50 of the greatest characters in literature (2023)

One of the things that literature does better than almost any other medium is to allow us to experience, and sometimes even inhabit, the quality of another person's mind. It follows that every bookworm has a favorite literary character - whether they're loved for underhanded acts, tough girl antics, sex appeal or a high sarcasm quotient - and there are many incredibly good ones out there. After the jump you will find 50 of the best. To be clear, a great character isn't always one you like (just ask Claire Messud), but one that's somehow exceptional or makes the reader feel delightful about a story. As always, this list reflects its creator's personal tastes and inclinations, and many great characters aren't included (Jo March, Huck Finn, Merusault, Anne Shirley, check them out), so if your favorite isn't here, check them in the comments.

Maria Katherine Blackwood,We have always lived in the castle, ShirleyJackson

"My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood," begins Jackson's classic novel. "I'm eighteen years old and I live with my sister Constance. I often thought that if I was lucky I might have been born a werewolf because the two middle fingers on both hands are the same length, but I had to make do with what I had. I don't like washing, dogs and noise. I like my sister Constance and Richard Plantagenet andAmantia phalloides, the death mushroom. All the other members of my family are dead. Awkward and funny, and constantly judgmental and needy about everyone around her, MKB is my heart's creepy little sister.

Gigante,The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov

But of course: no one could forget Behemoth, that demonic, fast-talking, armed, vodka-drinking, chess-playing black cat. The devil's favorite fool, and mine too.

Humberto Humberto,Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

Poor, monstrous, sickly old man of Eros. One of literature's most devious characters, not only because of his many devious schemes to make Lolita his own, but also because he manages to get you to care for him, despite his heartbreak and high morals. A good trick indeed.

Lili Barth,the house of joy, Edith Wharton

Beautiful and well-dressed on the outside, but exhausted and desperate on the inside - and never rich enough - Lily Bart is a tragic heroine for the ages.

Hermine Granger,Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, JK Rowling

As far as I'm concerned, the secret name for theHarry Potterbooks isHermoine Granger and the two guys hanging around her. Not only was she smart, controlled, tough and healthy, almost always better than Harry and Ron in every way, she never felt sorry for herself and was boring like them.

Atticus Fink,kill hope, HarperLee

The great daddy of your dreams.

Sherlock Holmes,O Sherlock Holmes komplett, Arthur Conan Doyle

In a way, it's hard to choose between Holmes and Watson - the latter is both underrated and wonderful - but in the end the scathing, vain, "bohemian" consulting detective wins through sheer strength of character.

Emma Bovary,Frau Bovary, Gustav Flaubert

Flaubert's best creation ("Madame Bovary, it's mehe said) is beautiful and awful, essentially romanticizing itself to death. I faint.

Mickey's SaturdaySheba-Theater, Felipe Roth

A depraved, cruel, aging former puppeteer - the filthy old man who rules all filthy old men - Mickey Sabbath is one of literature's most despicable characters. Which of course makes it one of the most exciting reads.

Sethe,Amado, Toni Morrison

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Sethe just vibrates with pain, with desperation, with desire - but also with strength and maybe with hope. She is a force to be reckoned with, as other forces will discover.

Tintin,Tintin in Tibet, Herge

Everyone's favorite two-shoe reporter, both big-hearted and empty-hearted, a quiet pool for us to show our best.

Salim Sinai,midnight kids, Salman Rushdie

"Later called Snotnose, Stainface, Baldy, Sniffer, Buddha, and even Piece-of-the-Moon," Saleem is one of the greatest unreliable narrators of all time, tied to the story on an epic journey of self-creation.

orlando,Orlando, Virginia Woolf

Woolf's famous hero /ina goes to sleep one night as a man and wakes up as a woman. The book spans almost 400 years, which Orlando observes with interest as the world changes while remaining the same or nearly the same - unaffected by the compulsions of time, gender or society.

Elizabeth Bennet,pride and prejudice, Jane Austen

Lizzy is not only her father's favorite daughter, but also the favorite daughter of the reading public in Austen's powerful heroine family. Intelligent, irreverent, independent (quite exceptional for her time) and endowed with "a cheerful, playful disposition that delights in anything ridiculous," she never fails to win me over.

Prinz Hamlet,Dorf, William Shakespeare

The murderous, brooding and probably insane Prince of Denmark is a perfect tragic hero - an existentialist questioner who doesn't know what he wants. A deep joy to read, even if you might not want to meet him (you'd probably end up dead after all).

Celia,A purple heart, AliceWalker

Here's a girl starting from the bottom: a poor, uneducated black teenager in the American South in the 1930s, beaten and raped by the man she believes to be her father, and the resulting children taken from her. Despite this, she finds a path to self-realization, independence, love and even down-to-earthness - a remarkable transformation for a remarkable woman.

