The best books for NPCs at heart

Who am I?

Hi! I'm Maxine Kaplan and I'm a writer who is also a genre magpie. My favorite thing to do as a writer is to take a background character, or non-playable characters in gamer-speak, and make them real. What’s an archetype? It’s a type. A character described by their occupation—the princess; the femme fatale; the tavern wench (ahem)—basically the tropey background players that nobody feels the need to unpack as idiosyncratic individuals, with vibrant inner lives. This list is full of books that do this sooooo well.


I wrote...

Wench

By Maxine Kaplan,

Book cover of Wench

What is my book about?

Tanya has worked at her tavern since she was able to see over the bar. She broke up her first fight at 11. By the time she was a teenager she knew everything about the place, and she could run it with her eyes closed. She’d never let anyone—whether it be a drunkard or a captain of the queen’s guard—take advantage of her. But when her guardian dies, she might lose it all: the bar, her home, her purpose in life. So she heads out on a quest to petition the queen to keep the tavern in her name—dodging unscrupulous guards, a band of thieves, and a powerful, enchanted feather that seems drawn to her. Fast-paced, magical, and unapologetically feminist, Wench is epic fantasy like you’ve never seen it before.

The books I picked & why

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Hench

By Natalie Zina Walschots,

Book cover of Hench

Why this book?

The second I read about Hench, I knew it was the book of my dreams. Hench is about Anna, a floating temp doing back-office admin work for criminals and, eventually, supervillains. I mean, come on: ‘nuff said. But this book delivers far beyond its (absolutely delicious) premise and ends up being a meditation on the power of data, and its analysis and manipulation, in shaping our views about good vs. evil, and the radicalization of bored millennials. It’s also really funny. It’s great. 

Hench

By Natalie Zina Walschots,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Hench as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"This book is fast, furious, compelling, and angry as hell." -Seanan McGuire, New York Times bestselling author

The Boys meets My Year of Rest and Relaxation in this smart, imaginative, and evocative novel of love, betrayal, revenge, and redemption, told with razor-sharp wit and affection, in which a young woman discovers the greatest superpower-for good or ill-is a properly executed spreadsheet.

Includes a bonus story for the paperback.

Anna does boring things for terrible people because even criminals need office help and she needs a job. Working for a monster lurking beneath the surface of the world isn't glamorous. But…


Gideon the Ninth

By Tamsin Muir,

Book cover of Gideon the Ninth

Why this book?

This is where I add my voice to the vast Internet chorus singing the praises of Gideon the Ninth, a/k/a “Lesbian Necromancers in Space.” The hype is not overblown. The read is not homework. The writing is luscious, delirious, and sharp. The world-building will blow your mind. But the reason I’m including it on this list is the characters. The (large) cast is populated by distinct Types ™ that will be familiar to any gamer or regular reader of fantasy/sci-fi/horror. They are decked out in pre-determined, class-based aesthetics. They are warriors and scholars, and that is it. But Muir peels back the layers of these roles in the most unexpected ways, revealing the truly weird people underneath, and their truly weird motivations and relationships. This one will stay with you.

Gideon the Ninth

By Tamsin Muir,

Why should I read it?

14 authors picked Gideon the Ninth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

15+ pages of new, original content, including a glossary of terms, in-universe writings, and more!

A USA Today Best-Selling Novel!

"Unlike anything I've ever read. " --V.E. Schwab

"Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space!" --Charles Stross

"Brilliantly original, messy and weird straight through." --NPR

The Emperor needs necromancers.

The Ninth Necromancer needs a swordswoman.

Gideon has a sword, some dirty magazines, and no more time for undead nonsense.

Tamsyn Muir's Gideon the Ninth, first in The Locked Tomb Trilogy, unveils a solar system of swordplay, cut-throat politics, and lesbian necromancers. Her characters leap off the page, as…


The Ordinary Princess

By M.M. Kaye,

Book cover of The Ordinary Princess

Why this book?

This one is personal to me. I found this book when I was 8 and fell in love. Like: I have a tattoo from this book. And, yes, it’s about a princess, the very antithesis of a background player, but hear me out.

The Ordinary Princess takes place in a fantasy world that exists in conversation with the classical Western notion of fairy tales and fairy tale princesses. Except in this one, the evil fairy at the christening gifts the newly born, perfectly princess Amethyst (later called Amy) not with a death sentence, but the proclamation: You shall be ordinary. The twist? Amy loves being ordinary. Wants to be ordinary. Fights for the right to be ordinary, to be herself. It is deceptively moving and lives deep within my soul.

The Ordinary Princess

By M.M. Kaye,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Ordinary Princess as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

CHARMING BOOK.


The Unsuitable

By Molly Pohlig,

Book cover of The Unsuitable

Why this book?

This book combines a lot of potentially tired gothic signifiers into one slim package. You’ve got the tortured ghost of the young mother. The scarred young shut-in nearing spinsterhood. The domineering aunt tasked with marrying her off. The cold and distant father just as eager to unload her. However, none of these tropes go where you expect them to go. Iseult Wince, the titular unsuitable young woman, has an inner life and motivations that are deeply weird—borderline horrifying, but most importantly, weird, and all her own. Spinsterhood is the least of her problems. 

The Unsuitable

By Molly Pohlig,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Unsuitable as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Molly Pohlig's The Unsuitable is a fierce blend of Gothic ghost story and Victorian novel of manners that’s also pitch perfect for our current cultural moment.

Iseult Wince is a Victorian woman perilously close to spinsterhood whose distinctly unpleasant father is trying to marry her off. She is awkward, plain, and most pertinently, believes that her mother, who died in childbirth, lives in the scar on her neck.

Iseult’s father parades a host of unsuitable candidates before her, the majority of whom Iseult wastes no time frightening away. When at last her father finds a suitor desperate enough to take…


The Rest of Us Just Live Here

By Patrick Ness,

Book cover of The Rest of Us Just Live Here

Why this book?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include this YA by the incomparable Patrick Ness. Turning the contemporary Chosen One trope on its head, The Rest of Us Just Live Here is about Mikey, just a normal kid—in a high school beset with the occasional, say, zombie problem that the other, more special kids have to take out. It’s both a classic of the genre while also lovingly parodying it. It will make you feel seen. Read it.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here

By Patrick Ness,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Rest of Us Just Live Here as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Award-winning writer Patrick Ness's bold and irreverent novel powerfully reminds us that there are many different types of remarkable.

Award-winning writer Patrick Ness's bold and irreverent novel powerfully asks what if you weren't the Chosen One? The one who's supposed to fight the zombies, or the soul-eating ghosts, or whatever this new thing is, with the blue lights and the death? What if you were like Mikey? Who just wants to graduate and go to prom and maybe finally work up the courage to ask Henna out before someone goes and blows up the high school. Again. Because sometimes there…


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