10 of the Most Influential Literary Characters of All Time

Jeremy Piehler/Flickr
Jeremy Piehler/Flickr

In any given year, an average of 275,000 books are published in the United States, some 43,000 of them fiction. Add to that centuries of books and you can see why it’s nearly impossible to devise a definitive list of the best 100 literary characters. But, undeterred, for our recent book, The 100 Greatest Literary Characters, my co-authors Gail Sinclair, Kirk Curnutt, and I decided that a reasonable list was possible if we gravitated toward time-honored reader favorites, classic prototypes, and cultural influencers—characters who had a life beyond the pages. There were at least 50 additional characters that we agonized over but ultimately left out of the book. Below are 10 who deserved to be included but were not.

Elizabeth Bennet (from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen)

We will undoubtedly get the most blowback for not including Austen’s hero among the top 100, but we faced the same dilemma with her and Mr. Darcy that we did with Gatsby and Daisy, Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster, and Tom and Ma Joad. We ultimately chose Mr. Darcy because of the great shadow he cast—but in print and on film, Elizabeth remains one of Austen’s most beloved creations for her pride, feistiness, and inner strength.

Antoinette Cosway (from Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys)

Rhys famously offered a “prequel” to Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, which tells the backstory of the mad Creole wife that Rochester kept locked in his attic. Antoinette is the vehicle for Rhys’s feminist and anticolonial commentary, but she’s also a richly imagined character whose life in 1830s Jamaica is told in poetic, fluid narration, as we see her gradually descend into a madness that made her intriguing enough for three film adaptations.

Nancy Drew (from the Nancy Drew Mysteries Stories by Carolyn Keene)

Debuting three years after the Hardy Boys, this teenage female sleuth influenced generations of young girls (including Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush) and inspired five films, three TV series, several computer games, and numerous product tie-ins. Drew, the brainchild of multiple writers working under the same pseudonym, was smart, athletic, resourceful, analytical, brave, steady under pressure, and a master psychologist.

Edmond Dantès (from The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas)

Framed by three jealous friends, Edmond Dantès finds himself imprisoned in an island fortress with no hope of getting out. But one conspiracy deserves another, and Dantès lives to escape and exact revenge. He’s an interesting character because he’s a mixture of rational and emotional impulses, pity and hatred, and ruthlessness and patience. And his story has been told on stage, film, radio, and television dozens of times.

Lemuel Gulliver (from Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift)

Jonathan Swift used his off-course sailor to satirize royalty, war, and everything that made 18th-century Europe less than praiseworthy. Shipwrecked, Gulliver first finds himself a giant in a country of diminutive people; on a later voyage, he ends up in a land of giants where he’s the tiny one. Gulliver appeals to young readers because of his adventures and to adults because of Swift’s wry commentary.

Black Moses (from Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou)

The title character of this slender novel grew up in a Congo-Brazzaville orphanage in the 1970s. His story of running away, joining a gang, getting involved with a brothel madam, and trying to go straight feels like an Oliver Twist tale, if Twist were born in 20th-century Africa rather than Victorian England. The added complication of mental illness makes this a poignant yet darkly comic novel.

Captain Nemo (from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Mysterious Island by Jules Verne)

Nemo is Verne’s version of a mysterious and misguided scientific genius, one who lives aboard his Nautilus submarine, plays the organ, lives off the sea, and laments the world’s evils to such a degree that it becomes a raging obsession. Disney’s cartoon clownfish Nemo pays homage to his story.

Randle P. McMurphy (from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey)

What happens when a rascal fakes insanity to get out of serving a prison sentence for minor crimes? Kesey’s antihero rages quietly against the system, locking horns with bossy Nurse Ratched and trying to revitalize his fellow inmates, even if it means hooking one of them up with a prostitute or breaking the group out of the hospital to take an unsupervised fishing trip.

Sam Spade (from The Maltese Falcon and three later short stories by Dashiell Hammett)

Crime fiction in the 1930s was full of hard-boiled detectives, but Hammett’s tough private eye captured the imagination of New York and Hollywood, and was re-created on radio by Howard Duff and on the big screen by Humphrey Bogart. Spade also appeared in comics and was spoofed in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, The Pink Panther, and Murder by Death. Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon remains the quintessential noir novel.

Alexis Zorba (from the Life and Times of Alexis Zorbas by Nikos Kazantzakis)

Zorba, portrayed by Anthony Quinn in the film Zorba the Greek, lives an ordinary life but manages somehow to become larger than life. He’s a zestful, robust lover of beauty, an Olympian storyteller and a philosopher whose remarks about love, life, religion, and politics make him as flamboyant a character as you’ll ever find in a self-professed mine worker, chef, musician, and expert on women.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

James Plath is the R. Forrest Colwell Endowed Chair and professor of English at Illinois Wesleyan University. He is also president of The John Updike Society, which owns The John Updike Childhood Home in Shillington, Pennsylvania, and is turning it into a museum.


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