Sticky Characters

I’ve been thinking about the books I enjoy the most and it turns out that all of them have what I’d call “sticky” characters.  By that I mean that when I look back on the book, the thing that jumps out at me first is the characters — not the plot, the prose, the theme, the worldbuilding or underlying ideas, but the characters.  This is perhaps, unsurprising, since it squares with my own sensibilities as a writer.  I’ve long maintained that if a reader comes away from my books talking as an initial matter about anything other than the characters, then I haven’t accomplished my goal when it comes to that reader.

Now, it’s obviously true that characters are the lens through which any story occurs, so they’re always of enormous importance.  But when a character strikes me as merely that lens and little else, they feel dull to me, decidedly unsticky.  On the other hand, when a fully realized, well rendered character jumps off the page, it feels organic, magical, and such characters stick.  And when a book has characters like that, I’ll forgive a whole lot of other shortcomings in plot, prose, and so on.

Quick now — think about the last five books you’ve read.  Can you tell me the names and a bit about two of the characters in the stories?

Of the last five books I’ve read, only two have had characters that have stuck with me (Conan, from The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, and Felix and Gotrek, from Shamanslayer).  Of the other three books I read (and I enjoyed two of those three), I can’t even remember the names of any of the characters save one, and only then because his name was the title of the book.

Don’t get me wrong.  I like a lot of books that lack sticky characters, but I invariably like books with sticky characters much more.  And it’s not just the presence or absence of a character arc by which a character starts at point A, is changed by events, and ends up at point B.  That’s basic blocking and tackling for writers, so it’s more than that.  The characters that stick for me are those with psychological depth, who are complicated, who demonstrate quirks that all people have to one degree or another, and who resonate emotionally with me (not necessarily because they’re similar to me, but because their psychological and emotional state is so well rendered as to make me empathize strongly with them and their plight).

So, given that spiel, please share any recommendations you have for books that have “sticky” characters.  I’m always looking for the next thing to read.

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21 Comments

  1. Don Bassingthwaite

    Currently reading – and really enjoying – Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim. Main character, Stark, is definitely sticky for me: entirely focused on revenge but in a way that’s engaging and makes you really wonder what’s going to happen when he finishes.

  2. stickys from Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files: Shiro, Bob, Kincaid, and my fav of the series: Nicodemus.

    • Heath,

      You’re the second person to recommend Butcher. I really need to check out the Dresden books.

      • Paul…I have both read and listened to every Dresden File book at least once (save the latest, Ghost Story – just haven’t had time yet).

        That series is so good and has so many sticky characters, you might as well be reading a box of yummy, gooey cinnamon rolls. =)

        There’s also these books that involve these guys named Erevis, Draven, Magadon and Rivalen…….I heard those are pretty good with awesomely sticky characters……

  3. Try “The Lies of Locke Lamorra” by Scott Lynch. The entire cast of characters is fantastic, but the title character, Locke, and his mentor, Father Chains, are outstanding.

    • Heard good things about Lies. Man, every time I ask for recommendations, I’m reminded of how many great books I still need to read. That’s a good thing, I suppose. :-)

  4. And that Paul is why you have emails from fans like me who would really like to read a story about my favorite sticky characters: Jak Fleet, Everis Cale and Draven the assassin. When you introduced us to Draven’s two “girls” and told about why he killed the master that beat the dog, you totally cemented him as one of my favorite Realms characters. You made this one eyed,duel wielding vicious bastard something new for me — human! He is the perfect foil for Everis Cale because he represents who Cale used to be and could easily become again. You made Jak human too because both these characters represent duel sides of Cale’s nature. It is Jak who helps him resolve his conflict and accepting his servitude of Mask. I can see a tale where Draven comes to Salgaunt after a bounty for Cale and has a chance to slay Cale and without Cale even knowing it actually saves his life, then reports his death. This could explain why the Night Masks stopped hunting him, because they are not known for being that forgiving.

    • Well, Riven appears in GODBORN and will have a significant role in the trilogy. As for Cale, well, you’ll have to wait and see on that (and hopefully enjoy reading about his son in the interim).

      I have broached with WotC the possibility of a doing a prequel series featuring Cale, Riven, Magadon, and Jak. They were open to the idea, but first things firstly (and that would be GODBORN and the Cycle of Night). :-)

  5. I just finished the Erevis Cale trilogy and can’t wait to discuss it. :)

    Have you read the Paksenarrion series?

    • Sarah, I haven’t and I probably should, since I’ve heard from many sources I trust that the books feature a wonderfully archetypical paladin/knight.

  6. I was astounded by the stickiness of the vast majority of characters – even largely incidental ones – from “The Gone-Away World” by Nick Harkaway.

    • That’s interesting. The Gone Away World did nothing for me, characters or otherwise. Different strokes, I suppose.

  7. For sticky characters I think it’s hard to beat Joe Abercrombie. Every one is broken in a horrible but different way, and those that aren’t – they just aren’t ‘heroes’.

    Butcher has fun and warm characterization, but I think the main thing about him is the curve of improvement in his writing is very obvious. 13 Dresden have given him the time to really flesh out both his characters and his writing skill.

    $0.02

    • Thanks for the feedback, Reg. I’m not much of a fan of Abercrombie for reasons other than his characters, but you’re about the tenth person to recommend Butcher. Need to check out the Dresden books soon.

  8. Sometimes i need a little break from dragons, swords, demons, and magic. Here are some autobios that i couldn’t but down.

    Watch My Back – Geoff Thompson
    Lion’s Tale: Around the World in Spandex – Chris Jericho
    Undisputed: How to Become World Champion in 1372 Easy Steps – Chris Jericho

    I also very much like the Fablehaven series.

  9. Sparrow from “Bone Dance” by Emma Bull occurred to me as an example from the first paragraph of this essay. (essay/post/thingy) Caz from Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Curse of Chalion” also sticks out. Vlad Taltos from Steven Brust’s books is another sticky character, IMO.

    Of course, thinking of things I recently read doesn’t quite work the same, since I just reread all the Harry Potter books following the last movie coming out. And I’m currently reading GRRM’s “A Dance with Dragons”. The Potterverse characters are certainly memorable, but it’s hard to separate them from how huge the franchise is. Given GRRM’s notorious tendency to kill characters right left and sideways, plus the sheer scope of the books, it’s harder to get as stuck on specific characters. For me, I’d say Tyrion’s the stickiest.

  10. If you liked Shamanslayer I HIGHLY recommend you read Skavenslayer and Daemomslayer. I enjoy William King more than Nathon Long in that series.

  11. I recommend the two Tobie Lolness books (I think it’s “Toby Alone” in the English translation) by Timothee de Fombelle. It might be a little off from the fantasy settings you usually read (I’d rate it at an age of 9 to 99), but it is a gripping and marvelous story worth reading (if only for the characters).

  12. Pingback: Best Posts of 2011 | Candlekeep Archives

  13. A little outside your comfort zone maybe, but Jennifer Crusie writes great sticky characters. Her characters are sticky as individuals, but her real stickiness, or drawing power, and what renders her fans nigh on obsessive is her ability to build community.
    If sticky characters bring a reader back to a book, a cohesive community really “sticks” with the reader — you want to go back and be a part of it, again and again. All good successful series have that community, whether it’s a military unit, a clan of elves or a quirky extended family in the contemporary world, but it needs, as you say, a sticky character at its heart.

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