The Most Memorable Characters in Literature

I admit it: I like top-ten lists. Even though I might not always agree with the choices, I do enjoy reading what other people think are the most important of this and that. So in that vein, I’ve decided to put together some lists of my own. My versions aren’t top-ten lists (some don’t even reach to ten and others go past that arbitrary marker), since I’ve never been very good at ordering things by importance. I’m not quite sure if you can with something as subjective and memorable as literary characters. Everybody has his own list of characters that have touched him in some way or left an indelible imprint on the cultural imagination. Mine, quite frankly, are my own, which is to say, you might not always agree with my selections, but they are certainly selections that are undeniably well-known even to non-readers. So how did I arrive at my decisions? Basically I stuck with choices that I had already read. While I agree that such characters as Scarlett O’Hara or Rabbit Angrim are memorable characters and have appeared on similar lists, I myself have never read Gone With the Wind or Updike’s Rabbit series. Rather, I chose characters from novels I’ve read that have touched me in some way or ones that I remembered even long after the novel’s plot has somehow faded from my own memory. I think that’s a pretty good determination of what’s memorable and what’s not. So, therefore, in that vein, here are, in no particular order, my list of the most memorable characters found in literature.

The Wife of Bath (Canterbury Tales) – Feisty, opinionated, and independent, Alison, the Wife of Bath, is literally an original. Written by Geoffrey Chaucer during a time when women characters in English literature were little more than damsels in distress for Romantic heroes to express their chivalry, the Wife of Bath defied every role women were supposed to play, both in real life and in poetry, becoming, even to this day, a feminist role model. Married five times, the Wife of Bath makes a compelling argument in her prologue about the role of marriage and the church, while also displaying an earthiness that is sexy and funny. And the tale she relates to her fellow-travelers also plays up her unique vision about love and romance. Clearly, one of Chaucer’s most original and memorable creations.

Janie Crawford (Their Eyes Were Watching God) – Like the Wife of Bath, Janie Crawford from Zora Neale Hurston’s seminal 1930s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, is an original. A black woman in search of self-definition and love, Janie appeared on the scene after the Harlem Renaissance, when literature created by Black authors approached W.E.B. DuBois’s belief in the “Talented Tenth”: African American professionals whose intellect and professionalism were going to uplift the race. This meant, of course, that Black literature should only represent Black people in the most positive light. Hurston, like her contemporary Langston Hughes, instead was more interested in presenting the Black experience in all of its beauty and ugliness. Crawford is the very embodiment of Hurston’s vision–a young woman, forced into marriage by her dying grandmother, leaves her first husband for another, then falls into a love affair with a young man, Teacake, after the death of her second. While Janie is abused by her second husband, she is never presented as a victim. Rather, Janie refuses to allow circumstances or the moral and social codes of the small Black community in which she lives to define her. Her restless pursuit of her own desires for love and self-creation makes her an endlessly fascinating character. For such as Alice Walker, who helped rescue both the book and the author from obscurity in the 1970s, she became a benchmark and model for their own literary inspirations. Her romance with Teacake, who unlike her other two husbands loves her with a fierceness that matches Janie’s own desires, is also one of the more memorable literary love stories ever created.

Boo Radley (To Kill A Mockingbird) – While most readers might point to either Scout or Atticus Finch as the most memorable characters from To Kill A Mockingbird (and I don’t disagree), I will settle on Boo Radley, largely because this character, despite the fact that he only makes an appearance toward the end of the novel, leaves an indelible impression. While Radley is an archetypal figure of author Harper Lee’s theme of tolerance in her southern gothic story about racism and childhood innocence, he is also a tender character, one whose presence is known to Scout and her brother, Jem, only through the little gifts he leaves for them in the knot of a nearby tree. Radley’s reputation in the neighborhood is a horrible one, inspiring the kind of childhood fears that we all have of things we don’t know or understand. Don’t we all have a Boo Radley somewhere in our collective childhood memories? And yet, when Scout acknowledges Radley after he rescues them from the racist murderer Tom Ewell with a simple “Hey, Boo,” then we, the readers, see she sees a truth with far more clarity that nudges her toward a hard-earned maturity. Things aren’t always as they seem on the surface, and Radley’s gentility and tenderness, so delicately detailed by Lee’s fine hand, pulls all of her themes together, making Radley not only a memorable character, but an important one as well.

Sula (Sula) – Toni Morrison’s character Sula, in the novel of the same name, is a blues creation. Lyrical, gritty, and raw, Sula, like Janie Crawford, defies expectations and refuses to live life according to everybody else’s terms. Uncompromising, Sula can also be a fairly unlikeable character. When she has an affair with her best friend’s husband, she cuts off the one relationship she has had that defined her as much as her friendship with Nel was defined by Sula. And yet, despite their differences, the bond the two girls formed in childhood is too strong, surviving even Sula’s eventual death. Sula is a memorable character largely because she is so uncompromising, aggressive, and fearless in her pursuits, a rare quality found in Black female literary characters. Morrison is fearless as well in her rendition of Black women and the Black community, portraying them as uncompromisingly as Sula herself. Here is not a female character looking for acceptance and self-definition, but one who grabs it without illusion or delusions. She is the truth-teller in the community, the one who fearlessly tells and lives it like it is. When she returns to the Bottom, the Black community in Medallion, she sets in motions a series of supernatural events that forces those living there to acknowledge and recognize the power of truth. Like the blues song “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues,” Sula is a character who sticks in the imagination for her fearless pursuit of life.

Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby) – When I first read The Great Gatsby, I wasn’t terribly impressed. In fact, it’s not one of my favorite novels. And yet, Jay Gatsby, the titular character of the novel, still makes an impression on me. Perhaps that is because he is such an archetypal figure in American culture. Scratch beneath the surface of any P Diddy or Jay Z and you have a character cut from Gatsby’s designer cloths. Written during the 1920s Jazz Age, Gatsby is very much of his time. A self-made man with a criminal background, Gatsby is materialistic, obsessive, and immoral. And yet, his pursuit of the American dream is one that is timeless, capturing the heart of this country’s obsessive pursuits of wealth, reinvention, and acceptance.

Bigger Thomas (Native Son) – Novelist Richard Wright used literature as a political statement, addressing the cancer at the heart of American society: racism. While many of his contemporaries criticized his portrayals of Black life, Wright’s novel Native Son, no doubt, is a classic in protest literature precisely because of his uncompromising vision of how racism and race relations stunt and devour its victims, namely young Black men. Bigger Thomas is a memorable character because of the way he forces readers to recognize this fact. Written after his successful short story collection, Uncle Tom’s Children, Wright wanted to create a character who would force white readers to recognize their own complicity in the racial dynamics that destroyed Black people without the sentimentality he feared was at the heart of his previous book’s success. Bigger Thomas, a young Black man who finds himself caught in the trap of racism when he accidentally kills the daughter of his white employer, thus sending him on the run from the authorities, is ignorant, violent, and angry. Yet, beneath the surface, there lurks a soul yearning to find an escape from the poverty and racism that has entrapped him and his family. Bigger is an archetypal character, one meant to represent many Black men, particularly those caught up in the legal and justice system, and his actions are not merely meant to shock readers, but to force them to accept that Bigger’s circumstances are shaped largely by a society that refuses to recognize his humanity. In other words, Bigger is a creation of American racism, poverty, and hatred. His reactions are an inevitable time bomb waiting to unleash its explosive fury. For this, Bigger is a memorable character, one that lingers in the mind long after the last page in Wright’s novel is turned.

Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye) – Every American teen has read J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. I was certainly one of them. There is something about its hero, Holden Caulfield, his posed cynicism and smart-alecky responses to life, that captures the teenaged imagination. The novel functions under the conceit that teens are smarter than most adults, who seem to bungle along in their boring routines of mortgage payments and Friday night cocktails, if you really want to know. Caulfield is a memorable character because he lives on in popular culture, whether it is in John Hughes’s teen flicks of the 1980s or Dawson’s Creek and, to a certain extent, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Sylvie (Housekeeper) – While the novel Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson, might not necessarily be well-known to most readers, its character is a memorable one for me. Like most of the female characters on my list, Sylvie, an itinerant who enters the lives of her two orphaned nieces after their grandmother dies, is an uncompromising woman who lives life on her own terms. If not fairly irresponsible in her housekeeping skills (not to mention in caring for her two nieces), she is nonetheless a likable character because, despite her faults, she is admirable in her unwitting fight against the 1950s conformity. Told from the point-of-view of Ruthie, one of the orphaned nieces, Sylvie is odd, eccentric, and a free-spirit, but, someone who also becomes for Ruthie, a shy and withdrawn girl, a means to escape the tragic and stultifying circumstances of her life. Abandoned, even by her sister, who prefers the normality that Sylvie is not capable of providing for her, Ruthie turns to her aunt as an anchor for meaning and stability. Through Sylvie’s eyes, the world is rich with small and mundane surprises, such as the little children who supposedly lurk and hide in the brush on a nearby island or the way the bridge trestles feel when a train passes over it. Like Ruthie, the reader likewise learns to see the world through Sylvie’s eyes and finds little surprises of beauty in it. Reprinted from Yahoo! Contributor Network.

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Novel Recommendation: My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due

41536Jessica, a successful journalist, marries the man of her dreams: David, her former professor, who is gorgeous, sexy, intelligent, and a bit enigmatic. Together they raise a young daughter in Miami, living a comfortable middle-class life, when Jessica is assigned to investigate a series of mysterious deaths that are somehow linked to her husband. Jessica’s investigation leads to a terrifying truth: David was a member of an Ethiopian sect who traded their souls for immortality. In return, he must keep this truth a secret and will kill to do so. Determined to protect his family and keep them close, David intends to perform a ritual on his wife and daughter so that they too can be immortal. Jessica races against time to protect herself and her daughter from the man she loves!

I read My Soul to Keep years ago and loved it. Intelligently written and suspenseful, Due pulls you in immediately to her urban fantasy world and never lets go. A great read for Halloween.

7 Scary Moments from TV

Okay, it’s Halloween, so I had to write a post on moments (mostly from TV) that scared the crap out of me. I’m not talking about scary movies that I liked or enjoyed watching (I wrote another post about that on a different blog that you can read here). I mean moments that either had me hiding my eyes behind my hands or creeped me out for days afterward. This list is in no particular order and not all of the entries are from horror movies (some of the scariest things are real). And let me know: What movie, TV show, or book kept you up late at night with the lights on?

 

The Exorcist – “We Are Legion!”

 

When the Exorcist first premiered on TV years ago, my brothers and I gathered around the little TV set to watch it. But the movie freaked me out so much I couldn’t even bear to look at it. My mom told me, just turn your eyes away if it’s scaring you (why she didn’t change the channel, I have no idea. But that’s my mom for you). I looked away during the whole movie and listened to it, but that only made it worse. The scene where Father Damien listened to the taped interview of Regan/Devil growling, hissing, and shouting “We Are Legion” backwards was scarier than anything they could’ve shown on TV!

 

It’s Alive TV Trailer

 

This was a cheesy, 1970s grind house movie about a killer baby. But the ads that ran on TV when it was released were spooky. The ad was simple and stark: a rocking carriage, a black backdrop, a baby crying, and then a claw sticking out. That ad creeped me out every time it aired on TV.

 

Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Jack Palance Tells A Scary Story

 

Jack Palance was creepy enough on his own. He made a career playing bad guys back in 1950s Westerns. But he really upped the creep factor when he hosted the 1980s proto-reality TV show, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Based on the odditorium museum founded by Robert Ripley, the TV show was pretty popular with audiences, especially kids. But it created a minor controversy when Jack Palance, the show’s host, decided to tell a little story about the death of Rasputin, the Mad Monk who served in Tsar Nicolas’ court. With only his raspy voice to set the stage, Palance stood in a catacombs, dripping with condensation and lit only by torches, as he told every gruesome detail of how Rasputin was poisoned, stabbed, shot, tortured, then thrown off a bridge into the cold waters below. After the episode aired, ABC received complaints from parents across the country that the segment scared their kids. And who can blame them? The mad glint in Palance’s eyes was enough to give me nightmares!

