every book on this list and loved most of them. They are the books that stand apart from other good books I’ve read. A Little Life, Owen Meany, Commonwealth, Our Souls at Night and Hearts Invisible Furies were supestar books for me. Now I need to add Shotgun Lovesongs (for me the cover did it no justice in wanting to read it), The Great Believers and Z. I’d love to see more of these listed since they seem to be what I need when it’s more than a page turner I’m after.

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