We all know them. They are those characters in books who feel like real people, who live on with you well after you finish the book. Their thoughts mirror your own; their struggles resonate with you and leave you ruminating. Or conversely they infuriate you and challenge you to think differently. Here are my top five:
1. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’)
It probably helps if you are brainy, angsty teenager suffering from an identity crisis to really ‘feel’ Jane, but anyone who feels they were not blessed with life’s advantages can empathise with Bronte’s heroine. Lonely and poor, orphan Jane forges her way from a cruel boarding school to love and independence. Even when she falls for Mr Rochester, she has the confidence to negotiate the terms of their equal partnership. She is not beautiful, wealthy or connected but she has self-respect damn it, and that’s why she is No.1.
2. Raskolnikov (Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’)
The tortured soul of Dostoevsky’s classic, Raskolnikov’s journey from his philosophical experiment to eventual redemption, is the ultimate in existential literature (the only other exception being Dostoevsky’s other foray into The Meaning of Life ‘The Brothers Karamazov’.) If you have been a starving student in Sydney’s overblown rental markets, you will feel Raskolnikov’s pain (and the Russian winter too, viscerally.)
3. Atticus Finch (Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’)
Some may like their bad boys, your Dorian Gray’s and Heathcliff’s (two who were hotly contested for this list), but I’ve always loved the noble man. Atticus is the ultimate straight shooter, a widower who uses his skills as a lawyer to controversially stand up for justice by defending a black man accused of rape in America’s segregationist south. It is Atticus’ love for his children, his integrity and quiet humility that make him a winner on my list
3. Elizabeth Bennett (Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’)
Bright and beautiful, Elizabeth Bennett, the heroine of Austen’s classic, is beloved precisely because she has the confidence to be haughty despite the manifest disadvantages of being a woman in Victorian England and coming from a somewhat dysfunctional family. Ms Bennett wins because she is another strong woman who has the courage to navigate her own destiny within and even transcending the limitations of her circumstances and unlike the earnest Jane, she does it with wit and style. When she is not trading barbs with her love interest Darcy, she’s laughing up a social custom or absurdity.
4. Channu (Monica Ali’s Brick Lane)
The Bengali husband in Monica Ali’s Man Booker prize short-listed novel Brick Lane, Channu is a favourite, because he is complex and nuanced. One of those characters one cannot help loving and hating, sometimes at the same time. It would have been easy to relegate him to the 2-D cliché of the overbearing patriarch, but Ali’ genius lay in her ability to give even her make even her ‘villainous’ character sympathetic, flawed and human.
5. Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’).
The wife of a Tory MP who ‘had parties to cover the silence’, Clarissa Dalloway is chosen, because despite being conventional and insipid, she loves life and gives an insight into the sometimes uncomfortable mind of comfortable privilege. We meet Mr and Mrs Dalloway fleetingly in Woolf’s first novel ‘The Voyager’ and are immediately intrigued. She is one of those superficial, yet mysterious people you’ve always wanted to be able to decode and somehow get inside their head. We know Mrs Dalloway is more than meets the eye because she attracts interesting people like the marauding Peter Walsh and the once outrageous Sally Seton. She’s also an archetype, the natural socialite and gravitational centre from which everyone is brought together.
Who are your favourite characters?