5 Fictional Characters You MUST Meet Before You Die

A story isn’t great until you have great characters, and that’s why this week I’d like to recommend the books that will teach you how to create great and unforgettable characters.

In the comments below, I also want you to share the fictional characters in books that have made an impression on you.

The five characters I want us to share with each other today are characters that we feel have influenced our lives the way that a teacher, a parent, or a friend has influenced us. The kind of characters that you swear actually lived and breathed and went through the journey the author said that they went through. The kind of character you wish you knew and wish was as real as the author made them out to be.

First, as always, here is my list of the 5 Fictional Characters You MUST Meet Before You Die:


Anna Karenina from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

If Anna was alive today and had a Facebook page, her relationship status would always read: “It’s complicated.” To make your reader fall in love with your protagonist is no easy feat, but to make your reader fall madly in love with your protagonist is a feat only accomplished by the gods of writing. Tolstoy, one of those gods, pulls the reader into a dysfunctional relationship with Anna. We hate her with a passion, but at the same time we love her with every fiber of our being. We want nothing to do with her and can’t stand her, but at the same time we can’t look away from her, and want to be near her on every page.  When Tolstoy leaves Anna to explore the life of another character, we are impatient to return to Anna and her story. Then, when the author does finally return to Anna and her story, we can’t believe what she’s up to and we want to leave her immediately. But as soon the author leaves her again–we want her back!  It’s madness! But Anna’s madness reminds us of our own madness, and the madness of life, and the madness of love, and the madness of conventional society. Tolstoy reminds us that outstanding, immortal characters aren’t people we love; they are people we hate and love, equally.

El Pachuco from Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit

There’s something troubling and intensely subversive about El Pachuco. First of all, he has no name. (“Pachuco” was a term given to Mexican-Americans in the 1930’s who had a certain style of dress–they wore zoot suits.) Second of all, El Pachuco is not really there. He is both invisible and visible, both author and character. He is omnipresent and yet seems to be always running away from some threat, whether it’s a vicious mob of sailors or the haranguing of the press. Is he a symbol? Or is he just the protagonist’s inner conscience? Or is he the voice of the people? Or is he something more? We have no idea. But even so, the magic he carries astonishes us, challenges us, makes us think, makes us laugh, and makes us upset. El Pachuco even goes as far as to change the entire ending of the story, a story that was supposed to be based on true, historical events. He changes the ending from the gloomy and tragic finale reported by the press, to the jovial and hopeful continuation of a community that has been wronged, and will rise higher in spite of that injustice. That’s probably the most amazing thing a fictional character has ever done:  willfully change a true story’s ending in order to bring a real-life community closer to prosperity and justice. Valdez teaches us that unforgettable characters do what’s right, even if it means breaking every rule in the process.

Jean Valjean from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (Unabridged Version)

As they say: “Love is in the details.” And when you are given as much detail as Victor Hugo gives to the life of Jean Valjean, you finish the book and leave the protagonist feeling like you are leaving behind a member of your own family. That’s the power of detail. Okay, maybe the magnificent creature that is Jean Valjean does not exist. But at the end of the book, Hugo certainly has you convinced that he does exist, or that, at least, he should exist. Hugo teaches us that in order to make a character live on in the mind of a reader you have to work every important detail into the story

Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in The Rye

Holden is one of the first characters that most teenagers fall in love with. He appears in one of the few books in High School that you have to read that doesn’t feel old and dry. This is the kind of character you shouldn’t be allowed to meet at such a young age, but because you do, there is an instant connection with everything he represents: the freak, the outsider, the loser, the weirdo, the lost, and the confused. Most of all, Holden seems to speak our language–or at least the language we all spoke in our adolescence. Salinger teaches us writers how important language is in order for our readers to truly connect with a great character.

Long John Silver from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island

Long John Silver is a pirate. A conniving, backstabbing, manipulative, bitter, cold, greedy, selfish pirate. But he’s so good at being a conniving, backstabbing, manipulative, bitter, cold, greedy, selfish pirate that you admire and respect him for it. Today, pirates are cookie-cutter bad guys or beloved, comedic renditions played by Johnny Depp. But the pirate who started our culture’s obsession with buried treasure was a lot more complicated than his subsequent copies and spin-off’s. Silver, the original pirate with a parrot perched on his shoulder, was a man only out for himself, but, in the dangerous world Silver inhabits, you don’t blame him for it. Silver challenges us by making us wonder whether we wouldn’t have ended up just like him if we were in his shoes–I mean–shoe. That’s the kind of fictional character that sticks to your brain and won’t ever let you go. In presenting us with Silver, Stevenson teaches us that sometimes really memorable characters aren’t perfect and good, but are bad for all the right reasons.

