A character study is a book that puts the focus firmly on the protagonist and their innermost workings, giving them precedence over pulse-pounding action. It’s a fascinating way to examine different aspects of human nature, and one of my favourite ‘genres’, if you could call it that. Here are a few recommendations that have particularly stayed with or intrigued me.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a quietly sinister story of madness, sisterhood, isolation and a fear of ‘otherness’, with one of the most delightfully odd and disturbed narrators I’ve encountered for a long time. We follow two sisters and their uncle, the only survivors of a mysterious poisoning incident that left the rest of their family dead. Shutting themselves away from the wider world, the reciprocal fear they and outsiders feel for each other simmers and builds towards an unexpected climax. Jackson herself was suffering from agoraphobia at the time of its writing, and the way she explores this notion through her characters adds a whole other dynamic to the story.
The Dumb House by John Burnside
The main character in The Dumb House is surely one of the most sinister and twisted individuals you will encounter in fiction; a man who takes drastic steps to satisfy his need to understand the nature of language and the presence of the human soul. Burnside chooses to open the book in the aftermath of the climax and then revert to the beginning, meaning we always know the depths he will ultimately sink to, and instead are taken along with fascinated horror as we see how he ends up reaching that point. To me, it was a warning about the danger of the human desire to understand everything about the world when there are in fact many things beyond our comprehension.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Set in the early 1800s, Burial Rites is a fictionalised account of the last execution to take place in Iceland. Agnes, our heroine, is sent to live with a family in an isolated farm house as she awaits her death, having been accused of the murder of her former master. As well as exploring the way the members of the family forced to keep an eye on her react to her presence, the book asks us to consider Agnes’s potential guilt and what may drive a young woman to kill someone. It’s worth note that as well as Agnes herself, the severity and drama of the Icelandic landscape mean it becomes a crucial character of the book in its own right.
Little Deaths by Emma Flint
Little Deaths would probably be better described as a character assassination rather than a character study, as we watch the police and media orchestrate the demonization of Ruth, a woman suspected of killing her own two children, by manipulating the way the world perceives her due to a dislike of the way she lived her life, cleverly mirroring the fact that she has lost control of her own fate. Plot-wise, things lost me a little towards the end by trying to have the shocking ‘reveal’ moment of a thriller, when in reality its strength was always its exploration of Ruth and the slut-shaming mentality and patriarchal influence that lead to the incarceration we know awaits her from the off-set; but it was still an engrossing read.
The Collector by John Fowles
The Collector is unique amongst these suggestions in that it’s an equal study of two characters; Frederik, a butterfly collector who decides to ‘collect’ the object of his romantic obsessions, and Miranda, the art student who becomes Frederik’s captive. We first follow Frederik’s perspective as he abducts Miranda, believing that she will fall for him if only he can keep her for long enough, before we see the same events retold from Miranda’s perspective via the diary she keeps during her ordeal. A fascinatingly warped play for power ensues between the two, with their narrative voices and unique motivations well defined and realised.
The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
The Driver’s Seat is a short and absorbing tale that chronicles the bizarre downfall of a woman hellbent on self-destruction. Spark, like Burnside and Flint, reveals the fate of her flawed protagonist in the opening chapters of the book, meaning it’s the reader’s task to try and understand the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what’ of her actions. This notion also cleverly ties in with the title, as we consider the extent to which she still has control over her own life by the end of the book, and to what extent she’s spiralled beyond any sense of reason or restraint. It’s a book to make you think, with Spark not indulging us with all the answers, leaving us to experience the whirlwind of Lise’s life and consider the depth of her arguable madness.
As always, I encourage you to share your own recommendations in return. So, what are some of your favourite character studies? Let’s chat about them.