It’s all too easy to assume that every hero in life must be an extrovert, but there’s a great deal to be said for the quietly powerful among us. Here, The Bookseller’s Caroline Carpenter shines a light on the incredible works of fiction that not only celebrate introverts, but seek to empower and inspire them, too.
When we think of our favourite stories, we’re often drawn to the big characters: the bold, the charismatic and the outspoken. Sometimes, though, the quiet heroes can be just as – if not more – powerful. Whether they’re anxious, shy or just downright standoffish, these characters might be harder to suss out at first, but, once you do, you’ll find it’s well worth the investment.
If you’re an introvert yourself, reading a book about a character that reflects you can be reassuring as well as inspiring. With that in mind, here are 15 examples of beautiful books that introverts will relate to, ranging from literary classics by Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, to contemporary YA by Sara Barnard and Alice Oseman, and childhood favourites from Roald Dahl and Michelle Magorian.
Each tale is, undeniably, very different. At their heart, though, they all share the same message: introverts may be quiet, but they have rich, hidden depths – and they absolutely shouldn’t be underestimated.
1) Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
Considered a classic of English literature, Charlotte Brontë’s most famous novel tells the story of “poor and obscure, and small and plain” Jane. Following an abusive childhood, she becomes a governess at Thornfield Hall, where she falls in love with her intense employer Edward Rochester. Often underestimated, Jane begins to grow in confidence and comes to be admired by others for her passion and strong principles. She sums up her inner strength best, saying: “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.”
2) The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
Though the hero of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian series is frequently cited as an example of a “strong female character”, Katniss is also an introvert. When the books begin, she is a very reserved person who is more concerned with survival than socialising. But her private existence is soon challenged when she finds herself thrown into a fight to the death that is broadcast to the entire nation. Despite struggling to adapt to the change at first, Katniss eventually finds a way to play the game expertly while also staying true to herself.
3) Fangirl – Rainbow Row
Cath is a freshman at university along with her more outgoing identical twin, but she is finding it hard to adjust. Feeling left behind by her sister and struggling with social anxiety disorder, she is miserable and spends most of her time writing fan fiction. She almost gives up on university and heads home but tries to stick it out with the support of her new friends Reagan and Levi. Rainbow Rowell’s writing style is fun and engaging and you’ll be rooting for Cath as she begins to feel comfortable in herself to figure out how to live independently.
4) The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
This year’s Nobel Prize for Literature winner Kazuo Ishiguro was awarded the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1989 for this novel, which was later turned into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. In it, butler Stevens reflects on his life, which has been dedicated to his career and carried out with unswerving respect for rules and restraint. The writing is beautifully careful and considered, making the moment when Stevens does finally open up all the more affecting.
5) A Quiet Kind of Thunder – Sara Barnard
Steffi has been a selective mute for most of her life and as such, she is often overlooked by those around her, but all that changes when Rhys joins her school. He is deaf and she is one of the few people who can communicate with him. They soon develop a bond and find love and acceptance in each other. Despite the difficulties that their issues present, they learn to overcome them and, with Rhys’ support, Steffi finds her voice. It’s a beautiful, nuanced story of teenage love told in a fresh, realistic way.
6) The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Steven Chobsky
Author Steven Chobsky has described the book’s protagonist as “hope in the form of a character”. Charlie is a quiet, sensitive 15-year-old still dealing with the suicide of his only friend. He tells us the story of his first year at high school through a series of anonymous letters. He often feels different from his peers, but Charlie make friends and starts to experience regular teenage milestones. Though he has to face up to issues he has been suppressing, the book offers a positive message as Charlie ultimately makes the decision to participate more in life.
7) Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman’s first solo novel is adapted from the 1996 urban fantasy television series that he devised with Lenny Henry. In it, unassuming young business Richard Mayhew is pulled out of his dull, predictable life and pulled into a twisted version of London. As he learns to navigate the fantastical London Below, Richard’s inner courage starts to shine through. The book is told in Neil Gaiman’s trademark dark yet funny style and will make all introverts wonder how they would cope if they were thrown into an alternative reality.
8) Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
No one could describe the protagonist of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie Bennett, as an introvert. Her love interest Mr Darcy, however, most definitely is. When spirited Lizzie first meets him, she becomes aware of his distant manner and immediately dismisses him as rude and arrogant. Eventually though, Mr Darcy proves that beneath his proud exterior lies a good heart and Lizzie learns that it’s worth getting to know someone’s true character, even if they are a little socially awkward…
9) One Day – David Nicholls
David Nicholls’ One Day has an interesting premise – it tells the story of two best friends, Dexter and Emma, charting their relationship over 20 years with each chapter covering their lives on 15 July each year. It’s a neat trick but the book’s real strength is in the incredibly empathetic character of Emma. At times, she is frumpy, awkward and a bit of a pushover, but she is also funny, intelligent and she inspires Dexter to be a better person. You’ll definitely relate to Emma (especially when she ends up working in fast food post-university), just make sure you pick up some tissues when you read it.
10) The Hobbit – J R R Tolkien
J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a classic fantasy quest but its protagonist, Bilbo Baggins, is a somewhat reluctant hero. He starts the story as a reserved character living a comfortable, respectable life. That is completely disrupted when he is persuaded by wizard Gandalf to join a band of dwarves on a mission to reclaim treasure from a dragon. During his journey, Bilbo gets drawn into several dangerous adventures but he proves himself and ends the book as a wiser, more confident hobbit.
11) Matilda – Roald Dahl
The poster girl for bookworms everywhere, Matilda Wormwood is a child genius with magical powers. This makes her different to other children and a complete outcast in her family home. Though she is frequently neglected and oppressed, Matilda gains an ally in her sweet-natured, gentle teacher Miss Honey and uses her powers to exact hilarious revenge on her bullies. Roald Dahl’s book is written for children, but its humour and charm are perfect for readers of all ages to enjoy.
OK, so this is cheating slightly, but both of Alice Oseman’s books do a great job of portraying the disaffection and isolation of being an awkward teenager. Which, yes, might have something to do with the fact that she was just 19 when her first book was published. As well as nailing the pressures and angst of adolescence, she writes about contemporary internet culture in a way that few authors can. Realistic and relatable reading for any young adults in your life.
13) Goodnight Mister Tom – Michelle Magorian
A children’s classic, Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mister Tom sees young and mistreated William Beech evacuated to the countryside during the Second World War and sent to live with the reclusive widower Tom Oakley. At first, nervous William is intimidated by his carer’s gruff, bad-tempered exterior but over time they both begin to come out of their shells and form a touching relationship. The book has some incredibly sad moments but, above all, it is a testament to the transformative power of love.
14) Stoner – John Williams
Stoner was first published in 1965 and it went out of print soon after. Then, almost 50 years later, it became a word-of-mouth hit and was named Waterstones Book of the Year in 2013, for good reason. It follows the life and career William Stoner, as he goes from growing up on a small farm to falling into studying and then teaching literature. He is a fairly quiet and passive character throughout most of his worklife and unhappy marriage, although he eventually gains a cult status among his students. Stoner lives an unremarkable life, but John Williams writes it with such depth, detail and dignity that you can’t help but be drawn into it.
15) The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood
Another Man Booker Prize winner, Margaret Atwood’s 2000 novel tells the story of two sisters. Iris, who agrees to an arranged marriage with an older businessman to help her family out of debt, is the novel’s protagonist but she lives in the shadow of her younger sister Laura. Iris is presented as passive and submissive, but over the course of the novel her private form of rebellion is revealed. As well as the main narrative, the book includes a novel-within-a-novel and third science fiction tale. All three strands tie together seamlessly to tell a poignant and heart-breaking story.
Main image: Kinga Cichewicz
Book jackets: Supplied by author