When it comes to novels, a story without great characters is like a horse with no rider. But what truly makes a great character, one that you’ll remember long after the book’s pages are dogged eared and the covers are collecting dust on a shelf? I think that a character is memorable not because the novel or series that he appears in is particularly trendy at the time. If that is the only attribute the character has, then he’ll be in the cerebral paper shredder in the blink of an eye. The characters that stand out in my mind are ones that are relatable or otherwise compelling and complex. One dimensional bad-asses with quirky catch phrases don’t stand out in the long run to me.
One of the most memorable characters for me is Gollum from JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Ring/Hobbit novels. Now, I know what you’re thinking, ‘Hey, The Hobbit/LOTR is rather trendy, buddy!’ I would agree with you that it is, but having read the novels and seen the original animated movies long before CGI and motion captured even existed, (Yes, I am that old.), I’m referring more to that character, not the CGI. The reason Gollum stands out to me, is that he’s a fatally flawed character and one that is rather conflicted over his own sense of self. He’s not truly evil, but no means is he a good person. There are times throughout the books that he literally battles himself over which side of the morale compass he should follow. His obsession over his ‘precious’ is the root cause to much of his behavior and the choices that he makes during the novels plots. There’s also a creepiness to him that makes my skin crawl, something not quite human but still has shades of it at his very core. Its that humanity, or ‘hobbit-ness’ for the lack of a better word that makes him somewhat sympathetic and relatable but also despicable. We have all given in to temptation in one form or another, and have also felt that anger/sadness of losing a prized possession, so we can relate to Gollum. But the majority of us have not taken the obssession as far as Gollum nor succumbed to such sociopathic tendencies as he does. Gollum has clearly crossed a line most of us would not, and that is both repulsive and compelling.
Another memorable character is Robert Neville from Richard Matheson’s novella I Am Legend. The reason that Robert stands out to me is not because he’s the sole human in a world over run by vampires. That’s interesting, but I wouldn’t have bothered rereading this novel countless times if Robert was one-dimensional. The reason Robert is a stand out is because I can relate to his experiences regardless of how outlandish the setting and antagonists are in the book. Robert has to deal with isolation, with the death of his loved ones, with the memories of his life before the vampires. He displays anger, and lust. He’s not a steroid fueled cigar smoking catch line quoting jack of all trade super hero that never gets hurt. His thoughts, emotions, and actions make him relatable, make him real. He’s not perfect, he screws up from time to time. Who has never done that? That’s what makes me able to relate to Robert, he’s not perfect but he’s not a dumb ass either. I don’t want to read about a protagonist who never fails, never has a hair out of place and always saves the day by five o’clock. I want someone that has flaws, that makes mistakes, but in the end can over come them. Perhaps following the adventures of someone who struggles and then overcomes those struggles is what appeals to me as a reader. If it were not for those struggles, the character would not be revealed.
There are other characters that stand out to me but those are two prime examples of what I consider great memorable characters and why.
A great plot can grab my attention quickly, but if there’s no reason to care about the characters in that great plot then I have a hard time investing my time and interest in it. The truly great stories have a healthy dose of great plot and characters that work in unison. Although I appreciate well written characters, if they do nothing or merely meander through an episodic plot that doesn’t appeal to me. Well developed character and plot is where it is at. It’s not always an easy task to write both, and there are writers out there that are mainly concerned with plot. In my younger days I was more interested in plot, blowing shit up and chopping heads off zombies. Character didn’t matter too much. These days as I work on my first novel and study more about the craft of writing I have a greater appreciation for well written character and strive to make my own more well rounded.
Who are some of your more memorable characters in fiction? Feel free to leave some in the comments.