Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Great Fictional Characters

I am knee-deep in re-reading two of my favorite books - A Game of Thrones and Anna Karenina - and they set me pondering on fictional characters. Both books have a diverse, enchanting, complicated set of characters. That may be the end of any major similarities between the two (aside from the description “epic”, which applies far more to War and Peace than to Anna Karenina).

But it’s enough. With very few exceptions, the most memorable books are those with memorable characters. Take Dickens, for example. Ask readers who love Dickens what their favorite books are. Eight times out of ten the answer will be either Great Expectations or Bleak House (I prefer the latter). Why? Because Pip, Joe Gargery, Miss Havisham, Esther Summerson, Inspector Bucket, and Mr. Jarndyce are Dickens’ most vibrant (and mutable) characters.

It takes a unique talent to make characters come alive, with all their heroism and eccentricities and faults, their selfishness and doubt and endless crises of faith. It isn’t always a comfortable situation. However much the reader may criticize her actions, or stand on the sideline sadly shaking our heads, we recognize in poor doomed Emma Bovary – who has always a romantic yearning toward what she doesn’t have – a certain part of ourselves. It may be deeply buried, but it’s there.

So I began the futile effort of casting about it my head for my favorite characters. There were almost too many to list, but I was eventually able to pare it down to five or so, with a handful of honorable mentions:

  • Tyrion Lannister, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire

      From the moment we first meet Tyrion, he mesmerizes us. Tyrion is a dwarf (as in the medical condition, not the prototypical fantasy race). He is also a member of the primary family of antagonists in the books, and perhaps the most arrogant of them all. But he sets himself apart from the common run of enemies with his wit, honesty, and charm. A complicated character, we come to discover his doubts, his demons, his struggles with ineptitude, his lechery, and his heroism. But most of all his thirst for life.

  • Constantine Levin, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

      It isn’t easy to select one favorite character from Tolstoy. Pierre (from War & Peace) is comparable to Levin. Anna Karenina and Natasha Rostova are two of the finest female characters in literature. Stephan Oblonsky, Levin’s easygoing and likeable brother-in-law, demands consideration. But Levin manages to carry off, through his internal and external struggles, the prize. His social awkwardness, fierce jealousy, and struggle with faith ring incredibly true, probably not least because he expressed so many of Tolstoy’s own ideas and doubts. In a novel full of sharply-drawn, beautiful characters, Levin stands in as the crowning achievement.

  • Elizabeth Bennett, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

      Most female readers are enamored of Mr. Darcy, and yet I think that Elizabeth Bennett is more than a match for him (or any man). It is impossible, while reading Pride and Prejudice not to fall in love with Miss Bennett. Her high ideals and sharp tongue are irrepressible, and I often found myself smiling over her words, whether she was dissembling with the comically dim-witted Mr. Collins or bandying insults with Darcy. One would never grow bored with her around, though one might become overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of her wit.

  • Augustus McCrae, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove

      Gus single-handedly manages to lift Lonesome Dove from an “above-average” novel to a great one. Pull Gus from the book and you have the fascinating story of a cattle drive from Texas to Montana. With Gus, you have a complicated saga, complete with humor, wisdom, pathos, and a kind of dusty, gnarled charm. Not only does Gus provide the humor and a large portion of the dialogue, but he provides the kind of counterpoint – the flashlight, so to speak – by which we can better see the depths of the other characters. Woodrow Call, the stoic leader of the Hat Creek outfit and Gus’s friend, would have come off entirely flat without Gus to illuminate him. Great characters can carry a story, and Gus shoulders more than his share of the load.

    Sir John Falstaff William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Parts I & II

      How can any list of great characters be complete without Falstaff? Drunken, lecherous, idle, and yet possessed of such a depth of brilliance that I find new puns and new ways to read his dialogue every time I encounter Henry IV. He is, I think, the only Shakespearean character that can mentally vie with Hamlet, and yet he doesn’t possess the Danish Prince’s nihilism, nor his fascination with death. Falstaff’s fascination is with life. His zest and laughter is contagious to everyone who reads or watches the play.

There are many, many more that made the short list, but didn’t quite find their way onto the final five – Nabokov’s prosy pedophile, Humbert Humbert; Dorothea Brooke from George Eliot’s Middlemarch; the wizard Ged from LeGuin’s Earthsea books, etc…

You get the picture.

Now you try! Please, feel free to share your favorite characters in the comments, and just as importantly, share a few words about why they appeal to you.


  1. I agree with you on Tyrion. But also check out Steerpike in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast series. A real, compulsive villain but then you also have myriad other characters like Nanny Slag, Swelter the cook, Prunesquallor - Can't recommend these characters or books highly enough!

  2. Thanks for sharing, Mike! I agree with you on Peake's Gormenghast novels. They are woefully under-appreciated and chock full of fascinating, Dickensian characters. My personal favorites are Prunesquallor & the immense cat-lady, Mrs. Groan. I think Peake's novels stand with LotR & LeGuin's Earthsea novels as the standard-bearers of the fantasy genre.