21st-Century Character

Inspiration can come from anywhere, and I’ve been badly in need of a dose of that elusive stuff for a while now.

I’m at a crossroads regarding how I feel about posting book reviews and have been for quite some time.  Should I continue to write in-depth reviews that include loads of plot summary, character analysis, and quotes, or should I just offer my brief thoughts and overall impressions?  Should I post reviews here, on Goodreads, and on Amazon, or just one or two of those venues?  I’m not asking y’all to answer those questions for me; I can do so just fine on my own eventually, but I wanted to explain why I’m posting this instead of another book review.

I guess I needn’t explain since my tag line is “about books good and bad, thoughts deep and shallow, and life in general”, right? Nevertheless, since the majority of what I’ve posted here has been reviews, I felt the need to explain.

So.  The inspiration: My Goodreads friend Lynn recently wrote in her comments about a book she rated 2 of 5 stars that the storyline was good but that she couldn’t feel any of the characters.  Yeah, yeah, I thought, I know exactly what you mean! And that got me to thinking…

In the past few years, I’ve noticed and have mentioned in some of my reviews that, in many of the novels I’ve read, I have not been able to like or feel sympathy for many of the characters inhabiting the book.  I’ve noticed this phenomenon in both serious, literary novels like Jennifer Haigh’s Heat & Light as well as in lighter fare like Robert Levy’s The Glittering World.

Many years ago, when I was a starry-eyed student studying literature in college, my professors taught that one of the measures of quality fiction is likable, sympathetic characters.  Some other measures were conflict and, especially, a character’s ability to change and grow by overcoming conflict.  Hey! Sidetrack alert, Denny, move on! Let’s not even get into 21st-century lit’s alarming tendency to abandon that hallmark, oh no, not here, maybe in a later post!

So.  Characters.  For a story to arrest quickly and continue to hold my attention, the author must introduce me early to strong, leap-off-the-page, larger-than-life characters I can love fiercely or despise completely.  To inspire such strong emotion, a character should be hyper-real or over-real.  If through the course of the story my feelings about a character or characters do a complete 180-degree flip because the character has learned & grown or failed to learn & devolved, that is, changed, so much the better.  

What I’ve noticed in a lot of the contemporary fiction I’ve read recently is that the characters are too realistic, too lifelike, and that they don’t change.  That’s depressingly close to how people really are.  Often when I read fiction, I do so to escape the confines of my own life & the world I inhabit, even if only a little bit, so I don’t want to read about characters who are just like people I really know.  I have no desire to spend 350 – 799 pages reading about my neighbors or co-workers who are the same on the last page as they were on the first.  When that’s what I want, I read the news.

For the past 13 years, my career has exposed me to a much larger pool of people from all walks of life than did the narrower band of society I inhabited for my first 30-something years.  Maybe part of the problem is that I’m simply too familiar with a wider range of personality types & behavioral characteristics.

Maybe part of the problem as I’ve aged is that I don’t like people as much as I used to.  That’s not to say that I don’t love them, now, don’t make that assumption.  One needn’t like a person (or character) to wish good things for him or her.

So what do y’all think?  Is it just me, or have you noticed it as well?  Have I changed so profoundly that I have difficulty relating to modern characters, or are literary conventions changing to fit 21st-century sensibilities?  If the latter is true, I hope I can find my way out of the 20th!

Postclaimer:  Some of you may wish to point out that I could improve this post by citing specific characters and novels in support of my claim.  Noted.  If I ever write a paper on the subject, I’ll do so.  Here I am only interested in gauging general impressions of modern literary trends.  We can discuss specific examples in the Comment threads.

Take care, be well, and happy reading!


7 thoughts on “21st-Century Character

  1. You have written a good and interesting piece here. You write so well, and I have always admired that. The interesting part for me is your describing an area of reading that is fairly foreign to me. I rarely read fiction. I read maybe one or at most two books of fiction a year. Part of the reason is I find other things more interesting, such as science, philosophy, and religion. The other part of the reason is that I have never been good in fully deciphering (word of the week it seems) a fictional work. It is even greater problem for most poetry. I guess if the content of the fictional work involves science or philosophy directly I can appreciate it more, but I still fail to be immerse in the fictional world (characters, locations, and plot) of the book.

    While you do not ask for advice, I feel that you should do what gives you most pleasure. Is it shorter reviews that touch base on how you feel about the book, or a lengthier exploration examining the book in greater depth? If you would take a poll, I would vote for longer reviews. And, I would love to read more of your poetry, even if my skills in deciphering (there is that word again) the meaning of poems are not up to the task.

    As for the question of whether character development has gone downhill, I plead ignorance.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree that it does seem harder to relate to and connect with characters as of late. As far as the reviews go, I personally pay close attention to longer reviews that give me more insight. I want to know if I am getting my money’s worth out of a book if I will, in fact, enjoy it and find it captivating. If there are a lot of reviews stating a book is dull, I will not bother with it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for responding, Cheynoa. I reckon my reviews henceforth will vary in length based on how strongly I feel about the book, what kind of mood I’m in when I write them, and how much free time I have. I’m headed over to check out your blog now.


  4. It must be difficult to build up characters in a modern book. Should they be realistic or should they be symbolic? Do readers want to meet familiar plots which they can connect with or do they read books to escape reality and get lost in an idealistic world where human nature is depicted through the interaction of stereotyped characters.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In today’s interconnected, diverse, and plugged in world, I reckon there are huge markets for all types of readers, so we write what comes naturally then just have to work to find our markets.

      I like reading both types of books you mentioned. How about you?

      Take care, be well, and happy blogging,


      Liked by 1 person

      1. Especially regarding the classics of the Western Canon, professors prefer to call them archetypes rather than steroetypes. 😉 Just so ya know!

        I know these days we’re exposed to so many different personality types in such great quantities in our daily lives that almost everything becomes cliche.


        Liked by 1 person

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