Memorable Characters in Books and in Life

characterI spent most of January with the Brothers Karamazov. They discussed philosophy and psychology while I just sat there and listened. Sometimes we laughed together.

I still think about them and that makes me wonder why. What makes some characters so memorable? The Brothers Karamazov were pretty strange and they did contradict themselves a lot. They didn’t know who to love or what to believe in and while trying to figure these things out, they ended up tormenting themselves. It seemed like Dostoevsky was making fun of his characters and that made the whole story more interesting and even laughable at times.

Not all characters can be strange, but they should be unique in some way. It also helps if something about a character is a little mysterious so that the reader will want to figure that character out. Death in The Book Thief is memorable for that reason, but maybe also just because he’s Death.

Other memorable book characters have been Tom Joad from The Grapes of Wrath or Scarlett O’Hara (so memorable that I don’t have to name the book for that one). Their struggles become our struggles as we see them fight against starvation and a changing society. Atticus Finch has his own obstacles to overcome, but he’s known more for his patience and ability to explain complicated issues.

In real life, any characters I’ve known aren’t as memorable for their struggles as they are for their personalities. They’re either funny or adventurous or different in some way, and they help me see the world in a different way too.

What are some of your favorite book or real-life characters? Why are they memorable?

46 thoughts on “Memorable Characters in Books and in Life

  1. I’ve always had mixed feelings about Holden Caulfield. Sometimes I want to smack ’em and sometimes I just want to go along for the ride with him.

    I totally agree about Nancy Drew. She was too cool.

  2. Death was a very interesting character. I also loved the Dog in Racing in the rain. He cracked me up, and I can’t look at my own dog the same anymore.

    • I loved those characters too. Ginger is just as entertaining as the Racing in the Rain dog. It’s funny that great characters like that aren’t even people!

  3. Although not really my favorite, one that jumps out at me is Annie Wilkes from Misery. She was so memorable because on one hand, she was just this sweet, shy woman who loved her Misery books. On the other, she was a homicidal maniac. She would switch from one state to the other so quickly.

    • That’s funny – she really is memorable for those psychopathic reasons! When one character has a split personality like that, it seems like part of the fun is in trying to figure her out.

  4. Here I go again. When I’m asked questions like this, I draw such a blank! And my brain is not functioning well today. I guess I’ll have to settle today for saying, “Great post!”

    • I loved that book! Persistence is a great quality for any character. It probably helps us remember them when they’re role models like that too.

  5. I loved The Book Thief because Death was the narrator and didn’t appear as the horror we make it to be. I also liked A Dog’s Purpose and A Dog’s Journey because the narrators are… well, dogs. And they think quite like dogs, but smart ones. In The Lying Game series, the narrator is dead, but like in The Lovely Bones. It always gives an interesting perspective.

    • Death is really intriguing, that’s for sure. I’m almost done with The Book Thief and I’m getting to the point where I don’t want it to end. I haven’t read those other dog character books. Are they similar to Racing in the Rain? It is funny how they make us look at the world – and our dogs – in a different way.

      • I did the same with The Book Thief! I read the end very slowly. I wanted it to end, but then I didn’t.

        I didn’t read Racing in the Rain. A Dog’s Purpose is the story of a dog (narrator) who goes through several dogs’ lives and starts to realize he must have a purpose for this to keep happening. I’m not a dog person but I really liked the books.

      • I’ll have to give that one a try. It sounds similar but with Racing in the Rain it was one life and it centered on his connection with his humans. Another great one! 🙂

      • The two books are very different, so I’m sure it won’t feel like you’ve read that story before. I’ve had The Art of Racing in the Rain on my to-read list for a while. I’ll get to it eventually.

  6. Love this post! For Death I find him so memorable because in many ways he has human like traits: feelings and such – also I loved his views on people. All unexpected and strangely thought provoking and for that reason pretty striking and memorable in my opinion. On the note of Russian literature, specifically Dostoevsky I do find Prince Myshkin unbelievably memorable unsurprisingly! I could write a post on why but in general I guess it’s because he’s so unique compared to the other characters: his naivety, extreme faith and general ‘goodness’ and lack of maliciousness and how in contrast to the other people…viewed negatively by them. Altogether quite memorable 🙂 Awesome post!

    • I was surprised that Death could be pretty funny too, especially while talking about people. I’ve only read The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment so far but I’ll have to read The Idiot at some point. The Karamazov brothers were like that too – they were all different so it was pretty entertaining whenever they’d get into discussions or arguments. They even called each other buffoons.

