Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.
So this week we are looking at character traits we love. Things about characters that make a reader fall.in love with them. For me, I have to confess that a lot of the character traits I love head back into the classics. Shakespeare. Milton. Dickens. Traits and characters who echo and rebound around the novels that are published year on year.
For readers, I mean here characters who read just for pleasure, for relaxation, for fun. You know – the reasons why we read. It happens surprisingly infrequently. You’d expect writers to be avid readers and to have characters as readers. Perhaps it is too sedentary, too internal, too undynamic… But you don’t find many.
George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice‘s Tyrion Lannister is probably the big name here
But we can also include Susan Hill’s detective Simon Serrailler series. More often than not, Serrailler and his sister Cat Deerbon will be putting a book aside in order to do something more dynamic but they are characters who read!
2. The Sleepless King
Stepping lightly into Shakespeare, let’s visit Richard II where the newly invested King works deep into the night, lamenting that
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude;
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
We so often see the tyrant, the entitled and the foppish leader. To come across leaders concerned by, weighed down by, fretting over the sheer hardwork of the task is fantastic.
3. Honest Villains
Staying with Shakespeare, we can cite my favourite Shakespearean villain of all time: Edmund, son of the Duke of Gloucester in King Lear. Illegitimate and sidelined, he has one of the most powerful speeches in the play, which in my opinion is the richest play in all Shakespeare.
Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moon-shines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops,
Got ‘tween asleep and wake? Well, then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate: fine word,–legitimate!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!
4. Slippery Shapeshifters
I don’t mean here the werewolves and physical shapeshifters – sorry Twilight – although who doesn’t love a great transformation scene!
No, here I mean those mercurial and protean characters whose emotions and reactions shift and twist on a dime. In Shakespeare, these characters abound: Mercutio from Romeo and Juliet, Falstaff in Henry IV, Cleopatra in Anthony and Cleopatra.
Looking backwards in time, the Green Knight in Gawan and the Grene Knight slips into this category; and extending into modern literature, perhaps Ada from Akwake Emezi’s glittering Freshwater, Dead Papa Toothwort from Max Porter’s Lanny, the Monster in Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls join him. Perhaps these characters, more rooted in mythology perhaps than the Shakespearean characters, reveal the depth of this character type.
5. Monomaniacally Mad
Need I say more? Ahab, the mad monomaniacal whale hunter of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick who could also slip into the previous category as well. Possibly the previous two. Obsessives, blind to the cost of their obsessions. Not even to be upstaged by the white whale himself!
And in keeping with the love for King Lear, that wonderful soliloquy from Lear himself on the heath, calling down damnation and destruction on the world fits this category perfectly.
And another towering example in Dickens’ Great Expectations: Miss Havisham,
6. Decent Dads
Dads have a poor track in writing a lot of the time. Our two most common dad-tropes pop into the Harry Potter series: abusive Vernon Dursley and comically inept albeit loyal Arthur Weasley. Neither are what I’d call a decent dad.
Even Dumbledore as a surrogate father figure leaves Harry with the abusive Dursleys, knowing how appalling his life there is, whilst keeping Harry in the dark about almost everything important so that he can die at the right time. Sirius Black is a decent surrogate father figure but, like James Potter, quickly dispatched again.
The best dad I can think of in literature is – ironically – unnamed: The Man in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – bleaky, oh so bleakly, lyrical. A man with the courage not to kill for his son, not to die for his son, but to live for him in the most appalling setting imaginable.
7. Diversity because, well, we just are
For too long, diversity was a watchword for otherness, villainy or victimhood. Minority and LBGTQIA+ characters were acknowledged but never made it to the end of a book or film without having some form of punishment being meted out to them for their transgressions or being showhorned into that toxic noble savage trope. Melville, I am looking at you with Queequeg, here! Or Shakespeare’s Othello and Shylock. John in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
Fortunately the world has moved on in the last few hundred years. We even get the occasional bisexual monogamous couple… not that I can think of any off the top of my head… Characters like Cyril Avery in Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies or the same sex relationships in Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree – or indeed the recent adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens present that diversity without it descending into the characters’ defining thing.
8. Elfin Exiles
Stepping back into King Lear it seems only fair, having cited Edmund to turn to his brother Edgar, ousted and slandered by his bastard sibling and sliding into exile in the woods – Oh! but Shakespeare is good with exiles in woods! A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, King Lear… But the title for this category – aside from continuing the alliteration – comes from Edgar who, hearing himself accused of plotting his father’s murder declares
9. The Anti-Hero
Who doesn’t love an anti-hero, seriously? There are whole lists of them on Wikipedia – not all of whom I’d agree are anti-heroes but the big names are there: Severus Snape – not sure I agree with him as an anti-hero, myself – Tom Ripley, Raskolnikov; Frank Castle and John Constantine; Batman.
And the big one.
The daddy of them all – possibly unintentionally – John Milton’s Satan from Paradise Lost. Striding across Hell, forging a bridge to Earth. The Devil has all the best lines! Uncompromising. Unapologetic. Byronic.
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n”
Without Milton, could Gaiman have created Lucifer Morningstar? Sorry, but that’s just an excuse for a picture of Tom Ellis.
10. Hidebound Pedants, Questioning
Knights unable to bend their code of honour; judges bound by their duty; characters tied to a perception of morality which are challenged by shifting realities. Almost always, these are tragic characters, out of date, seeking refuge in rules and rituals which are increasingly revealed to be untenable.
The archetype here, is perhaps most powerfully embodied by two very different characters: Gawain from Gawan and the Grene Knight, unable to square his chivalric honour with the slippery temptations of Bertilak and his wife and the Green Knight himself; and Okonkwo from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart whose adherence to the ritual, tribal masculinity of his Igbo culture becomes increasingly futile and tragic in the face of colonial forces. Men – often men – out of time.
So many other choices I could have selected. So many!