50 of the Greatest Characters in Literature

One of the things literature does better than almost any other medium is allow us to experience another person’s quality of mind, and sometimes even inhabit it. It follows, then, that every avid reader has a favorite literary character — whether they’re beloved for dastardly deeds, tough-girl antics, sex appeal, or a high snark quotient — and that there are many impossibly good ones out there. After the jump, you’ll find 50 of the best. To be clear: a great character isn’t always one you like (just ask Claire Messud), but one that is somehow extraordinary, or evokes some kind of delicious story-feeling in the reader. As always, this list reflects the personal tastes and proclivities of its creator, and many great characters didn’t make the cut (Jo March, Huck Finn, Merusault, Anne Shirley, looking at you), so if your favorite isn’t on here, and them on in the comments.

jackson

Mary Katherine Blackwood, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood,” Jackson’s classic novel begins. “I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amantia phalloides, the deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.” Strange and funny and constantly sizing up everyone around her and finding them wanting, MKB is the creepy little sister of my heart.

bulgakov

Behemoth, The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov

But of course: no one could forget Behemoth, that fast-talking, gun-toting, vodka-swilling, chess-playing, hog-sized, demonic black cat. The devil’s favorite jester, and mine too.

nabokov

Humbert Humbert, Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

Poor, monstrous, Eros-sick old Hum. One of the sneakiest characters in literature, not only in his many conniving schemes to get Lolita to be his very own, but also in that he manages to trick you into caring for him, even through your disgust and moral high ground. A fine trick indeed.

wharton

Lily Bart, The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton

Beautiful and finely dressed on the outside, but worn out and desperate on the inside — and never, ever rich enough — Lily Bart is a tragic heroine for the ages.

rowling

Hermione Granger, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling

As far as I’m concerned, the secret name for the Harry Potter books is Hermoine Granger and the Two Guys Who Bumble Around Near Her. Not only was she smart, self-possessed, tough, and well, pretty much always better than Harry and Ron in every way, she never got all self-pitying and boring like they did.

lee

Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

The ur-Daddy of your dreams.

doyle

Sherlock Holmes, The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle

In a way, it’s hard to choose between Holmes and Watson — the latter is underrated and wonderful — but in the end, the acerbic, vain, “bohemian” consulting detective wins out for sheer force of character.

flaubert

Emma Bovary, Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

Flaubert’s best creation (“Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” he famously said) is beautiful and terrible and essentially romanticizes herself to death. Swoon.

roth

Mickey Sabbath, Sabbath’s Theater, Philip Roth

Mickey Sabbath is a depraved, cruel, aging ex-puppeteer — the dirty old man to rule all dirty old men — and one of the most reprehensible characters in literature. Which, obviously, makes him one of the most alluring to read about.

morrison

Sethe, Beloved, Toni Morrison

Sethe simply vibrates with pain, with despair, with want — but also with strength, and maybe, with hope. She is a force to be reckoned with, as other forces will find.

herge

Tintin, Tintin in Tibet, Hergé

Everybody’s favorite goody-two-shoes boy reporter, both big-hearted and blank, a still pool for us to see all our best selves within.

rushdie

Saleem Sinai, Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

“Later variously 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 history, on an epic journey of self-creation.

woolf

Orlando, Orlando, Virginia Woolf

Woolf’s famous hero/ine goes to sleep one night a man, and wakes up a woman. The book spans some 400 years, which Orlando watches with interest, the world changing while she stays the same, or mostly the same — unaffected by the constraints of time, gender, or society.

austen

Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Lizzy is not only her father’s favorite child, but the reading public’s favorite child in the mighty family of Austen heroines. Smart, irreverent, independent-minded (something rather extraordinary for her time), and blessed with “a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous,” she never fails to win me over.

hamlet

Prince Hamlet, Hamlet, William Shakespeare

The murderous, morose, and probably insane Prince of Denmark is a perfect tragic hero — an existentialist questioner who can’t figure out what he wants. A deep delight to read about, though you wouldn’t want to know him (you’d probably end up dead, after all).

walker

Celie, The Color Purple, Alice Walker

Here’s a girl who starts off at the bottom of the barrel: a poor, uneducated black teenager in the American South of the 1930s, beaten and raped by the man she believes to be her father, the resultant children taken from her. But still, she finds a way towards self-actualization, independence, love, and even land — a remarkable transformation for a remarkable woman.

wonka

Willy Wonka, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl

A more wild and marvelous chocolatier than any child could dream up — but, of course, they don’t have to try. Veruca Salt is a close second in this novel, in part because of her perfect, perfect name.

bronte

Jane Eyre, Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

She may be “poor, obscure, plain, and little,” but Charlotte Brontë’s best creation is one tough cookie. Passionate, intelligent, and moral would be a better set of adjectives. She won’t even run away to be the mistress of her beloved Mr. Rochester on account of her “impassioned self-respect and moral conviction.” Better still: she’s the nerdy girl who gets the guy in the end. Gotta love her.

wrede

Princess Cimorene, The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Patricia C. Wrede

Here’s the deal: Princess Cimorene hates embroidering, hair-curling, and learning the proper way to set a table — not to mention the proper times to scream when being abducted by a giant. So she runs off to become a dragon’s princess, where she fits in just fine, organizing the library, practicing her Latin, making cherries jubilee, learning spells, and refusing every misinformed prince who tries to “rescue” her. She is the toughest, coolest princess who has ever been committed to print, and I love her.

calvino

Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo, The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino

You’ve got to love him for his romanticism — Cosimo, who, for a promise made to a pretty girl, decides to live out his life in the branches of trees, never putting a foot on the ground. He’s eccentric, he’s stalwart, he’s frankly ingenious — and funny as hell, too.

dickens

Miss Havisham, Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

I’m going to call Miss Havisham Dickens’ best creation — though I expect there are many who’d fight me on that. She’s bonkers in the most fabulous way: a woman who, after being abandoned 20 minutes before her wedding by her husband-to-be, had all the clocks stopped at the moment of her betrayal and just continued living in her wedding dress, her house decaying around her, with only one shoe on. Then, she tried to raise Estella to be a cruel and heartless girl (for her own protection, for her own revenge). Tragic, perhaps, but forever fascinating.

salinger

Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

Full disclosure: I actually kind of hate Holden Caulfield. When I was a teenager picking up this book, I read a few pages before putting it down, thinking that I just couldn’t with this jerk for a whole novel. But I do recognize him as one of the best illustrations of a certain kind of angsty, disillusioned youth, slouching around with a totally lousy attitude. And hey — he’s a literary cultural icon who has never been immortalized on screen: a major achievement in this day and age.

christensen

Hugo Whittier, The Epicure’s Lament, Kate Christensen

Cranky, cranky Hugo Whittier is one of my all time favorites — rude and self-absorbed, but also smart as hell and delightfully grumpy all the time. He’s like the patron saint of disgruntled geniuses.

tolkien

Gandalf, The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

Dream Daddy part two: wizard edition. A warrior and protector of good who also likes to smoke a little of that fine pipe-weed. Only on special occasions, though.

cervantes

Don Quixote de la Mancha, Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes

The most rational madman around.

diaz

Oscar Wao, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz

How could anyone not love Oscar Wao, the fat, Dominican, and cursed “Ghetto Nerd at the End of the World” (New Jersey)? An outcast, a lover obsessed with love, and a major sci-fi geek, Oscar is simply delightful.

capote

Holly Golightly, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote

The original Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but rather better. A “café society girl” on the Upper East Side of New York in the ‘40s, Golightly was an eccentric beauty on the run from an old life, ambivalent about morality but sure about what she likes and doesn’t like.

updike

Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, Rabbit, Run, John Updike

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

palefire

Charles Kinbote, Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov

Without giving too much away: Kinbote is the supposed academic who writes the foreword and notes to the epic eponymous poem of the great John Shade. He’s also (probably) insane and (definitely) brilliant. A trickster for the record books.

muchado

Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare

Not only is Beatrice the whip-tongued, bad-ass, take-no-shit-nor-prisoners girl of your dreams, she was also way, way ahead of her time. Her famous speech about the indignities of womanhood after her cousin is attacked at the altar always leaves me breathless:

Is he not approved in the height a villain, that
hath slandered, scorned, dishonoured my kinswoman? O
that I were a man! What, bear her in hand until they
come to take hands; and then, with public
accusation, uncovered slander, unmitigated rancour,
–O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart
in the market-place.

