Mostly, I ignore the various memes that circulate on the Internet. However, every now and then one comes along that intrigues me. The latest of these is to name fifteen fictional characters who have influenced you.
My first impulse is to list only suitably literary and high culture characters. But the truth is, I’m an omnivorous reader, and a truthful list reflects that:
- Odysseus (in both The Iliad and The Odyssey): Odysseus is hardly a consistent character between these two epics, but some points remain the same. In both, he is not the strongest of heroes nor the most powerful of kings, but he succeeds where Achilles and Agamemnon fail because there is more to him than macho or noble birth. I’ve always tried to combine the life of the mind with the life of the body, and Odysseus was the first character I discovered who did the same. Later, I learned to appreciate that he is also the only one of the major figures in the Trojan War who has a happy ending, even if it was delayed ten years.
- Robin Hood (in Roger Lancelyn Green’s The Adventures of Robin Hood): Green’s Robin Hood is not only a hero who lives by his own code, but always up for an adventure and always a good sport, even when he loses. More than any of the other characters listed here, he sets the standard of behavior that I would like to live up to, and probably rarely manage to.
- George Smiley (in John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and sequels): At first glance, this unassuming bureaucrat of espionage might seem unable to influence anyone. But from reading about him, I learned two important facts that were alien to my younger character: First, that it doesn’t matter if people under-estimated you and may work to your advantage, and, second, that you can often learn more by keeping quiet than by trying to dominate a conversation.
- Emma Woodhouse (in Jane Austen’s Emma): Besides being Austen’s funniest novels, Emma is a wonderful portrayal of a precocious child growing up. Having been a precocious child myself, I empathize with Emma’s self-conceit at the same time that I wince at her gaucherie.
- The Emperor Claudius (in Robert Grave’s I, Claudius and Claudius the God): As a child, I had a speech impediment and a mild stutter that made some people imagine that I was mentally impaired. For someone with this start in life, Robert Graves’ Claudius is the ultimate revenge fantasy. From a similar start, Claudius not only becomes emperor, but, until near the end of the second book, when he gives up, a very able one as well.
- Conrad Nomikos (in Roger Zelazny’s This Immortal): Conrad is a secret immortal, living in a post-holocaust earth that is severely depopulated and dominated by extra-terrestrials. He is another of those heroes who is not immediately obvious as a hero, with a self-deprecating sense of humor. He is also one of the best portrayals of an immortal that I have read.
- Lancelot (in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King): Heroes like Lancelot are usually bland. However, White injects life into Lancelot by making him someone who is not naturally good, but who must struggle to maintain his ideal. White also has the insight that, if Lancelot had not believed so earnestly in his code of conduct and was not genuinely fond of Arthur, the tragedy that tore Camelot apart would never have happened. As White points out, an amoral man would simply have run away with Guinevere, not stayed and tried to resist their mutual love for the sake of his personal code.
- Rissa Kerguelen (in F. M. Busby’s Rissa Kerguelen): Rissa makes my list not so much for her portrayal – although her story is a lost classic of space opera – but because she is one of the best and most sustained portrayals of a woman by a man that I have ever read. Her story is the example I point to both when I see sexist portrayals of women and when I hear feminists claim that a man can’t write convincing female characters.
- Aragorn (in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings): I’ve often thought that Tolkien has a hero for everyone. Aragorn has it all: competence, modesty, a life devoted to helping others, and the title to a throne no one has occupied for centuries. So far as I’m concerned, anyone who doesn’t admire Aragorn is imaginatively lacking, and probably has other nasty habits.
- Dr. Who (all incarnations): For me, Dr. Who is the embodiment of creative chaos; he is the disruptive force that opposes and overthrows bureaucracy and other forms of sterility and replaces them with something better. He is the polar opposite of the military types in Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica.
- The Wart (in T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone): The Wart is the young King Arthur. He is ignorant of his parents, and his foster brother sometimes bullies him, but otherwise he has an ideal boyhood. He runs wild most of the time, and, when forced to study under Merlyn, most of his education consists of being transformed into different animals. It’s a brilliant portrayal, and when I was growing up, I envied The Wart a great deal.
- Beauty (in Robin McKinley’s Beauty): Beauty is the original from which Disney borrowed heavily for its retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Reading it as a teenager reassured me that intellectual girls existed, and that I might meet one someday (I did).
- John Constantine (in the Hellblazer graphic novels): John Constantine is a magician with a small bit of talent and a lot of attitude, opposed to Heaven and Hell and anyone else who seeks power, and loyal to his friends – and haunted by the fact that they tend to get killed at an alarming rate when they hang around him. Although his angst can be a little tiresome, the best of his adventures are strong evidence that graphic novels can be as serious as any other form of art.
- Phillip Marlowe (in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and other novels): Marlowe’s appeal is that he is a man of ideals before he is anything else. Although he rarely talks about his code, he is willing to be beaten up and to live a life of poverty rather than give up those ideals. The utter cynicism of most people around him only makes him appear more plausible.
- Fafhrd (in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser Series): Fafhrd is a northern barbarian whose uncivilized exterior conceals a man of considerable intelligence and aesthetic sensibility. He is given to romantic imaginings, but he almost always chooses pragmatically when given a choice – a tendency I ruefully suspect I share.
I could add other characters to this list – for instance,Timothy Hunter from The Books of Magic graphic novels, Jack Aubrey from Patrick O’Brien’s novels, Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, Hamlet, or Sherlock Holmes – but none of these make the top fifteen.
Among those who do make the list, it isn’t hard to see common threads. Fantasy and mythology are the most prevalent genre. In addition, most of the characters are idealistic, intelligent, and/or individualistic. The men can hold their own in a fight, but are more than macho jocks, and, when they do fight, their beliefs are usually involved – which gives, I suppose, a clear picture of my concept of masculinity that I hadn’t really realized before.
Just as importantly, I am surprised by the number of books that I admire that don’t make the list. Where is Great Expectations? No Name? Wuthering Heights? Jude the Obscure? Any of several dozen other books that I regularly re-read or films that I re-watch? I suppose the answer is I appreciate some fiction for other reasons than the characters, or that some characters are so much a part of their settings that they lack the larger than life qualities of the ones that I list here.