Willy Wonka,Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl

A wilder, more wonderful chocolatier than a child can imagine - but of course they don't have to try. Veruca Salt comes second in this novel, partly because of her perfect, perfect name.

Jane Eyre,Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

She may be "poor, obscure, simple and small," but Charlotte Brontë's best creation is a chewy cookie. Passionate, smart and moral would be a better combination of adjectives. She doesn't even run away to meet her beloved Mr. Rochester's mistress because of his "passionate self-respect and moral conviction". Even better, she's the nerdy girl who ends up getting the guy. I have to love her

princess cimorena,The Chronicles of the Magic Forest, Patricia C. Wrede

Here's the deal: Princess CimorenehatesEmbroider, curl your hair and learn how to set the table - not to mention the right moments to scream when you're being kidnapped by a giant. So she runs off to become a dragon princess, which is where she fits right in, organizing the library, practicing her latin, doing cherry jubilee, learning spells, and repelling any misinformed princes trying to "save" her. She is the toughest and kindest princess ever printed and I love her.

Cosmas Piovasco de Rondo,The Baron of TreesItalo Calvino

Gotta love him for his romance - Cosimo who, on a promise he made to a beautiful girl, chooses to live his life among the branches of the trees without ever setting foot on the ground. He's eccentric, rugged, downright imaginative - and funny as hell too.

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Senhorita Havisham,High expectations, Charles Dickens

I will name the best creation Miss Havisham Dickens - although I hope there are many who would fight me on that. She is fabulously insane: a woman who, after being abandoned by her husband-to-be 20 minutes before her wedding, stopped all the clocks at the moment of her betrayal and just went on living in her wedding dress, her run-down house on her doorstep, with only one shoe on. So she tried to make Estella a cruel and heartless girl (for her own protection, for her own revenge). Tragic perhaps, but always fascinating.

Holden Caulfield,The catcher in the rye, J. D. Salinger

Full Disclosure: I actually hate Holden Caulfield. When I was a teenager, I would pick up this book and read a few pages before putting it down, just thinking about itcould notFor this reasonIdiotfor a wholeRomantic. But I credit it as one of the best illustrations of a certain breed of anxious, disaffected young men walking around with a totally bad attitude. And hey - he's a literary culture icon who's never been immortalized on screen: quite an achievement in this day and age.

Hugo Whittier,The Lament of the Epicurean, Kate Christensen

The grumpy, cantankerous Hugo Whittier is one of my all-time favorites - gruff and self-absorbed, but also smart as hell and always delightfully grumpy. He's like the patron saint of disgruntled geniuses.

Gandalf,Lord of the rings, J. R. R. Tolkien

Dream Daddy Part Two: Wizard's Edition. Warrior and protector of good, who also likes to smoke some of this thin pipe-weed. But only on special occasions.

Dom Quixote von La Mancha,Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes

The most rational madman there is.

Oscar Wao,The Short and Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz

How could anyone not love Oscar Wao, the fat, Dominican, and fucking "ghetto nerd at the end of the world" (New Jersey)? An outcast, a lover obsessed with love and a huge sci-fi geek, Oscar is nothing short of charming.

Holly Golightly,Breakfast at Tiffany's, Truman Capote

The original Manic Pixie Dream Girl but way better. A "cafe society girl" on New York's Upper East Side in the 1940s, Golightly was an eccentric beauty fleeing an old life, ambivalent about morals but clear about her likes and dislikes.

Harry 'Coelho' Angstrom,rabbit race, John Updike

A 26-year-old who peaked in high school with a massive Peter Pan complex. The worst, right? And yet we would follow him anywhere.

Charles Kinbote,pale fire, Vladimir Nabokov

Without giving too much away, Kinbote is the supposed academic writing the foreword and notes to the great John Shade's epic of the same name. He's also (probably) insane and (definitely) brilliant. A cheat for the record books.

Beatrix,So much noise for nothing, William Shakespeare

Not only is Beatrice the sharp-tongued, badass girl of his dreams, she was way ahead of her time. Her famous speech about the humiliations of women after her cousin was attacked at the altar always takes my breath away:

Is he not a well-known scoundrel who slanders, despises, dishonours my relatives? Ah, if I were a man! What, hold 'em in your hand 'til they come to hold hands; and then, with public accusation, open slander, utter resentment, - oh God, that I were a man! I would eat your heart in the market. … princes and counties! Certainly, a princely witness, a good earl, earl Comfect; a sweet galant, for sure! Oh, if only I were a man because of him! or that I would have a friend who would be a man because of me! But manliness melts into politeness, bravery into flattery, and men become only tongues, and elegant ones too: he is now as brave as Hercules, who only lies and swears by it. I cannot be a man who wishes, so I will die a suffering woman.

Sebastian Flyte,Bridal head relaunched, Evelyn Waugh

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Spoiled, rude teddy bear Sebastian as a friend probably wouldn't be much fun to have, but he's certainly delightful to read about.

