50 Books to Build Your Character

Books can’t teach character any better than reruns of All in the Family can deliver a full thesis on the thick, detailed, and complex nature of race relations in America. But what they can do is supplement the main event: experience. Reading, when it clicks with a particular individual, ignites and inspires for good and for ill. Hopefully the following selection of eclectic recommendations fall in the former category.

Communicate Clearly

Strong communication skills build and (hopefully) repair bridges between individuals, so while they won’t necessarily entrench character, they undeniably lead to an easier time conveying it.

  1. PeopleSmart: Developing Your Interpersonal Intelligence by Melvin L. Silberman:

    This four-step plan outlines how anyone can build their inherent skills and learn how to better communicate (and hopefully foster understanding and clear up misconceptions) with others.

  2. The Office of Assertion: An Art of Rhetoric for Academic Essays by Scott F. Crider:

    Many of the super strong writing tips offered here can easily apply to other forms of communication and rhetoric outside the classroom.

  3. What EveryBODY is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People by Joe Navarro:

    Speaking only forms a portion of what one actually says, with body language often broadcasting subtleties that change the meaning completely.

  4. Pragmatics of Human Communication: A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies and Paradoxes by Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin Bavelas, and Don D. Jackson:

    Learn all about the cognitive components of human communication through a bestselling classic of psychology and psychoanalysis upon which many subsequent studies built their foundations.

  5. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community by Robert D. Putnam:

    At once tragic and hopeful, Robert D. Putnam’s detailed inquiry into how failings in American society contribute to alienation and isolation provides excellent insight into how to make it better over time.

  6. The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White:

    “Strunk & White,” The Elements of Style’s more popular nickname, remains a beloved writing guide over five decades after its initial publication. As with many reads of this type, make sure to try and ferret out the latest edition for the most current advice.

  7. Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life by Paul Ekman:

    Recognizing, understanding, and empathizing with human emotion is essential to forging great communication skills, and this book provides a solid start.

  8. Grammar Girl’s 101 Misused Words You’ll Never Confuse Again by Mignon Fogarty:

    Bolster those communication skills by reading through Mignon Fogarty’s fun and educational guide to words native English speakers commonly mix up with one another.

  9. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle:

    Technological advances in smartphones, robotics, and the like have proven amazing in many ways, but detrimental to interpersonal communication in many others. MIT’s Sherry Turkle explains the phenomenon with the hopes that readers understand the potential dangers.

  10. On Writing Well by William Zinsser:

    This beloved guide to penning nonfiction offers up great tips for communicating and persuading using the written word, with sterling advice for more than just aspirant authors.


Good characters may or may not know the difference between a salad fork and a dinner fork, and that’s perfectly OK. What’s not perfectly OK, however, is discourtesy towards others’ inherent right to health, safety, and happiness. Nobody should consider him or herself above the tenets of basic politeness and civility.

  1. Etiquette by Emily Post:

    A classic of the genre, and available in the public domain, to boot! But with so many updated editions floating around, character builders might want to check and see what’s most current.

  2. Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands by Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conaway:

    Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands targets international business travelers, with comprehensive information about cultural mores in over 60 nations. Courtesy and sensitivity do not know national or linguistic barriers.

  3. Wedding Etiquette Hell: The Bride’s Bible to Avoiding Everlasting Damnation by Jeanne Hamilton:

    Miss Jeanne is so hilarious, even readers with no interest in marriage will have a fun time reading her warnings about what not to do when organizing a wedding.

  4. Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation by George Washington:

    Yes, that George Washington, though historians believe he likely adapted pre-existing works. His writings might prove a mite dated in a couple of ways, but in general offer up a most excellent framework for acting politely and courteously towards others.

  5. Doing It with Style by Quentin Crisp:

    Live well and live fashionably by following a credo of confident individuality, not rigid adherence to arbitraries. Sure there definitely exists a code of behavior involving a minimum amount of courtesy, but some etiquette ideals out there can afford to go ignored.

  6. Everyday Etiquette: How to Navigate 101 Common and Uncommon Social Situations by Patricia Rossi:

    For anyone needing guidance or just a refresher on handling specific interpersonal scenarios both offline and on, Patricia Rossi’s guide works as a great resource on contemporary etiquette.

  7. The Civilizing Process by Norbert Elias:

    Obviously, etiquette protocol shifts over time, and Norbert Elias’ long-overlooked sociological inquiry on the subject provides one of the best analyses of the riveting whats and whys behind the changes.

  8. Manners by Kate Spade:

    She may be known as a fashion darling, but Kate Spade also knows how to dish out practical advice about politeness in daily scenarios, suitable for men and women alike.

  9. Gestures: The Do’s and Taboos of Body Language Around the World by Roger E. Axtell:

    Globetrotters both greenhorn and seasoned need to pay heed to what their bodies communicate while traveling abroad, as some societies’ niceties might translate to something a little more hostile elsewhere. Stay polite, even in regions where the language stands as unfamiliar!

  10. The Mystery Method: How to Get Beautiful Women into Bed by Mystery:

    Read the book from cover to cover. Then do the exact opposite of everything the famous pickup artist advises. Because seriously … he just about highlights everything persons with no character whatsoever say and how they behave when dealing with the dating game.

Have a Heart

At the center of every person of great character beats a heart wishing to do right by all. A corny sentiment? Absolutely. But one that bears repeating. Even if you are enrolled in one of the best online psychology programs, there is still a lot to learn about human emotions. The following reads offer up lessons in compassion, responsibility, fortitude, justice, courage, and other qualities necessary for a truly gratifying life.

  1. An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life by His Holiness the Dalai Lama:

    One need not adhere to Buddhist spirituality (or any spirituality, really) to benefit from the Dalai Lama’s teachings on learning to love and show empathy and sympathy towards others.

  2. Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women by Holly Kearl:

    All people deserve to enter into the public without fear, but 80% to 100% of women have experienced unwanted sexual attention just for walking down the street or riding the train or bus. Reading about the problem nurtures a better understanding of social ills and how to quell them so everyone enjoys the planet equally. Character doesn’t build in a vacuum, after all.

  3. The Nichomachean Ethics by Aristotle:

    Moderation and practiced habits, Aristotle argues, form the foundation of a strong, ethical, moral character. Seeing as how The Nichomachean Ethics itself set philosophy rolling on the eponymous subject, it makes for the best starting point when exploring the different approaches and how they build off one another.

  4. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo:

    Everyone knows someone with a good heart who, unexpectedly, either committed a pretty egregious act of impropriety or turned to the dark side completely. Philip Zimbardo, famous for the Stanford Prison Experiment, explains the psychology behind this tragic phenomenon.

  5. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert M. Pirsig:

    One of the most beloved philosophical novels of all time follows a father and son on a cross-country ride and their flowing conversations about personality types, quality versus quantity, and its ultimate impact on individuals and societies alike.

  6. Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century by Jonathan Glover

    : Sometimes, the best way to fully grasp the admittedly nebulous, subjective concept of “character” is actually looking at everything it’s not. While graphic, Humanity’s expert analysis peers into the psychological and sociological strata allowing atrocities to not only happen, but metastasize.

  7. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie:

    In work and in life alike, acting like a jerkass only serves as a particularly swift conduit towards eventual alienation. Dale Carnegie’s classic self-help guide encourages readers to actually keep others in mind when communicating and acting alike.

  8. The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood edited by James Houghton, Larry Bean, and Tom Matlack:

    Contemporary masculinity is a difficult challenge to maneuver, particularly with so many celebrating it as a raucous, endless childhood fraught with entitlement and selfishness. This compilation analyzes the experience from nearly every angle imaginable, asking the question of what characteristics make up a good man.

  9. The Book of Virtues compiled by William J. Bennett:

    Although aimed mostly at kids, even adults can pick up some valuable lessons about compassion, responsibility, courage, and other character essentials. Nonbelievers might want to skip over the faith chapter, however, but the rest of the lessons ring universal.

  10. Ethics for the Real World: Creating a Personal Code to Guide Decisions in Work and Life by Ronald A. Howard and Clinton D. Korver:

    Self-help credos meet basic inquiry here, where the authors challenge readers to dissect their own habits to gauge whether or not they lead an ethical life and tailoring things accordingly.

Staying Healthy (Mentally)

Obviously, one can suffer from mental health issues while simultaneously displaying excellent character — the two factors should never be mistaken as mutually exclusive! But overcoming the hurdles such diagnoses entail only builds upon what’s already there and may very well inspire loved ones to go out, conquer demons of their own, and eventually level up.

  1. Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich:

    Pop psychology’s relentlessly pushing of positive thinking as a cure-all to depression, anxiety, and other serious mental health issues actually perpetuates stigma and damages both society and the individuals within it. Sometimes, reaching out to a professional proves the most effective solution – and there’s nothing the matter with that!

  2. The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne:

    Although not a replacement for professional therapy, this book often receives nods as a viable supplement. Just be sure to pick up the latest edition.

  3. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl:

    Part memoir, part psychological treatise, Viktor Frankl’s heartbreaking, provocative classic deeply analyzes the universal lessons about fear and perseverance he experienced firsthand while imprisoned in Auschwitz.

  4. Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them by Bryan E. Robinson:

    Strong characters possess a healthy work ethic, but growing addicted to accomplishment and stress is a sign of internal dysfunction in need of addressing. Once again, make sure to check the edition for the most current information and research.

  5. Crazy: A Father’s Search through America’s Mental Health Madness by Pete Earley:

    Prompted by a deeply personal story of his son’s bipolar disorder leading to criminal charges, journalist Pete Earley investigated the American legal system’s less-than-stellar track record with handling mental illness. Institutionalized stigmatization exists as one of the major hurdles for individuals struggling with mental health disruptions, and this book dissects one corner of them with the hopes of someday instigating positive change.

  6. The Undiscovered Self by Carl Jung:

    Staying true to one’s own moral and ethical code assists in preventing not only personal meltdowns, but the societal equivalent as well. Read this overlooked Jungian treatise for theories about unlocking unconscious potential and rising above challenges.

  7. Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation by Joseph Campbell:

    Within humanity’s ancient lore and stories lay some excellent truths about learning to grow and thrive, as this psychological inquiry by one of the most groundbreaking mythologists of all time touts.

  8. Get Out of Your Mind and into Your Life: The New Acceptance & Commitment Therapy by Steven C. Hayes and Spencer Smith:

    Acceptance and Commitment therapy really isn’t anything new, encouraging patients to understand that pain and suffering exist as inevitable components of the human experience. But it does help a lot of people learn to face conflict as it happens rather than shutting down and hoping everything disappears on its own. For that, the practice’s core read might prove worthwhile reading to some.

  9. The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz:

    Simplification ranks pretty high up there as a lifestyle change advocated by some enviably happy people, and this book explains the bizarre anxieties that materialize alongside an increase in options.

  10. The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell:

    Chipping away the days suspended in a sludge of self-aggrandizement and selfishness only births a nation of miserable, anxious wrecks. Hopefully, a broader understanding of the pandemic eventually means a cure for the collective neuroses and divides.

Staying Healthy (Physically)

It isn’t about looking good. It’s about feeling good. Even if you have an extensive knowledge of health, such as that acquired in the top online BSN programs, it means nothing unless you put it into practice. Maintaining the healthiest lifestyle possible enhances one’s overall sense of satisfaction and wellness, both qualities that help individuals maintain a solid character.

  1. Eat This, Not That by David Zinczenko and Matt Goulding:

    Rather than experimenting with the latest and typically less-than-greatest fad diet, maintain a healthy weight by switching out not-so-nutritious foods with their more nourishing counterparts.

  2. What I Talk about when I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami:

    One of the most beloved living novelists shares his experiences with marathon running and how the discipline involved in training built up his writing and spirits alike.

  3. Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey:

    Mental health and exercise’s intimate relationship obviously isn’t new and exciting science these days, but a lot of current research better explains the physiological details behind why staying active promotes a healthier mind.

  4. Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth about Your Weight by Linda Bacon:

    Heavy doesn’t inherently mean unhealthy. Skinny doesn’t inherently mean healthy. Yet this unfortunate, prevailing attitude just will not disappear into the abyss of illogic where it belongs, and that’s why one physiologist decided to throw some science all up in its smug little face.

  5. The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest by Dan Buettner:

    Extensive research by longevity expert and National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner, who personally met with, interviewed, and surveyed the oldest folks in the world, noticed a trend in lifestyle, eating, and exercise habits between them. Which he shared in what eventually (of course) became a bestseller, even though proper diet, exercise, and socializing as pathways to living well are not exactly new and revelatory.

  6. The ASCM Fitness Book by The American College of Sports Medicine:

    Personalize and track fitness and strength training regimens using ASCM’s expert guidelines as a handy dandy starting point. Remember to check for the latest edition, too!

  7. Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why We Need to Get It Back by Ann Vileisis:

    Nutrition may play a starring role in healthy eating habits, but freshness and proper handling also contribute to the body’s well-being. Not knowing where meals originated could mean the difference between sleeping soundly and staying up all night on the toilet with your head in a trash can. Which doesn’t compromise character any, but it lowers morale, and that isn’t terribly sweet.

  8. DietMinder: Personal Diet & Fitness Journal by Frances E. Wilkins:

    Practice self-discipline and use the three months of space here to keep track of eating and exercise habits – a nifty little resource when transitioning between lifestyle habits.

  9. The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer by Gretchen Reynolds:

    Read up on all the current research about the most advisable exercise and fitness strategies presented in a manner accessible to general audiences.

  10. Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan:

    When it comes to establishing and maintaining a healthy diet, the “keep it simple, stupid” ideology works splendidly.