They had always been so careful of him, almost afraid to touch him. There was an aloofness about him more thoroughgoing than modesty or reticence. It was feral, and fragile. It had enforced a peculiar decorum on them all, even on their mother. There was always the moment when they acknowledged this–no hugging, no roughhousing could include him. Even his father patted his shoulder tentatively, shy and cautious. Why should a child have defended his loneliness that way? But let him have his ways, their father said, or he would be gone. He’d smile at them across that distance, and the smile was sad and hard, and it meant estrangement, even when he was with them.
— from Home by Marilynne Robinson, 2008
This selection is only one of the ways Marilynne Robinson wins my heart through her characterization. Here she is describing Jack, a prodigal son come home during the last bit of his father’s life. Home with him, and taking care of their father, is his sister Glory. Both brother and sister are revealed slowly, satisfyingly, and lovingly. Home has a plot, of course, but I like to think the book is more about who the characters are. The reader delves deeply into their lives, their histories, and their thoughts. I have been reading stories by the Bronte sisters lately, and they do characterization so well, too. It is my favorite thing about reading: meeting new people, and learning about them so much more intimately than I can learn about my own friends through conversation.