*Beware of spoilers. If your one of those people that need absolute surprise in what they read, perhaps glaze over the titles you have not yet read!*
Let me begin by saying these are only a few in the vast seas that are masterful and simply awesome characters. There are SO many well-written characters, it really is hard to narrow down and choose only five. But the list that follows is my best attempt to choose some so well-written and developed, that they almost deserve to be alive with us.
Number 1 - Paul Atreides (Dune Series)
If you’ve read Dune, you know why Frank Herbert’s young character most certainly deserves a place on this list. Talk about rags to intergalactic riches.
Anyone seen House of Cards?
Paul is like the Kevin Spacey of Sci-fi, but as a kid. Ruthless, opportunistic, smart and totally believable as a character/person. He has faults but he knows them, just as he sees his weaknesses and turns them to strengths. There are many reasons Paul Atreides (later Paul Muad’Dib) is brilliant, but let me explain my main reason for putting him here.
As readers we’re introduced to Paul when he is only fifteen, living on his home planet Caladan (not unlike Earth). But, like your typical kid, he’s forced to move homes. Only Paul has to move to a desert planet that is so un-survivable, the natives literally decompose their family members for water. Not to mention the whole reason behind Paul’s move was politically motivated with the intent of totally murdering his entire family.
So there’s that…
I imagine Paul’s scenario was a little tougher than that childhood move of yours you thought would end the world, but hey, who am I to judge?
Unlike you though (I kid), Paul shrugs off his planetary move like it’s nothing, because in his mind, it really isn't. After a series of events (they totally murder most of his family) Paul finds himself alone and stranded on the desert planet Dune.
Bit of a pickle, right?
For most I’d say with confidence that such a thing would mean our very imminent deaths. But for Paul?
No way josé.
He was determined to survive the planet even though it was like a thousand times more deadly than Australia. Spiders and all.
Basically, the kid looks around, sees that he has some vague personal/professional qualities that sorta match the description of this guy the natives of Dune talk about, and decides right there that he’s going to be their prophesied Messiah.
I like to presume he said something along the lines of, “when life gives you lemons, become an unsuspecting people’s Messiah.”
And man, he totally did.
Now it was a little more complicated than that, but you see my point. Ultimately he forces himself, and his (kinda) matching circumstances, into an already pre-existing religious infrastructure, to literally rise and become the natives of Dune’s personal Messiah.
And you may say, “loads of other characters do cooler stuff than that.”
Well… maybe. But that’s not where the real beauty of it is. The real allure of Dune is that it’s not written like Herbert forced the circumstances onto his story or his characters, or even that he set out with that storyline in mind. It’s written like the characters decided that for themselves, the exact moment your eyes hit the page. It’s so seamless, easy to believe, oddly realistic, and so damn natural.
It’s writing at it’s peak, masterful, and quite easily put: beautiful.
As you read on in the first book, you cannot help but begin to see Paul as this real guy. The story grows and develops SO intricately, and so does he.
If you haven't already, search the dungeons of your local book store for a copy, pay the 100 year old man at the till his three dollars (it’s worth a hundred), and then rent a U-Haul truck to bring the damn thing home. Don’t let it’s continent-like weight intimidate you (even though it has every reason to) and turn to page one to meet your new, relatively psychotic, friend Paul.
Number two - Arya Stark (Ice and Fire)
Im assuming you've all read Game of Thrones (or Ice and Fire for all you die-hards).
Well, you poor thing.
No matter how you got here, all that matters is that you’re here now. Let us fill this gaping whole in your chest with just one of many reasons why the Ice and Fire series is simply literary gold.
Now, you all have your own favourite characters in the book, and that’s OK. They may even be different from your favourite character in the show, and that’s OK too. But in my opinion Arya has the best storyline of them all, in both versions. Because just like Paul, the events she goes through seem so (at times horrifically) natural to the story-arc, that you cant imagine it happening to anyone else. Or any other way. And again, to be honest, her story is the most interesting one to read. Here’s why.
From the get-go, we know Ayra is different. That she has the spirit of a gladiator, and the will of an ocean current. I think this is why, even before her story got super cool, I liked her as a character. Keep in mind she’s only nine at the beginning too (which gets pretty hard to believe). The first test of her spirit is shortly after John gives her needle. If you can think all the way back to A Game Of Thrones, try to remember that she makes friends with the bakers son Mycah, with whom she also frequently practices sword fighting with. And following Joffrey’s appearance, and his usual violent moods, the baker’s son ends up getting killed by Joffrey’s bodyguard. Remember?
But here’s where it gets interesting for me.
Arya hates The Hound (bodyguard) for what he did. A hate deeper than anger could ever go. White hot hate. But she’s clever, and although that hate is always in her mind, she harbours it. She fuels it and funnels and twists and turns it, all to her advantage. She uses it for everything she does, and it is the motivation she has to survive the truly chaotic life that follows Mycahs murder.
Now, skip forward a few books to A Storm of Swords. In this series you have to be patient (and I don't just mean waiting for George Martin). There’s really no other way to survive reading it all. But it’s well worth the wait, trust me.
Anyway, a lot of other cool stuff (and not so cool) happens to Arya throughout her stories/travels in the chapters in-between. She gets stronger, quicker, tougher. And always in the back of her mind is this original hate she harbours towards her enemies. And number one has always remained The Hound.
