The Big Question April 2014

Who Is the Greatest Fictional Character of All Time?

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Graham Roumieu

Michael Cunningham, author, The Snow Queen (out in May)

Emma Bovary may not be the greatest of fictional characters, but she’s the greatest fictional creation. She’s selfish, frivolous, and dim-witted. She’s unfaithful. She’s vain. But Flaubert insisted so ardently on her right to our attention that he created a tragic, immortal literary figure out of a twit. That’s greatness.


Lena Dunham, creator, Girls

Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking continues to offer a cheeky, dreamy escape from the structures of a typical childhood. The image of her washing the floor with brushes strapped to her feet is my dictionary definition of freedom.


Mark Haddon, author, The Red House

Even in 1599 or thereabouts, Hamlet feels like us: depressed, conflicted, alienated, trapped. Or maybe he just feels like me.


A. S. Byatt, author, Possession

Dostoyevsky wanted, he said, “to depict a completely beautiful human being.” Prince Myshkin, his Idiot, is that rarity. He is innocent and dangerous because there are things he cannot understand, including sex and malice. There is no one quite like him.


Alec Baldwin, actor

For men, it’s a toss-up between the Prince of Denmark and the Thane of Cawdor: paralysis through inaction versus over-aggression. It’s a toss-up for the ladies as well, between Jane Eyre (life) and Blanche DuBois (death).


Tobias Wolff, author, Old School

Simone Weil said that the mark of a great writer is the ability to make a good person interesting. Tolstoy accomplishes just that in the figure of Pierre Bezukhov, in War and Peace. Even as he evokes our pity, and sometimes our laughter, he compels our respect, and finally our love, and he is never, ever dull.


Carl Hiaasen, author, Dance of the Reptiles

George Hayduke, the raucous, dam-busting hero of The Monkey Wrench Gang, Edward Abbey’s 1975 masterpiece of enviro-rage. Hayduke was inspired by Abbey’s close friend, the naturalist Doug Peacock, who lived among wild grizzly bears for years after returning from Vietnam.


Jonathan Lethem, author, Dissident Gardens

God is the author of all the other characters, and of all the other authors of all the other characters, unless he doesn’t exist—and said existence, in its disputation, is one of the greatest ongoing narratives in human storytelling.


Billy Collins, poet

Dilettante and monster, pursuer and pursued, seducer and seduced, Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert evades simple moral verdicts almost as well as he did 50 years ago. Lolita still works to implicate its readers in a reprehensible crime by addressing us as both witnesses and jurors and by encasing Humbert’s sins in Nabokov’s exquisitely playful prose.


Sarah Ruhl, playwright, Stage Kiss

Isn’t it obvious? Elizabeth Bennet. And Peter Pan.


Errol Morris, filmmaker and author

Charles Kinbote—his enthusiasm for poetry; Bartleby—his engagement with others; Cain—his love of his fellow humans, even at a time when there were many fewer of them; Ahab—his passion for seafood; Meursault—his warm feelings toward his mother; Gregor Samsa—his unshakable self-esteem.


Adelle Waldman, author, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

Mrs. Norris, from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, delights in nothing so much as bossing around those less powerful. What makes her so brilliant—and so chilling—is that her brand of malevolence is so ordinary; she really has no idea that she’s a monster.


Katori Hall, playwright, The Mountaintop

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man articulated the loud silence of those living within black skin, and the taut tension of one’s true self versus one’s imposed identity.


R. L. Stine, author, Goosebumps series

Aside from being amiable, Mickey Mouse has no discernible personality of any kind, yet he has captivated the world, appeared in hundreds of films, and sold billions of dollars’ worth of merchandise. Has any other fictional character held sway over so many countries for so long?

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