 

Dark Night of the Scarecrow – The Twist Ending

 

This 1981 TV movie starring Charles Durning was about a mentally disabled man named Bubba who comes back from the dead to get revenge against the small mob which executed him for assaulting a young girl. Since the accusation was false––Bubba was the girl’s friend and was only helping her when she was injured while they were playing––and he was pretty defenseless when he was murdered (he was hiding as a scarecrow), his vengeance was perfectly justifiable. So watching him dispense with the rednecks who murdered him was more just desserts than scary. But the twist ending was enough to creep me out so much that I remembered it years later when I’d forgotten everything else about the movie. I won’t spoil the ending, but if you haven’t seen it already I recommend you check it out.

 

Trilogy of Terror

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Trilogy of Terror is a legend among TV horror movies that were made in the 1970s. An anthology of short films all starring the late Karen Black, Trilogy of Terror is known mostly for its final film called “Amelia.” The story is about a woman living in a high rise who buys a Zuni fetish doll for her mother. The doll has sharp teeth and menacing eyes and an amulet strung around its neck. When the amulet falls off, the doll comes to life and begins chasing Amelia through her apartment. I saw this movie when it first aired, but most of the time I had my hands over my eyes. What made it so frightening was the relentlessness of the attack. No matter what Black did to protect herself–stab the doll with a knife, burn it to a crisp in the oven, drown it in the bathtub–it always came roaring back to attack her with its little, sharp knife. But the real kicker was the ending when the spirit of the Zuni doll went into Karen Black. Now that was scary! I was checking under the couches and bed for weeks!

 

 The Day After

 

There were several movies back in the 1980s that were all about a possible nuclear holocaust, but none of them hit as hard as The Day After. Airing on ABC back in 1983, The Day After went through every gruesome detail of what the aftermath of a nuclear attack might look like. But it was the attack itself that was the most effectively scary: people being incinerated by the nuclear blast, cars hulled by bursts of flames, buildings and trees crumbling and toppling by the sonic waves. The movie was equally relentless in its hopelessness as even the survivors of the blast dealt with cancerous tumors, hair falling out, quick and painful deaths, and a nuclear winter that made the burned and ashen landscape look nightmarish. This wasn’t Freddy Kreuger or Michael Myers slashing their way through a bunch of horny teenagers. This was real shit! We were in the middle of the Cold War, so a nuclear attack was still very much possible. A decade ago, I had a chance to watch the movie again on TV. It wasn’t as scary, but back in the 1980s, nothing scared me more than looking out of my window and watching a mushroom cloud appearing on the horizon!

 

Devil Dog: Hound From Hell

 

Just the title alone ought to tell you that this movie was network TV cheese! And yet, when my brother and I came home from trick-or-treating one Halloween night, this movie happened to be on TV while we spread our goodies on the floor, and it…well, what can I say? Devil Dog: Hound from Hell! Bwahahahah!

 

Happy Halloween!

Jack-o-lantern

The Other, by Thomas Tryon: A Review of 1970s Gothic Horror

 There are some pop cultural moments that seem so rare that it’s almost as if I dreamed them, that I was the only one in the world who remembered they existed at all. That’s how it is for Robert Mulligan’s underrated and little remembered 1972 film The Other. I have a clear memory of watching this for the first time on TV, crouched on the living room floor and enthralled by this quietly spooky take on New England gothic horror. Even, years later, I could recall moments that stayed with me, chilling, grotesque scenes of terror, gruesome deaths by pitchforks, a fiery and ambiguous ending.

