Character is everything in literary fiction. Not that character replaces plot and setting or theme and meaning, but character intimately does relate to all those. Although characters are sometimes categorized as round or flat, every character in fiction must have complexities and uniqueness that may or may not be written on the page. A character that does not need to be fully presented for the story may appear two dimensional, but there should be three dimensions in the creator’s mind. Full character development assures the author has thought about the story as a unit: depth of understanding of all characters assures underlying motivations are reasonable, dialogue believable, and logic of action is clear.Stories that give delight through imaginative development and continue to do so for generations have not only a universality to them, but are also valuable examples for writers. When a story becomes part of our literary heritage, story elements such as characters, events, and phrasing, often become a usable part of our language and actually enhance communication and understanding among us all. “Call me Ishmael.”Note that many of the classics ride on a bed of metaphysical questions: what is love? who are we? why are we here? Even when action and plot resolution—often politically oriented or embroiled in societal conflicts–seem to dominate the story, there is always some underlying meaning addressed, meaning that may or may not be obvious to the reader but that the reader senses as a significant force in the telling.
Anna Karenina (serialized 1873-1877)
Tolstoy’s novel is cherished by most writers. Strong character achievements in Anna, her husband Karenin, her lover Vronsky, and Levin. Probably one of the best examples of a complex action-plot driven by character traits.
Jane Eyre (1847)
Charlotte Bronte develops a character with whom most readers readily sympathize—all in the context of a dated romance story with some convenient plot manipulations toward the end. The study of Bronte’s beautifully crafted character Jane—who is hard not to love and cheer for–is worthy of study.
The Painted Veil (1925)
Somerset Maugham’s writing style thrives with expertly crafted scenes. Although the ending is unsatisfactory to some, the explorations of the intricacies of the human heart are extraordinary. (The film version by the same name (2006) was not widely acclaimed but is enjoyable and useful for study.)
Pride and Prejudice (1813)
Elizabeth is Jane Austen’s special achievement in a novel constructed so perfectly as to be difficult to fault. Making characters written on a page live as real in the reader is Austen’s gift to be studied by the serious writer. (The film (2005) is an excellent addition to working out the convoluted plot.)
All the King’s Men (1946)
Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize winning book (1947) is worthy of study for the synergistic narrative of Jack Burden. Although not technically historical fiction, the use of reality events as the structure for a fictional novel (the protagonist Willie Stark follows the career of Huey Long of Louisiana) is a useful concept to effectively examine framing fiction on reality. (Two film versions not recommended for study.)
The Great Gatsby (1935)
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, an example of posthumous success, is a valuable study in narration, plot development, and setting as an integral part of reader-involvement in the story, almost to a point of taking on character distinctiveness. A film, The Great Gatsby (1974), with screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and stars included Robert Redford as Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy, is an enjoyable study for writers for story structure and POV differences in novels and film. However, some critics feel the film too glamorous and that the point of view is often shifted to Robert Redford’s celebrity persona to the detriment of the novel’s original purpose. Worthy of a look to form your own opinion.
Moby Dick (1851)
Melville’s American novel provides every writer with aspirations to develop vivid, action-packed (and addictive) prose with imagery examples that have dramatic impact.
Barn Burning (1938) (in Collected Short Stories of William Faulkner)
William Faulkner’s short story with intense characterization provided with details selected by a master author. A good example of exploring how readers respect, admire, sympathize with, and accept a character, often without liking the character, yet caring about the character in complicated ways. A prime reminder that successful characters: 1) evoke some caring in the reader about what happens to that character (realized by strong characterization), 2) must be unique and interesting, even if common and familiar, 3) must capture reader-respect, if not liked by the reader.
A Passage to India (1924)
EM Forster’s novel is on almost every top 100 hundred list for best novels. Forster’s gift of storytelling is the emphasis here. Conflicts abound and the resultant actions are valuable examples of cause and effect.
Howard’s End (1910)
EM Forster’s (see Aspects of the Novel) simply beautiful novel about Edwardian England. Margaret and Helen are masterful examples of characterization that direct plot (the core of literary fiction). Especially valuable as a companion to A Passage to India for analyzing structure of a novel.
The Merchant Ivory Productions film(1992) version starred Emma Thompson, who won an Academy Award for her performance. The film is a valuable adjunct to studying the story.
William Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for this novel. An interesting study in use of internal reflection, as well as explored levels of consciousness and complex time line.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962)
Ken Kesey uses conflict and action to create dramatically sequenced of events by interesting character who the readers often become surprised at how much they really care about these nutty souls. This was Kesey’s only success, and grew from a peculiar personal history. It is worthy of study for the value of innovative, if not bizarre, story line so well told that it has become an inseparable part of American culture.
The 1975 film version, directed by Milos Forman, won five academy awards (Best Picture, Actor in Lead Role, Actress in Lead Role, Director, Screenplay). Jack Nicholson’s performance is of particular note. Great for additional study of story outline and realization.
Mrs. Dalloway (1925)
Virginia Wolf’s novel is perfect for understanding facile use of point of view to best advantage. The story is restricted to a staid period but is so expert in its delivery as to be an important transitional example in the development of the novel. Often recommended for its stream of consciousness narrative, but there is much more of value to the student, particularly structure, narration, and point of view.
Turn of the Screw (1898)
An example of Henry James as the master of character motivation and reader involvement. Not just a ghost story, as sometimes claimed. James’ dramatic sense in story development is particularly successful on the interpersonal—relationship plane. James teases the reader into the story and then leaves the reader with unsolved questions. How readers answer these questions eventually may result in self-revelations. A “frame story” worthy of careful attention.
V.S. Pritchett: Complete Collected Stories (1992)
Decades ago, VS Pritchett published short stories in The New Yorker. In America he never became the household word the quality of his work demanded. A wonderful collection of Pritchett valuable to enjoy as a reader and to learn from as a writer.
War and Peace Translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky
Tolstoy’s masterpiece and one of the most acclaimed novels of all time recently (2007) translated by two established and talented translators to give us the most readable translation ever. (ISBN-13: 978-0-30-7-26693-4)
Wuthering Heights (1947)
Emily Bronte’s only novel but a masterpiece, especially for the writer learning the techniques of great fiction. The narration seamlessly involves the narrator and many of the characters. The timeline is complex with story-present only a small part of the total text; the major portion of the story is back story . . . always in action scenes and with carefully maintained chronology. Heathcliff and Catherine are well developed characters, and the influence of Ellen Dean as a narrator reflects effective use of intriguing narrator reliability and irony. Overall, richly rewarding, well worth rereading, and always something to learn for improving personal writing of literary stories.
A Simple Heart (in the book Three Tales) (1877)
Gustave Flaubert’s short story, “A Simple Heart” in Three Tales (ISBN-13: 978-0-140-44800-9), is thought, by many, to be one of the great examples of harmonious and effective prose. It is in this story where Flaubert’s symbolic parrot takes on memorable significance. The prose is rich with imagery, concrete and sparse. Well worthy of study by any author.