Nancy Drew,The Mystery of the Old Clock, Carolyn Keene

The mythical detective: powerful, clever and totally in love with you.

Leopoldo Bloom,Ulysses, James Joyce

A bizarre, pot-bellied fellow who is introduced in the novel as someone who "delightedly ate the internal organs of animals and birds. He liked thick offal soup, walnut gizzards, stuffed roast hearts, fried slices of liver with breadcrumbs, fried chicken roe. His favorite was grilled mutton kidneys, which gave his palate a strong smell of lightly perfumed urine. hmm?

Raskolnikow,Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

An essentially nihilistic, hard-working ex-law student who has big ideas but lets them drive him to devious deeds.

Frankenstein-Monster,Frankenstein, Maria Shelly

In the original novel, the monster is a tragic character - accidentally murderous, deeply hopeful, searching for answers, searching for love. Well, aren't we all?

lyre silvertongue,your dark materialsTrilogie, Philip Pullman

Undisciplined, headstrong, and critical of the survival of the world, Ms. Lyra is a marvel. Not least because of her incredible ability to read that complicated alethiometer, talk sweetly about what isn't sweet, and make almost everyone, especially the reader, fall head over heels for her.

Patrick Batemann,American psychopath, Bret Easton Ellis

you really can'tifPatrick Bateman. But he's like a totally neurotic, perfectly trained human car wreck - you don't want to see it, but you just can't look away. Of himself he says:

...there's an idea by Patrick Bateman, a kind of abstraction, but there's no real me, just an entity, something illusionary, and although I can hide my cold stare and you can squeeze my hand and feel the flesh hold yours, and maybe even feel that our lifestyles are probably comparable: I'm just not there. I have a hard time understanding that on any level. I myself am manufactured, a freak. I am a non-contingent human. My personality is shallow and formless, my heartlessness is deep and persistent. My conscience, my pity, my hopes are long gone (probably at Harvard) if they ever existed. There are no more barriers to cross. Everything I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the chaos I caused and my utter indifference towards him, I'm over now. However, I still hold on to a single dark truth: no one is safe, nothing is saved.

Do you understand what I mean?

captain ahab,moby tail, Herman Melville

There's nothing like a megalomaniac on a quest for revenge.

Sula,Sula, Toni Morrison

Rebellious and headstrong, Sula throws away all the social conventions she's learned in her small town, at the cost of most of her life (when she gets home, everyone thinks she's the devil). Which is really a shame.

Oblomow,OblomowIvan Goncharov

Literature's laziest character who once "got up from his chair, but didn't immediately put his foot in his slipper and sit down again."

the invisible maninvisible man, Ralph Ellison

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A man hiding in a basement where 1,369 lightbulbs are burning with stolen electricity tells the story of his life - and in the process discovers the truth about his own identity. You love him for his struggles, for his strangeness, for all the injustices he endures.

Clarissa Dalloway,Sra. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

The best kind of party hostess is one that even a lintel doesn't bother.

Heda Gabler,Hedda Gabler, Henrique Ibsen

The terrifying and enigmatic Hedda Gabler always seems capable of anything - and she proves many things, fueled by anger, boredom and a seething urge for freedom.

Inacio J. Reilly,A confederation of donkeys, John Kennedy Toole

In the book's foreword, Walker describes Percy Ignatius as "an extraordinary slob, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a wicked Thomas Aquinas all rolled into one". He's a redneck with a broken valve. You may hate him, but there's no denying that he's a creation of genius.

Lisbeth Salander,The girl with the dragon tattoo, Steig Larson

A badass, anti-social computer hacker with a photographic memory, dubbed by many as a "feminist avenging angel". A little violent, sure, but she's still one of the most amazing female characters in recent memory.

Madalena,madeline, Ludwig Bemelmans

"In an old house in Paris, covered with vines, there lived twelve girls in two straight rows...the smallest of whom was Madeline." Puh-puh' said"), the cheekiest and the best.

Peter Pan,Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie

The dream of eternal youth in one compact package.

Scarlett O'Hara,Blown by the wind, MargaretMitchell

"Not pretty" maybe, but a selfish framer for the time. She may not be a very nice person, but you have to love her when she says:

I'm tired of always being unnatural and never doing anything I want. I'm tired of pretending I've eaten nothing but a bird, walking when I want to run, and saying I get dizzy after a waltz when I could dance for two days and never get tired. I'm tired of saying, "How wonderful you are!" to fool men who don't have half as much common sense as I do, and I'm tired of pretending I don't know anything so that men they know things and feel important while doing it.

preach sister

Mathilde,Mathilde, Roald Dahl

A girl smart enough to develop telekinesis? Instant favorite.

Jay Gatsby,O Grande Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

The ultimate romantic who builds a luxurious empire just to impress a girl - andÖfictional embodiment of this alluring and disastrously misleading American Dream.


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