Mirror, mirror on the wall; who’s the best character of them all?

Victorian bookshelf

Victorian bookshelf image courtesy of grafixar, Morguefile.

This morning, I read what is possibly one of the worst books I’ve ever read. I can’t tell you the book’s title or author since I don’t want its living author to chase me down and whack me with a keyboard. I didn’t like the book because the main character was immature and hard to like. This character was all about lying, cussing, manipulating, getting revenge, mismanaging money and acting like a spoiled brat. I wanted to jump into the plot and brain the character with my keyboard.

Reading this bad book got me to thinking: What is it that really defines a “good” character? Sometimes it’s the ability to be remembered. Becky Sharp from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is not a nice character, but she’s memorable because she is the ultimate schemer, player and social climber. Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights is equally worthy of being remembered; he’s not a nice guy either but he does have some reasons for being the way he is.

I also like characters who undergo a transformation during a book’s plot. Jude Murray of Nora Roberts’ Jewels of the Sun starts out as a neurotic character and gradually becomes stronger and steadier as she copes with her new life in Ireland. Mr. Darcy of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice comes across as proud, arrogant and stiff-necked (maybe it was the tightness of his cravat?) but becomes a nicer guy at the end of the book.

(I have to admit a sneaky sense of pity for Mr. Darcy during the scene where he proposes to wed Elizabeth Bennet. Honestly, could the poor guy screw up the marriage proposal any more? He tells her that her family are idiots and admits that he deliberately messed up the budding romance between Elizabeth’s sister Jane and his friend Bingley, but hey, I want to marry you anyway? *rolls eyes* He does redeem himself later, though.)

In my opinion, the best characters are men, women or children who have a strong moral foundation so that I can relate to them. They may have their external problems or internal issues at the beginning of the book, but they work them out by the end. I also like characters who demonstrate a strong sense of humor, even if they mock themselves. These characters make for an entertaining read and may even educate us readers about the human condition in the process.

Readers: Who are some of the best literary characters, in your opinion? How would you define a “best” character?

30 Comments

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30 responses to “Mirror, mirror on the wall; who’s the best character of them all?

  1. I would say characters who have flaws and grow from them are the most memorable. Scout is terrified of Boo Radley and by the end of the book she treats him with respect.

  2. Great post! All the characters in the Grapes of Wrath and the two rangers in Lonesome Dove are some that come immediately to mind for me.

  3. Zee

    Huck Finn. Still not overrated.

  4. Besides Huck Finn, a truly great character, I like Billy in Where the Red Fern Grows. Talk about a kid who goes through a change from beginning to end!

  5. “This character was all about lying, cussing, manipulating, getting revenge, mismanaging money and acting like a spoiled brat.”

    Can you narrow that down a bit more? I think you just described about half our present generation of teens! :)

    • The character was an adult woman (about mid-40s), a writer, with two great teenage boys and a husband. Her character didn’t really grow during the book and there didn’t seem to be much of a plot.

      I was willing to give the book a try since the title was catchy. Lesson learned; go through the book a little before reading. A classic example of “you can’t judge a book by its cover.”

  6. I think a good character is one we can identify with. No one is perfect so a perfect character isn’t very believable, one of my gripes with the Elsie Dinsmore series although overall they were good reads.

    The book you described sounds a lot like the one I picked up about the Titanic. It was a children’s fiction book and thoroughly disgusting. Great post!

  7. Nice post, EEE! I still get chills when recalling Anton Chigurh of No Country for Old Men. Great antagonist and great storytelling by McCarthy. Thanks!

  8. i think it’s important for characters to have flaws, so they are real. The princesses mustn’t be as blonde and beautiful as the day is long and the princes mustn’t be charming and handsome. They must make mistakes, and occasionally be mean to people and most important of all: be scared. ‘He charged heroically into battle; not afraid, since he was a brave, noble knight.’. Yeah, right! Who isn’t scared before they save the world or win a war? I have a list of bad books and write down why they’re bad so I never ever have any of those problems in my stories. Try it!

  9. Great post. I like so many characters — villains and heroes. Love Mr. Darc, love Just William, Miss Marple, Terry Pratchett’s Death and scheming Becky Sharp. My list is endless. :-)

  10. Val

    I’m more about reading non-fiction, but what fiction I do read the protagonist, whether morally upstanding or not, has to have something with which I can identify, and frequently that’s human failings, faults, wrong turns. Something real and something human.

    • And that’s why, I think, characters like Heathcliff or Becky Sharp continue to endure. Perhaps it’s a bit of ying and yang. I find a story more interesting when there is some good in a bad character and some bad in a good character.

  11. I have read — or tried to read — books so dreadful I feel I should follow the old advice “when you have nothing good to say, say nothing.” I get involved with characters who are multi-dimensional and complex, who grow and change. I need to find something likeable in one or more major characters or I can’t really like the book.

  12. I can identify. I have forced myself through at least two books where I despised the characters. After the last one I said ‘No more’! If a character (especially a main character) doesn’t grab me in the first few chapters, I refuse to devote time to it. There are so many good books with intricate, believable and realistic characters that I can afford to pass on one or two that aren’t speaking to me.

SPEAK!!!

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