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.


“Norwegian Wood” by Haruki Murakami (Vintage, 2000)

Norwegian Wood

Norwegian Wood is the book that launched Japanese author Haruki Murakami from a mid-list author to international stardom and bestsellerdom, not just in his native Japan, but throughout the world.  With its unique combination of western world references and influences combined with the story of growing up in Japan, its success forced the author to leave Japan and live in Europe for some time.  It can best be summed up as Murakami’s Catcher in the Rye for Japan.

Norwegian Wood is a change from Murakami’s more well-known and expected dark and mysterious novels – usually involving some form of magical realism – featuring a down-to-earth story with some very unusual and special characters.  Toro is working his way through college, growing up in the late sixties, and Murakami seems to pulling a little from his own college years here, with the interesting details about Toro’s strange and overly-neat roommate, along with the growing animosity of the students on campus.  Toro’s closest friend killed himself when he was a teenager, and now his late best friend’s girlfriend – Naoko – has come back into his life.  As they meet and discuss and deal with the loss, their relationship grows and develops, yet Naoko is still having a very hard time dealing with what happened to her psychologically, as well as dealing with the world.

Told from Toro’s first-person perspective, it seems that Toro is the only grounded, “normal” person in the book.  But as the reader gets further along, they realize that Toro has his own problems and issues that he has been hiding.  Then there are his few strange friends, who would certainly not be considered normal by any means, not to mention the eccentric girls he meets up with; some he befriends, others he never sees again.

Norwegian Wood is about a boy becoming a man during the sixties in Japan, educating himself through college, and learning about love and life through relationships and choices.  It is an entertaining and moving story that also has a number of life lessons hidden within its pages.

Originally written on November 20, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.

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