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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
The ur-Daddy of your dreams.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Don Quixote de la Mancha, Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes
The most rational madman around.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Drew, The Secret of the Old Clock, Carolyn Keene
The mythic girl detective: powerful, brainy, and totally on to you.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
Captain Ahab, Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
There’s nothing better than a megalomaniac on a mission of revenge.
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, 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.”
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.
Clarissa Dalloway, Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
The best kind of party hostess is one whom even defenestration will not faze.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Peter Pan, Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie
The dream of eternal youth in one compact little package.
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.
Matilda, Matilda, Roald Dahl
A girl so smart she develops telekinesis? Instant favorite.
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.