    • Thank you! The Grapes of Wrath is one of my all-time favorite books. Every time I read it, I’m just in awe of the writing.

    • Creepiness like that is memorable. I had to close my eyes through most of that movie. I’m not so sure I’d be able to read the book with my eyes closed! Stephen King is one of my favorites though. The Stand is another great one for characters.

  7. The Grapes of Earth [can’t recall the name, but the mother] was like I could breathe and touch her rough hands and the humility of her caregiving for her son; she was like an Aunt of mine from Cuba that died last year at age 100. I, too, love Fydovesky[spelling?] and Tolstoy and most Russian writers~ Hope you’re well dear friend ~ xo

    • I loved the mother too. She became so real. That’s true that some of the more memorable characters are the ones who remind us of people we know. Russian writers do go well with all the snow!

    • I really loved the father and the little girl in The Book Thief. The father was a little like Atticus Finch but with an accordion. I haven’t read The English Passengers but I’ll have to add it to my list – thank you!

      • Thanks! I just read both pretty recently so maybe that’s why I thought that. They’re both filled with so much compassion and patience – and they’d be great to know in real life too.

  8. You mention Atticus Finch, and I would add Scout Finch as another memorable character. Really that book has a full range of memorable characters. Boo Radley and the townspeople — it ran the gamut. It is the kind of book where you could likely figure out who was speaking or thinking without the “…said” tags. For me, that’s a big indicator of a memorable character.

    • That’s true – all of those characters were great ones! I loved the innocence of the kids and the mystery of Boo Radley.

  9. HI Sheila, Great post. Got me thinking about characters, and how to make the characters in my WIP really stand out. And got me thinking about the books you mentioned. Thanks for the inspiration today.

  10. What a great topic – you’ve really got me thinking! I think some of my favorites are probably Jacob from ‘Brother of the More Famous Jack’ for his wit and his eyebrows, and lately perhaps Merivel by Rose Tremain – a flawed character with a good heart. In life, well, you can’t go past my Grandad. He was a true faddish eccentric. Short, strong and an ox, and also with very bristly eyebrows. Hmmm. Maybe there is something in this eyebrow thing! 🙂

    • I haven’t read those and will have to give those characters a try – thank you! Your grandfather sounds like a wonderful character. I’ll look out for any bristly eyebrowed characters in your future works.

    • That’s funny that you mentioned Gatsby because I’m rereading that one now. He’s another memorable one because of all the mystery surrounding him.

  11. The name Scarlett O’Hara crossed my mind when I wrote my latest post. As for favorite characters, I always loved the young dreamer and Nastenka from White Nights. Sometimes we have to let go of the dream… 🙂

    • Sorry this was lost in spam for a while. I love Scarlett O’Hara too. One of the fun things about her is in trying to figure her out. I haven’t read White Nights, but will have to add it to my list – thank you!

  12. Great post! For me, my number one pick would be Scarlett O’Hara (I even dedicated a whole blog post to her). Also, as mentioned by eskaybe above, Jay Gatsby. And of course Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, Sir Galahad and Uncle Fred – all from Wodehouse’s books.

    • Scarlett O’Hara is a great one. She’s filled with contradictions and the book shows how she grows and changes. Readers wonder about her motivations and that makes her a little mysterious (like Gatsby too, in a way). Thanks for visiting – I’ll have to read your post about her!

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  14. Sheila, what a great post! There are so many wonderful characters listed here. I should like to throw another into the mix. Her name is Thursday Next and if you are not familiar with this character, this came just in time. She is the super-sleuth girl wonder of the literary world and from the genius of Jasper Fforde. The first book in the series is The Eyre Affair. Now who wouldn’t want to be a super-sleuth capable of visiting the numerous dimensions of the English Literary World? To meet the Mad Miss Haversham? Oh the characters you will meet… 🙂

    • Thanks Lea! I haven’t heard of that one and will have to look her up. You made her sound really intriguing. The description reminds me of Harriet the Spy and that was one of my favorite books. I even tried to become that character and went around spying on the neighbors. Visiting the dimensions of the English Literary World would be even more fun!

  15. I love Dorothea in Middlemarch because she’s so terribly, foolishly serious and marries the wrong man. The marriage is so excruciating! As a child it was Tom from the Great Brain—I had a mad crush which was oddly reignited when I read the series to my kids. haha

    • I loved those Great Brain books too and read every one I could get my hands on. That’s funny that your crush was reignited years later. 🙂 I still have to read Middlemarch – it’s on my to-read list – thank you for reminding me!

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