Princes and counties! Surely, a princely testimony,
a goodly count, Count Comfect; a sweet gallant,
surely! O that I were a man for his sake! or that I
had any friend would be a man for my sake! But
manhood is melted into courtesies, valour into
compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and
trim ones too: he is now as valiant as Hercules
that only tells a lie and swears it. I cannot be a
man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving.

waugh

Sebastian Flyte, Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

The spoiled, rude, teddy-bear toting Sebastian probably wouldn’t be much fun to be friends with, but he’s sure delicious to read about.

nancy

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

The mythic girl detective: powerful, brainy, and totally on to you.

joyce

Leopold Bloom, Ulysses, James Joyce

A bizarre, bulbous fellow who is introduced in the novel as one who “ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.” Yum?

dostoevsky

Raskolnikov, Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky

A struggling, basically nihilistic ex-law student who thinks great thoughts, but lets them lead him to dastardly deeds.

shelley

Frankenstein’s Monster, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

In the original novel, the monster is a tragic figure — accidentally murderous, deeply hopeful, seeking answers, seeking love. Well, aren’t we all?

pullman

Lyra Silvertongue, His Dark Materials trilogy, Philip Pullman

Unruly, headstrong, and critical to the survival of the world, Miss Lyra is a wonder. Not least because of her uncanny ability able to read that tricky alethiometer, to sweet-talk the un-sweet-talkable, and to make just about everyone, especially the reader, fall head over heels in love with her.

bee

Patrick Bateman, American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis

You can’t actually like Patrick Bateman. But he’s like an über-fit, totally neurotic human car crash — you don’t want to see, but you just can’t look away. Of himself, he says,

…there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there. It is hard for me to make sense on any given level. Myself is fabricated, an aberration. I am a noncontingent human being. My personality is sketchy and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent. My conscience, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago (probably at Harvard) if they ever did exist. There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference toward it, I have now surpassed. I still, though, hold on to one single bleak truth: no one is safe, nothing is redeemed.

See what I mean?

melville

Captain Ahab, Moby-Dick, Herman Melville

There’s nothing better than a megalomaniac on a mission of revenge.

sula

Sula, Sula, Toni Morrison

The rebellious and headstrong Sula throws off every social convention she learned in her small town, at the cost of nearly everything in her life (when she comes home, everybody thinks she’s the devil). Which is really pretty bad ass.

oblomov

Oblomov, Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov

The laziest character in all of literature, who once “rose from his chair, but, failing at once to insert his foot into a slipper, sat down again.”

ellison

The Invisible Man, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

A man hiding from the world in a basement burning 1,369 light bulbs with stolen electricity tells the story of his life — and finds the truth of his own identity while he does so. You love him for his striving, for his strangeness, for all the injustices he weathers.

dalloway

Clarissa Dalloway, Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

The best kind of party hostess is one whom even defenestration will not faze.

ibsen

Hedda Gabler, Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen

The terrifying, enigmatic Hedda Gabler always seems as though she’s capable of anything — and she proves herself capable of quite a bit, fueled by rage and boredom and a boiling need for freedom.

toole

Ignatius J. Reilly, A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole

In the book’s foreword, Walker Percy describes Ignatius as a “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.” He’s a lout with a faulty valve. You might hate him, but there’s no denying he is a genius creation.

larsson

Lisbeth Salander, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Steig Larsson

An antisocial, tough-as-nails 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 kick-ass female characters in recent memory.

madeleine

Madeline, Madeline, Ludwig Bemelmans

“In an old house in Paris, that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines… the smallest one was Madeline.” But not only the smallest: also the toughest (“To the tiger in the zoo, Madeline just said ‘Pooh-pooh.’”), the most impetuous, and the best.

pan

Peter Pan, Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie

The dream of eternal youth in one compact little package.

mitchell

Scarlett O’Hara, Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

“Not beautiful” perhaps, but a self-centered schemer for the ages. She may not be a very nice person, but you have to love her when she says,

I’m tired of everlastingly being unnatural and never doing anything I want to do. I’m tired of acting like I don’t eat more than a bird, and walking when I want to run and saying I feel faint 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 haven’t got one-half the sense I’ve got, and I’m tired of pretending I don’t know anything, so men can tell me things and feel important while they’re doing it.

Preach, sister.

matilda

Matilda, Matilda, Roald Dahl

A girl so smart she develops telekinesis? Instant favorite.

fitz

Jay Gatsby, The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

The ultimate romantic, who builds a lavish empire just to impress a girl — and the fictional embodiment of that alluring, disastrously misleading American Dream.