The best character-driven books to give you all the feels

The Books I Picked & Why

Cemetery Boys

By Aiden Thomas

Book cover of Cemetery Boys

Why this book?

Where do I even start? There is so much to love about Cemetery Boys, from the lovable characters, fun banter, beautiful and lovingly crafted world-building, complicated family relationships, to the swoon-worthy romance. But I think what draws me so much to this book is the main character, Yadriel’s, determination to prove himself even when the odds are against him. He knows who he is and what he wants, and he’s willing to fight for it. As someone who’s always felt self-conscious of who I am and sometimes struggles with feeling like I’m not enough, he was someone I could absolutely root for and whose hard-earned victories felt incredibly fulfilling.


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Iron Widow

By Xiran Jay Zhao

Book cover of Iron Widow

Why this book?

It is so rare to find a book where the main character is truly willing to die for what they believe in—and prove it several times over in only the first few chapters. Zetian is a girl who lives in a savagely unfair world for women, and she takes that savagery and wields it right back in the best way possible. She’s someone you can root for from page one, who sees an ugly world for what it is and isn’t it afraid to attack it right back. If these lines aren’t enough to sell you, I don’t know what is: “But I have no faith in love. Love cannot save me. I choose vengeance."


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We Are the Ants

By Shaun David Hutchinson

Book cover of We Are the Ants

Why this book?

This was a book I actually put off reading for a long time precisely because I knew it would destroy me. It centers around a science fiction allegory for depression that the main character, Henry, must navigate alongside his grief over losing his boyfriend to suicide a year before. Every character is multi-layered and complicated in such a realistically flawed way; there wasn’t anyone who didn’t have something going on or their own demons to face, which I absolutely loved. I read this book after going through one of the worst depressive periods of my life, when I couldn’t think of any downsides to dying. Seeing Henry navigate such difficult, complicated relationships and grief gave me much-needed hope at the time.


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The Poet X

By Elizabeth Acevedo

Book cover of The Poet X

Why this book?

This was one of my first times reading a novel in poems, so I was nervous going in—but once I started reading, I couldn’t imagine this story being told any other way. Xiomara is a character whose emotions come to life with aching realness through beautiful, evocative prose as she tries to navigate becoming a woman, reconciling with her religious mother, and expressing herself through poetry. I cried so many times through her difficult journey, but her fierceness and trueness to herself gave me confidence with my own struggles with my sexuality. Don’t let unfamiliarity with poetry scare you away: This book is crushingly gorgeous.


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The Thief

By Megan Whalen Turner

Book cover of The Thief

Why this book?

Since I have a lot of pretty heavy hitters on this list, I figured I’d end on a lighter favorite. Gen is one of my favorite characters of all time: resourceful, intelligent, and laughably indolent, he’s such a joy to follow on his adventure with a motley crew on a journey to find and steal an ancient artifact that may or may not exist. The world-building is intricate and carefully crafted, but the characters and their complicated relationships are what bring this book to life. No one is who they seem, and the scale of the adventure just continues to grow the further you read. As soon as I finished, I was desperate for more.


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