Like The Omen, The Exorcist, and other 1970s horror movies, The Other figures prominently in my childhood memories, so when I discovered that it was based on a novel by Thomas Tryon, I sought it out. Unfortunately the book had fallen out of publication and what few copies I found were expensive. Last year, however, The New York Book Review Classics, which has rescued many classic books from obscurity, republished The Other with a foreword by author Dan Chaon.

The Other is a lyrically beautiful, if at times overwritten, tale of madness, identity, and gothic horror that is far more rooted in realism than it’s supernatural pedigree might suggest. While inspired by the film adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby, The Other has much more in common with Shirley Jackson’s work with its New England setting and preoccupations with the terror that exists under the thin veneer of small town values.

The novel follows Niles and Holland Perry, thirteen-year old twins in the fictional New England town of Pequod Landing, whose bond is so tight that it becomes frighteningly obsessive. “Older twin” Holland has a spellbinding hold over his younger brother, goading him into playing pranks on their cousin or neighbors. But when the pranks start to turn dangerous, Niles is unable to break away from his beloved brother. Over the course of a summer, Holland’s tricks lead to one tragedy after the next. The terror is very much explicable, though there are supernatural elements involving a “game” Niles plays with his grandmother, Ada, that eventually unveils the frightening truth about Holland and Niles.

Anyone familiar with the movie will already know the twist, but the novel works its own magic and keeps you in utter suspense. There were some scenes which stretched the imagination and played far more grotesquely than necessary–one involves a missing baby, whose discovery proves to be the more shocking and unnecessarily gruesome aspect of the novel (the film version handles this scene with the gravity it deserves)–but the elevated tone already suggests a satiric take on gothic horror, making it somewhat inevitable. Still I enjoyed the novel, especially since it delved into areas that were untouched by the film, deepening the history of the Perry family and the small town in which they reside. By novel’s end, innocence and evil have become indistinguishable and frighteningly banal. The Other is a sinewy, psychological horror story that deserves to better known.

List of Online Writer’s Workshops

Writing is such a lonely activity, so it’s always nice to be able to sit with, talk to, and belong to a community of writers. But fiction workshops are more than simply social gathering groups. They allow writers to talk with fellow travelers about the craft of writing. Any writer who wants to improve her writing will at some point belong to a creative writing workshop. One of the key reasons why workshops are so important is that it allows them to expose their work to other writers and offers them the benefit of having that work judged critically through fresh eyes and ears. They also help develop critical thinking skills which allow writers to single out an emotional response to a written work based on how the story is crafted. This tells them what will work or what won’t work in not only the stories written by others, but by their own as well.

Not all workshops need be local or be held in person. The Internet is proving itself to be a valuable tool for writers in developing their craft. I’ve listed various workshop forums on-line. Some forums require membership fees, while others are really email listings. But each forum provides writers with the opportunity to discuss craft in a supportive network.

List of Workshop Forums

Bakcspace: bksp.org – this site requires a $40/per year membership fee.

Critters Workshop: critters.org – Sci-fi/Fantasy Writers

The Internet Writing Workshop: internetwritingworkshop.org – e-mail listing, with a focus on romance writing, poetry, etc.

The Writer’s Digest Forum: forum.writersdigest.com

Critique Circle: critiquecircle.com

My Writers Circle: mywriterscircle.com

Mike’s Writing Workshop groups.yahoo.com/group/mikeswritingworkshop – email list

A Note of the Background Photo

I took this photo about a year ago off a little building on MacDonald Ave. in my hometown of Richmond, Ca. It was part of a photo essay I’d done for another site, Creosote Journal. Richmond has been in the news for the past few years, what with the Chevron Oil Refinery explosion, a high profile rape case, and the recent decision to use eminent domain to float underwater mortgages. But there’s a lot more going in Richmond than that. The murals here are quite beautiful.

This photo is a particular favorite because there’s something mystical about it. The graffiti on top of the murals add a nice, egalitarian touch, too!

Check out the photo essay at Creosote Journal, and learn a little about these near hidden gems in Richmond.