I’m done! Now it’s your turn.

much love,

Ollin

What fictional book characters do you think people MUST “meet” before they die? Tell us why.

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33 comments on “5 Fictional Characters You MUST Meet Before You Die

  1. Larry says:

    Good choices Ollin. Treasure Island was my iconic childhood book (everybody has one).

    On a more contemporary less-than-classic note, people should meet John Corey from Nelson Demille’s novels (I recommend “Up Country,” it’s stellar), and Harry Bosch from the Michael Connelly novels. Both are humble, courageous, heroic and wise-cracking American role models, the guys you want guarding your back.

  2. T.S. Bazelli says:

    Great choices! It reminds me that there’s so much more I have to read🙂 Does it count if I’ve seen the movie and not read the book? I doubt it. hehe.

  3. Julia says:

    Great choices (I especially like Anna). I know I’m probably setting myself up here, but I’ve still got to say Nancy Drew and Harriet the Spy. (True girlhood heros. LOL.) Out of literature, I’d have to say Atticus Finch (and Scout) in To Kill a Mockingbird. Amazing integrity and conviction while incredibly compassionate. Great role model as a parent.

  4. My one and only choice would be Dorian Gray. It has now become my favourite novel of all time, surpassing Dracula actually…

  5. “If Anna was alive today and had a Facebook page, her relationship status would always read: ‘It’s complicated.'” – LOVE that.

    Ah, Holden. He has a special place in my heart. I used to teach Catcher in the Rye, and my kids just hated him. Poor guy. I actually wrote a scene with him interacting with the protagonist of my manuscript, in response to a writing prompt: http://www.fanfiction.net/s/5991689/1/Dialogue_of_Destiny

    In addition to Salinger’s other characters like Franny and Zooey, I’m also a sucker for Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. Characters caught in existential crises, trapped at the intersection of materialistic and soulful gain.

    My hands-down favorite, though: Atticus Finch. Integrity, reason, and humility incarnate.

    Great post, Ollin!

  6. Bond. James Bond…..

  7. The Underground Man, I thought i understood him in college but it took me 12 yrs to understand truly get him, and I bet that In 12 more i wll be saying the same thing.
    Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky was the world’s first existentialist fictional novel in 1864. He wants to be inactive and lazy, must everything have a purpose? Ignorance is bliss! Hahaha! I think you can always relate in someway with him no matter what stage of life you are in.

  8. Annie says:

    Ollin, I just found your blog. Very cool! And I love this post. I agree with Alannah’s mention of Dracula (although I do prefer him over Dorian Gray). He was such a strangely pitiable character. But I think my favorite fictional character of all time comes from a short story rather than a novel: the narrator from Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” I’ve never seen insanity portrayed so well. The first-person narration really gets under your skin! Thanks for the post. Happy writing.

  9. Tammy McLeod says:

    I love Anna and El Pachuco. I might pick El Brazo de Onofre from the Milagro Bean Field Wars.

  10. Interesting list, Ollin. I’d have to think about this some more, but I would love to meet Anne Shirley (of Anne of Green Gables). She’s got some kind of spunk!

  11. P Dugan says:

    Levin from Anna Kernina sticks out in my mind. I haven’t read any criticsm about that novel but I think Levin is a character Tolstoy based on himself.

    Then there’s Ignatius J. Reilly from a Confederacy of Dunces.

    • Ollin says:

      That’s good to know. Really, all the characters in the novel are great. I’ll have to read Reilly’s work, thanks for recommending!

  12. Kathy Golitko White says:

    Great choices. One of mine would be Sydney Carton. He is everyperson with so many flaws who discovers that flame of love and selflessness. I’m new to this blog. Came over from storyfix.com. Your ideas are very inspiring!

  13. Kari Wolfe says:

    Sherlock Holmes… there was a period of my life where… oh, well, everyone has those times, don’t they?🙂

    • Ollin says:

      I think most people would agree with you. I love mystery stories. I’m thinking of writing a mystery short story I might share on this blog… but we’ll see.

  14. WFMeyer says:

    Great blog Ollin – I found you through StoryFix.

    As with Larry, Treasure Island was also my iconic childhood book.

    I’d have to say the antagonist, Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, is one of the best developed, engaging and most terrifying characters I’ve come across in a very long time.

  15. Pam Owldreamer says:

    At the tender age of seven,I fell in love with the characters in the book(not the movie) by Mr F. Baum.The book title I don’t remember and I lost the book years ago.The lion,Tin man and Dorothy were,naive,vulnerable and incredibly brave. I wanted to be Dorothy.However;the character I fell in love with was Scarlet O’Hara. She loved with all of her mercenary little heart, cheated,lied,treated people abominably and was incredibly brave.She let no one and nothing stop her or break her spirit and she never gave up when she wanted something.I was thirteen

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