The characters in our favorite books are, to some of us, fully realized people. We welcome them in, find out their habits and hangups, and dance around them while we try to understand them. When they leave, we are saddened, when they achieve their victories, we celebrate them. Sometimes, when they die, we mourn.
Those sorts of relationships lead to this post. I thought I’d point out some of my favorite characters in fiction, and why they grab me the way they do. They’re the one who linger long after the book has been closed, the ones who sometimes have you thinking “what would so-and-so say about this?”
5. Sadie (11/22/63, Stephen King) : Sadie serves as the female lead and love interest in King’s time-travel/alternate history novel about preventing the JFK assassination. But her real role is changing the book into something completely different. What starts as a fairly straightforward a a Sci-fi premise soon becomes a love story when protagonist Jake Epping meets Sadie (as she quite literally falls into his arms), and the natural progression of their relationship, from at amusing introduction to their reunion in the book’s final pages is something that a lot of writers – who write romance for a living, no less – can’t equal.
Sadie is strong, determined, and in charge of herself. She’s been dealt bad hands, one after the other – and despite the truth of their love, some would argue that her relationship with Jake is yet another, and I’m inclined to agree in some ways – and yet keeps going. She’s naive in some ways, almost ruthlessly pragmatic in others, and yet never appears to be just a plot device or motivator for others. When Jake reaches the pivotal moment, it is through Sadie’s love – and sacrifice – that he succeeds.
She is also broken in a lot of ways (a theme you’ll find I like a lot); her relationship with her ex-husband shows her vulnerability and ignorance of certain matters, and when she finally finds the strength to overcome her past and embrace the possibilities of life (“putting the broom away,” in Sadie-speak) you want to cheer for her.
Her final (sort of; time travel gets messy, sometimes) moments are heartbreaking, and she is one of only a handful of characters who actually made me cry. Then she does it again during the reunion. Damn it.
4. Jack / The Narrator (Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk): Ah, unreliable narrators. One of my favorite literary devices is taken to the extreme in this case. There’s dozens of layers of meaning behind our Narrator, but what I like best is the simplicity of it. You can talk all day about the effects of our consumerist society and the emasculation of men that hides behind metro style or whatever other political hoodoo you want to blame for Jack’s state, but the entertainment for me is taking the idea of wanting to be someone else to the ultimate expression.
Think about it. Jack’s self-loathing and directionless life lead him to the final plateau of self-destruction and reinvention, to literally erase himself, one step at a time, and become someone else. Someone who, in the words of the film version “looks like he wants to look, says what he wants to say, fucks how he wishes he could fuck.”
It’ s a heavy concept, and far better developed than most MPD presentations. The fact that Jack isn’t entirely trustworthy – and not just because of his sociopathic alter ego – leaves you questioning him and the work as a whole long after you close the book.
The fact that he is so fundamentally flawed and yet bizarrely heroic – hey, it takes courage to destroy everything in your life and remake yourself into who you want to be, even if you do it through an “imaginary friend” – is what gets him on this list.
3. Ronnie Williamson (Mr. Hands, Gary Braunbeck): This book is possibly one of my favorites in recent memory; the psychosis of our apparent protagonist, Lucy, is just the tip of the iceberg. But Ronnie… oh, Ronnie. The book asks the question “How do you make a child killer sympathetic?”
Most of you out there are probably saying “You don’t.” And that’s probably true, most of the time. But Ronnie’s actions are actually motivated by altruism, and Braunbeck’s genius is letting you see that. By the time you put down the book, you’re forced to question who’s really the villain here; poor, mentally challenged but psychically gifted Ronnie, who genuinely is trying to spare certain children unnecessary pain? Or Lucy, the deranged mother on a quest for vengeance who thinks summoning mud demons that occasionally violently harm innocents is totally okay, if the end justifies the means?
Sitting in Ronnie’s head, being made to understand why he does what he does, and eventually coming to sympathize more with him than the “good” guys is why he gets onto this list.
2. Eddie Dean (The Dark Tower series, Stephen King): Probably sick of seeing Mr. King’s creations by now – and if so, you should skip #1 as well – but I just can’t help myself. Eddie Dean starts off in volume II of the saga as a barely-controlled junkie running drugs for a cheap mafia knockoff by the name of Balazar. By the time his story ends at the midpoint of Dark Tower VII, he has become a bona-fide hero… and pays the price for that heroism. Sure, he gets a saccharine ending, like most of King’s characters do in the last decade or so, but it’s how his ticket is punched that validates his journey.
The thing I love about Eddie, though, is that he never stops being Eddie. He may be a knight errant (with a sixgun instead of a sword), embroiled in a noble quest to save the world, light, love and puppies and stuff, but he never loses his cynical, snarky New York edge. There’s a conversation in one of the books between Eddie and Roland (the Gunslinger, his leader, mentor and surrogate father) where Eddie snaps at Roland: “You forgot something.” “What’s that?” Roland asks. “To tell me to grow up.” Roland pauses for a moment, and then smiles. “I think you have,” he tells Eddie. That sums things up (and marks another reason Eddie is here) quite nicely; Eddie, even when he’s actually performing as the winds of ka dictate he must, when he is upholding destiny and all the White has planned for him, often doesn’t think of himself as such. There’s a certain self-depreciating humility about him even when he’s at his snottiest or most deadly, that’s quite charming and makes him, in this reader’s eyes, a much more interesting and believable character than most of his traveling companions; only Flagg and Roland himself really equal him in terms of depth and being the men (or monsters) that their pasts led them to be; Flagg’s backstory requires delving across almost all of King’s work and plenty of spinoffs, while Roland’s is told piecemeal and still feels like it’s missing major chunks. Eddie is complete and found in just one place for easy access. That nets him the win.
Plus, he literally blew the mind of an AI warp-speed train with dead baby jokes. I mean, that has to qualify you for a certain level of awesome, right?
Father Donald Callahan (‘Salem’s Lot & The Dark Tower series, Stephen King): Ah, little Donnie Callahan. When I was first introduced to the Lot, he was the one who stood out to me. Not writer-turned-vampire-hunter Ben Mears, not clever little Mark Petrie, not hospital-bound Van Helsing Wannabe Matt; nope. T’was the priest that stuck with me, because he seems to have a great deal more depth than the others. He’s a priest who, in his own words, is left without a battle. The battles of old, Inquisitions and heresies, are all gone. He’s too old to be, as he puts it, “a socially aware” priest, with their causes of abortion and war and civil liberties. He’s come to believe that possibly the devil is dead and God is “a mental defective pulling wings off of flies.”
He’s losing his faith an inch at a time – partly due to the amount of time he spends crawling into various bottles, to be sure – when Mears and the others give him a challenge. An evil to fight, the chance to put the church – his Church, as Callahan puts it – against the might of all the dark powers. Something in Callahan jumps at the chance, and he crawls out of his drunkenness and small-town ennui to do battle with Barlow. His faith and strength lead the group through their triumph at the Marsten House, and save Mark when things look dire indeed at the Petrie house. But he makes a mistake. His faith falters, just for an instant, and Barlow takes him.
But that’s not the end for our plucky former priest; he takes to the road, eventually winding up in a homeless shelter, doing good deeds for penance and killing vampires on the side; God takes him back, “on a trial basis.” He begins to get clean, both metaphorically and spiritually. Until the agents of the Crimson King have him killed, and he ends up in Mid-World. From there, he builds himself a nice little church, and waits, because he knows Roland is coming, that it’s his destiny to join the gunslingers.
In time, he bonds with them, becomes part of their ka-tet, and uses his wisdom , his words, and his faith to buy valuable time for Jake at a critical moment. He ties, to be sure. But he dies fighting, and goes out with the knowledge that he has been redeemed.
His journey is one with a lot of down points; he never becomes some saintly messiah figure, always nobly resisting temptation. He’s a drunk, a liar, a killer, possibly with a few gay tendencies (as explained during his recollections of how he returned to vampire hunting), and just as much of a dogmatic prick as you might expect a hardline Catholic from the 70s to be. But he’s also surprisingly human. His failings are those of men and women the world around… and he acknowledges them, questions them, and resolves to do better… and eventually, he does. When the moment comes around again, for him to test his faith against the ancient vampires, he does not fail or falter as he did with Barlow; he finds his strength, and calmly does what must be done. His story of sin and redemption, put within a believable framework and showing genuine growth of a character who at first appears to be a stock nobody (“Hey, guys, we need a priest for this”) are what lands him here.
So what do you guys think? Any of these on your list of favorite characters? What about your own literary heroes? Let us know in the box below!