I call them fleshy breathers—characters we remember long after we’ve read the book. They are flesh-and-blood real, larger than life, perhaps ahead of their time. We meet them at a point of no return in their lives and we watch, fascinated, as they pivot or sit there, all broody. We may have forgotten their names, but they and the events that entice them to change are a big reason why we keep reading books.
Fleshy breathers are born in imagination, strut their stuff in books, pop out every once in a while in our memory. We can see them waiting for the bus or walking down the block a few steps ahead of us, or remember them in the agony of their central conflict. I swear I’ve seen the white rabbit shooting down a manhole. They are amazing creations and have spellbinding stories to tell, and they go on and on.
We love them or love to hate them, but we’re not indifferent to them. They hold us in thrall. Full of longing, they carp, mope, dream, love or lament, have quirky habits, sleep too much or not at all. They change or sort of change or vow to change next week. They slip and fall. They make us fearful or frightfully angry, and sometimes they even disgust us. But because of the unique way they stumble about the page, they surprise, they shock, they stick to us like glue.
These are some of my favorites—at least for today—but mind you, as soon as I post this, I’ll think of others: Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment (mostly I want to ring his neck), Humboldt, Molly Bloom, Hamlet, Hercule Poirot, Andy Dalziel (the only character I know who breaks wind on a regular basis), Anne Eliot, Emma, Ahab, Jude Fawley, the Thomas Cromwell of Wolf Hall, and I mustn’t forget his wife, Liz, who, although she has a small part, is powerful; Sarah Berg in Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs, Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury, Jack Burden in All The King’s Men.
Who are some of your favorite characters?
Photo: Sunset in Sicily by Villa Ghimette (Flickr), Creative Commons.