Interesting Top Ten Lists

Top Ten Literary Characters

In Books, Top Ten on November 30, 2012 at 3:58 pm

I first created this list as a lightweight alternative to engaging my brain with daunting MA research but actually found myself very intrigued by what I felt were some of the strongest characters in literature – as well as some choices that may not appear to be the obvious characters to choose. This turned out to be a surprisingly tough challenge and had me consulting my bookcase (yes, I have thus far avoided caving in to Amazon’s demands that I get a Kindle) and choosing from a variety of texts ranging from airport/pulp fiction (Valley of the Dolls’ Neely O’Hara almost made the list) to historical classics (Dickens’ steely Estella from Great Expectations just missing the boat) to the new contemporary, theory driven texts (Jed from McEwan’s Enduring Love – perhaps the limp film adaptation scuppered Jed’s chances?).

Sadly in order to come up with the list I had to sacrifice the many wonderful characters existing in plays as it just became too many to comprehend – so apologies to the Mother Tulls, Miss Julies, Lord Gorings and Willy Lomans and my condolences to Shakespeare’s Iagos, Portias, Falstaffs and hunchbacked Richards.

Finally, before the list – just to say that one of the things that surprised me was that the list largely neglected some of my favourite authors – the characters in Douglas Coupland, James Baldwin, Don Delillo, Tom Wolfe etc clearly weren’t the dominating aspects of those novels.

Also I would like to say that I am very aware that I haven’t read everything! If you would like to suggest other classic characters then let me know! Email me at – I’d love to hear your opinions.

Now without much further ado:


1. Holden Caufield (Catcher in the Rye: J. D. Salinger)
For me Holden Caufield captures the narrative voice of a post-war generation dealing with such grand anxieties as alienation, apathy and isolation. A cynic at just 17, Holden’s skeptical world view keeps the reader enthralled as he views a world that’s phoniness is finally being realised. However beyond these large themes – despite his wise-beyond-his-years criticisms he is also endearingly self deprecating, funny and his hopelessness with women highlights some of the more universal and humble follies of being young, horny and terrible with chat up lines.


2.Sebastian Flyte (Brideshead Revisited : Evelyn Waugh)
Perhaps I am only using Sebastian Flyte to express my love that that sad teddy bear Aloysius! More charm than Winnie the Poor with none of the anthropomorphism! Seriously though, Sebastian’s role attracts us with both it’s tragic self destruction and glamorous wit. The eccentric, aristocratic, (let’s face it, brazenly homosexual) alcoholic train-wreck that struggles with his relationships with his family, with poker-faced narrator Charles and the overbearing Catholic shadow that overhangs the Flytes and Marchmains. Through Sebastian and his sister Julia, Waugh’s wit flows sharp and fast. And of course, who couldn’t love a grown man with a teddy-bear…


3.Mrs Dubose (To Kill a Mockingbird: Harper Lee)
I first read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird at the age of 9 and even then I loved the character of the cantankerous and sharp-tongued wheelchair-bound octogenarian first described as ‘Plain Hell’. At this age the reason why I loved her escaped me, though as I returned to the book and paid more attention to Atticus’ testament to her, I realised it was admiration for her bravery. A dying woman, she resigns herself to kicking the morphine addiction that has plagued her so that she may die beholden to nothing and nobody – “the bravest person I ever knew” – Atticus Finch.


4.Boxer (Animal Farm: George Orwell)
Did you cry? I cried. I was never able to look at glue in the same way again. The only non-human on the list, Boxer the horse is pure, dedicated, loyal and hardworking to a fault. In a book filled with loathsome human-like animals and grotesque animal-like humans, Boxer was one of the few characters you could truly feel for. Sadly, though all animals are equal, some are more equal than others and Boxer’s blind faith doesn’t protect him.


