Which Authors Are the Best at Developing Characters?

A man waits as an actor (not pictured) reads from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice at the Jane Austen Centre in 2013 in Bath, England.

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Answer by Cristina Hartmann, writer:

Well-written characters are part and parcel of great literature, but a few authors stand out from the crowd. They consistently turn out an army of well-crafted and fascinating characters you’ve met before—because they’re so damn real. They don’t rely on plot to make them interesting—they just are. They never, ever write the same character twice. (Sorry, Philip Roth.) They’re simply maestros of their craft.

Here are a few:

Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice, Emma): You might think of her romances as fluffy and frothy nothings, but she’s a deft hand with characters. She slowly and steadily builds up the virtues (and flaws) of everyone with a wryness that still resonates with readers two centuries later. Plus, you just can’t beat Darcy and Elizabeth for the most well-developed romantic couple. People really don’t change (and remain as hilariously oblivious to their flaws).

Leo Tolstoy (Anna Karenina, War and Peace): Long-winded he may be, but Tolstoy is a virtuoso of character. Over hundreds upon hundreds of pages, he delves into the complexities of Anna’s adulterous affairs, Kitty’s lost love, Levin’s shyness, and Karenin’s coldness. He’s not brief, but he’s good.

Ruth Rendell (Brimstone Wedding, A Dark-Adapted Eye): Known as Britain’s “Queen of Crime Fiction,” Rendell is more famous for her macabre stories of insanity, sociopathy, and bloodlust. What kept her popular throughout her illustrious 40-year career was her characterization. Every murderer (and victim) turned out to have incredible depth and complexity. Not one was the same. She was able to achieve this with more than 100 novels under her belt. Take that, John Grisham!

Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go): I don’t think I’ve read an Ishiguro book that didn’t have stunning characterization. His lovely prose simply heightens the impact of his subtle drawing of ordinary people in complicated situations. Even as he flits from one genre to the next, his characters always keep it real.

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