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?