5.Daisy Buchanon (The Great Gatsby: F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Surely Daisy deserves the mother-of-the-year award for her child, Pammy, who scarcely gets a mention in the novel….perhaps she was left in one of Gatsby’s wine cabinets or rolled under the sofa… The character of Daisy is a much more subtle attack on the American ‘old-money’ aristocracy than her heavy handed husband Tom, it is Daisy’s ultimate cowardice and inability to leave behind the only world she’s ever known to join Great Gatsby – the self-made man – that is his ultimate disservice. Not only is Daisy the unwitting and self-absorbed spider in the centre of the novel’s web, she also gets some of the best lines…. “I’ve never seen such…such beautiful shirts before” (whilst she weeps clutching at Gatsby’s sartorial extravagances).


6.Carlo Marx (On the Road: Jack Kerouac)
Ok, maybe I’m cheating here as a way to include my favourite poet – Allen Ginsburg. Jack Kerouac’s on the road may well be synonymous with the pocket-guide for figures of the Beat generation including Neal Cassidy, Alan Ansen, William S. Burroughs and of course Allen Ginsberg, all under thinly disguised pseudonyms (Ginsberg was accused of communist sympathies during Joseph mcCarthy’s reign of anti-Reds fire). For me, Carlo Marx/Allen Ginsberg was what Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassidy could never truly manage – a truly free spirit, reveling in free spirit without the torment of fatherly abandonment and beholdenment to a platitude of abandened women and children. The novel also contains many allusions to its contemporary piece of literature – Howl, the best knownpoem of Ginsberg’s – with Carlo’s waxing lyrical about the Denver Doldrums and many other similar themes.


7.Inspector Javert (Les Miserables: Victor Hugo)
Ever read Victor Hugo’s behemoth of a novel? it’s bloody hard work and seems never-endless – I’m still amazed that they trimmed it down to a two and a half musical. A novel spanning most of France and many decades, filled with historical and political backgrounds and acting as a true voice for France’s underdogs – the beggars, the students, the whores, the downtrod and the wretched, it is Hugo’s hymn to the human spirit. It is a mark of Hugo’s phenomenal ability to understand the human nature that it’s primary antagonist, the dogmatic and tenacious Inspector Javert, is not an evil spirit bent on petty revenge for saint-like Jean Valjean’s minor crime misdemeanors but is himself a victim of an inflexible and damning morality, a morality so ingrained in him by his hard-handed upbringing that when his world view is shattered, he can see no other alternative.


8.Pauline Mole (Adrian Mole’s Diary series: Sue Townsend)
I sometimes think my actual mother likes to base herself on the chain-smoking, pop-liberalist, Thatcher hating mother of Adrian Mole. Throughout his diaries we follow her three marriages to the same man, immersion in Greer-feminism, fierce maternal pride and contrasting brazen put downs of her social failure of a son – including her utter dismay when his marriage to smart and successful Nigerian Jojo disintegrates. I don’t really have much more to say about Pauline other than I love her and she has made me laugh more than any other fictional character.


9.Jean (American Psycho : Bret Easton Ellis)
When reading Easton Ellis’ tour de force, capturing the zeitgeist of late 80s/early 90s materialism and the anesthetization of violence, I remember feeling a constant anxiety for the wellbeing of Jean – the devotee Patrick Bateman refers to as “my secretary who is in love with me”. Possibly the only moral calm point in the book’s turbulent narrative and plethora of grotesque and self-involved consumerist characters, her banal conversation and demure attraction make her the most human character in this dark satire. Also she was played by Chloe Sevigny in the film adaptation. And she rocks.


10.Dr. Prunesquallor (Gormenghast trilogy : Mervyn Peake)
Gormenghast castle’s resident physician, complete nerd and self indulgent fop…and unlikely hero. Mervyn Peake reserved the very best of his wordplay for Prunesquallor’s self important babble, whilst we get the impression that he is indeed far more intelligent than the other comparatively medieval characters, his character falls and strange lonely existence with his equally virginal spinster sister make him as much a fool as the others. Nevertheless, it is his own deductions and attention to detail that ultimately saves the castle and its denizens from a Machiavellian villain!

by Daniel Jarvis

Daniel Jarvis is a postgrad student at University of Manchester studying Contemporary Literature. He also works part time in a children’s art centre. He’s a bit of a culture vulture and can often be seen in bookshops, galleries, theatres and cinemas. In his spare time he likes dinosaurs, walking and finding excuses to get chorizo into as many recipes as possible. His ideal pet would be a tapir.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: