08 May, 2012

What Makes a Person?

No, this isn't deep philosophy here, nor even biology for that matter. I am simply wondering, what makes a collection of words on a page into a real person in our heads. I'm no expert in characterisation, so I'm not going to bore you with my opinion on how to create believable characters. You either already know, don't much care, or can find out from a more reputable source than me!

Instead, let's just celebrate our favourite heroes of literature. Who are your favourite book characters? What was it about them that has kept them alive in your head?

In terms of pure skill from the author, I can name several characters that stand out for me. In previous posts I've mentioned Snape from the Harry Potter series and Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities, for example. Unlikely heroes or loveable villains make for much more interesting characters than two-dimensional bad guys and good guys, but I'm not really talking about interest here. I'm going for something much more low-brow - which characters did you enjoy getting to know, regardless of how skilled, or otherwise, the author was?

It seems to me that there are a few reasons why we fall for certain characters. Here are my suggestions, but feel free to comment with you own as well.

  1. The one we want to be. These characters are people who do and say the things that we wish we could. For me this category includes William Brown from Richmal Crompton's Just William books. Running around in 1940s rural Britain being a kid, with no technology, traffic, or battery-operated toys. Just make-believe, gobstoppers and friendship. Ditto George from the Famous Five and Anne of Green Gables. But you might have a more grown-up suggestion!
  2. The one we want to be friends with. In this category I'd also include characters who wish were our parents or grandparents etc. Sherlock Holmes would be pretty neat (as long as you were handy with a service revolver) and if I were to choose a grandpa, Badger from The Wind in the Willows would be a strong candidate.
  3. The one we're a little bit in love with. Forget Mr. Darcy, it's all about Mr. Knightley from Jane Austen's Emma, right ladies? Gentlemen, you'll have to make your own suggestions here - I'm too busy thinking about Mr. Knightley right now.
  4. The one that haunts us. They may not be our first choice of best friend but we won't forget them in a hurry. People in the category are almost entirely unlikeable but  stay in our heads long after we put the book down and we still enjoyed finding out about them. They might be dashing villains, loveable rogues, or they might be downright nasty. Kevin from We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver is my nominee.

Who would you put in each of these categories?

Most of my most memorable characters come from children's books - proving, I suppose, that we are much more impressionable as kids. There are probably as many reasons for remembering a character as there are characters to remember - irritating characters can be just a memorable as heroes (Beth from Little Women anyone?) - so please share your own favourites. Let's wallow in nostalgia together!


  1. Well, Sherlock, obviously. But also remember the characters I invented in my childhood, a family from the future (I know - too much Dr Who!), who were stranded here and sought to help humanity. Book wise, I very vaguely recall Bobby Brewster and also The Secret Seven.

    As an adult, the characters that haunt me are the ones who have something to tell me about the world as I experience it or want to experience it. And that's true even when it's a seagull, a bunch of escaping rabbits, or a renegade robot!

    1. Renegade robots are the best ;)

      I'm sorry though, Derek, the Secret Seven were a poor man's Famous Five!

  2. Sometimes it's all about the relationships between two (or more) characters which makes the individuals so memorable. For me, Sherlock Holmes is nothing without Watson (particularly well represented in the recent tv series). Think of Lyra and the-boy-whose-name-escapes-me-at-midnight in the Northern Lights Trilogy, for example. My all time favourite characters are from the Gormenghast books and Flay and Swelter are one of the most brilliantly imagined antithetical pairs. How you feel about a character is often hugely influenced by how other, equally fleshed out characters feel about them. I think that's why I love John Irving's novels so much...there's so much detail in every character and relationship that you feel you know them and both love and hate them as much as you would a real person.

    1. I was thinking about Will from Northern Lights when I was writing the bit in this post about the one you want to be friends with! I was also thinking about Hastings and how Poirot wouldn't look nearly so clever if he wasn't such an idiot. I suppose even in real life we need interaction to show our character.

    2. PS: for some reason your comment posted five time so I have deleted four of them! I got really excited that loads of people had commented! But I'm sure you're worth another four comments at least :)

  3. The one I want to be? Dumbledore. Kind and powerful.

    The One I want to be friends with? Cohen the Barbarian (Discworld) With him on my side I'd never be afraid.

    The One I'm a little bit in love with? Alexia Maccon (Timeless by Gail Carriger) Ask her 'what's wrong dear' and she'll tell you.

    The one that haunts me? Frankenstein. Created something he regretted and caused him pain.

    1. Awww, Dumbledore! I love Cohen the Barbarian too, but I have never heard of Alexia Maccon and - shamefully - never read Frankenstein.


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