Bookbanter Column: The Power of Character (January 25, 2013)

Readers can be divided mostly into two categories, and a smaller number into a third.  There are readers who choose, read and enjoy books for the story, the plot, what the whole thing is about; get caught up in it and stay hooked to the very end, enjoying the entire tale.  Then there are readers who pick and read books for characters, for unique people they become fascinated in reading about, knowing that they drive the story and keep reading to find out where and how the characters will end up.

And then there are the readers that enjoy books for both character and story equally.  But we’re not going to talk about that contingent today.  Today we’re focusing on those readers who look for books that are character-driven.  They are the type of people who study and seek out people interacting in their lives, and relish reading about it on the page, seeing what makes people tick, how they will act and react in certain situations, and how when two or more are brought together in a specific situation, what exactly will happen.

Unsurprisingly, there are writers like this too; likely because they are these same types of people.  It is people they like to write about, and not so much the story, as they let their characters drive said story, not always certain where they are going to take it, but always excited about the ride.  Two particular authors who do this and do this very well, as shown by their international bestsellerdom, are Haruki Murakami and John Irving.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,  Kafka on the Shore, 1Q84.

Haruki Murakami is a massive author celebrity in his native Japan, as well as around the world.  Perhaps best known for one of his early works, Norwegian Wood, many of his other books have gone on to become just as popular, such as The Wind-Up Bird ChronicleKafka on the Shore, and most recently with his epic three-volume tome, 1Q84.

When one picks up a Murakami book — whether it be a novel or short story collection — one knows they are in for a real treat, as the story will be unique and fascinating and certain to be one wild ride, but it is all due to the characters.  Murakami begins with a character, a type of person you likely haven’t met before, with an interesting life, that immediately draws you into the story, and it is the choices and decisions that this character makes that drives the story.

You may be saying: well this is true for all stories, that characters makes choices and the story moves forward, but they key is whether an event happens in a story that forces a character to make a decision, or whether the character makes a decision that then forces an event in the story.

With Murakami it’s always about the character making that decision or choice that forces the event and moves the story along.

The same can be said for John Irving.

The Cider House Rules, The World According to Garp  The Hotel New Hampshire, A Prayer for Owen Meany, In One Person, Son of the Circus

Irving is perhaps best known for his bestselling novel, The Cider House Rules (as well as the popular movie adaptation), but has written many books that have become just as big, including The World According to Garp  The Hotel New Hampshire, and  A Prayer for Owen Meany.  His most recent book is In One Person.

While Murakami may perhaps be best known for having fascinating individual characters with each of his books, Irving is the master of the all star cast of special people.

To say that Irving’s characters are flawed characters is putting it extremely lightly for his books; everyone has some sort of problem, but it is because of this that the characters make the choices that they do that further the plot and lead to the next chapter.  And this is what Irving’s readers enjoy most about his books, as they look forward to seeing where these characters’ choices will lead them.

Nobody in this world is perfect, and so when we read about flawed characters, we perhaps can see a little of ourselves in them and are therefore fascinated in seeing where they end up.

Writers or books aren’t better for being plot-driven or character-driven, and readers shouldn’t think otherwise.  Everyone is different; which is why there are many different types of writers and many different types of readers in the world.  Character-driven stories and books will continue to be written by authors like Haruki Murakami, John Irving and many others; and there will continue to be many readers for these types of works who receive great entertainment in reading about what happens to a character when they make a specific choice or decision.

Originally published on Forces of Geek.

“Kafka on the Shore” by Haruki Murakami (Random House, 2005)

Kafka on the Shore
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Internationally bestselling author Haruki Murakami is well known for his use of the fantastic in his novels, to the point where they could quite easily be classed as fantasy or science fiction books; at the very least the literary world likes to brand them as works of “magical realism.”  Kafka on the Shore is an excellent example of this and a good book to start on for those not too familiar with his work, as the world is well grounded before the fantastic appears in the story, broken up into shortish chapters so the reader doesn’t become lost.  The book also features one of the darkest and most horrific scenes involving cats that I’ve ever read.

There are two storylines in Kafka on the Shore.  One is of Kafka Tamura, who is sick of the pathetic excuse for parenting from his celebrity father, and runs away from home, embarking on his own adventure, meeting special and unusual people only Murakami could create.  He is in search of the identity of his lost sister, and looking to find out who his real mother is.  Kafka ends up working at a small library, where there is a middle-aged lady who could well be his mother, as well as a transsexual librarian who becomes a good and close friend.

And then there is Nakata, an old simple man who seems to be losing his marbles, but actually knows what he’s talking about and has his own journey to go on and complete.  He can also talk to cats.  After dealing with a problem he heads on his journey that skillfully brings him into the Kafka storyline, but it is not until near the end of the book that the whole story is revealed and realized.  While the story continues on a little too long, even though the story feels complete, Kafka on the Shore is a great example of the fantastic writer that is Haruki Murakami.

Originally written on December 30, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.

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