If you haven't read the books this may sound a little strange, but circumstances force Arya to actually pair (in an originally kidnappy kind of way) with her first hate, The Hound. He (again, in a way) saves her from the rest of her family’s murders (and I swear that’s not a theme in this post). But after a particularly trying day for the former bodyguard, he’s left mortally wounded following one of many fights. He and Arya get away, but they don’t get far. Eventually, he falls from his horse unable to go further since he’s got a pretty big hole in his side.
Now, with the risk of sounding a tad sadistic, this is where our patience as readers paid off.
They’ve been together for months (Arya and The Hound), defending each other because that was the only way to survive. And as readers we’ve been reading long enough to half-forget that Arya does in fact still hate the hound, and no thanks to Martin’s elegant writing, we’re even partially convinced there may be some sort of a friendship between them.
But how foolish we were to believe that, hmm?
Arya (remember, still a little girl) decides as The Hound falls from his horse, that she no longer requires his services. And to be honest the scene almost plays out like she is letting him go.
Although it ends a little differently than your normal good-old firing.
From the ground, unable to crawl any further, The Hound looks to Arya and asks her to kill him. He asks because Arya has killed before, and that it would save him from a rather miserable death. I don't know about you guys, but I honestly didn't question that she wouldn't do it. Which of course she doesn’t. But not to spare his life, or even in a final attempt to save him. She does not kill him because she wants his death prolonged and painful.
Because she remembers.
And although this scene is not really a happy or merry one, I like it. It’s part of the very reason I think Martin is so good. He doesn’t do what we as readers have read so often now that we actually expect it. Because Arya as a character is not your usual good-guy befriending a redeemed bad-guy.
She’s a girl that remembers being slighted, and was smart enough to suppress her rage and cultivate her revenge.
And leave a man to the wilderness of a messed up world.
Number Three - Rand al’Thor (Wheel of Time)
I had a tough time deciding whether or not Rand fit on this list, but in the end I decided that he did. Mostly because there is so much story centred on him to read, that in the end you know him in more detail than you know your own family.
Robert Jordan (James Oliver Rigney, Jr) must have literally spent years behind a desk (and later Brandon Sanderson). I mean there’s basically four and a half million words in the entire series. If you don’t know word count, it’s generally agreed that 80,000 words is the length of your average book. For reference, Golding’s Lord of the Flies has about 59,900.
I don’t like math either but let me do the numbers for you.
4,500,000 / 80,000 = 56.25
Hard not to get to know a character after reading the equivalent of 56 books worth of story.
And that isn't to say that the WoT series isn't well written, because of course it is. It’s brilliant. And there are way more characters than just Rand alone. But in this case, what makes his character so impressive is the sheer size of information we have to read about him, yet in some cases, also his simplicity.
I joked above that Dune would need a U-Haul truck to take home, but here that’s not so much of an exaggeration. I have the books lined up at home, and I can guarantee you there’s enough paper there to stop a bazooka. I don't know about you but if the world ends, I’m good to go.
But enough on it’s size! What specifically makes Rand a great character?
This is my reason.
You know the term rags to riches? I used it in here already. This story is the CLASSIC rags to riches in every sense. And even though we may argue otherwise at times, at heart we all love these classic kinds of classics.
Rand al’Thor literally starts the series in rags as a small-time farmer. He is a nobody in a small town of Emond’s Field, farming and minding his own business like every great fantasy hero everywhere.
But of course this small town is dragged into the real world by a horrific event in which the bad guys attack. And the attack obviously sparks a bunch of things, and sets the narrative wheel into motion (pun intended).
And from there it’s crazy just how high he advances: literally to this unmatched, unparalleled, deity that you can’t really ever fathom losing. Rags to demi-god is more like it. But the great part is (tying this to the beginning) that we get to see this happen over 4 and a half million words, so it’s a slow but steady build to the top. Of course he hates himself at times too, and his friends and family. It’s the whole works really.
Classic fantasy, but nevertheless awesome fantasy. And just soooo much to read, all basically centred on one guy. If you haven't already read this series, prepare to invest in a character like never before.
Number Four - Gandalf (Lord of The Rings / The Silmarillion)
Had to include a classic here, and as The Lord of the Rings is both the pinnacle and godfather of fiction if ever there was one, I landed on our mutually favourite trilogy (I dare to presume at least).
Tolkien’s characters are all masterpieces.
You know it, I know it, so really I’m not going to go too into depth here, but let me offer my two cents on my personal favourite.
What I love, and what you may or may not know, is that Gandalf chose to be the old wise man he is. And for good reason. The wizards of Middle Earth (in the books at least) are in fact not human at all. They are of the Maiar people: beings an entire tier above humanity, and those we know as the wizards, were a select few sent to Middle Earth to aid and instruct those that stand against Sauron.
Upon reaching Middle Earth, they had a choice in how to appear to us lowly humans, and Gandalf chose the whole ninety year-old man look. He did so because he knew humanity’s pride would not truly accept advice or council from any sort of angelic being. He saw humanity’s fault. So out of humility, and so the leaders of Middle Earth would listen, Gandalf (as we know him) took the form of an old man. Thus he was free to give advice, and often see it listened to.
It should go without saying, but even this subtle glimpse into the character that is Gandalf says more than a book full of words ever could. He saw the faults in man, accepted them, and found a way around them. This is one of many really subliminal reasons Tolkien is so brilliant. Such a simple act and yet it speaks volumes.
But surely there are other reasons nerds like you picked Gandalf as their favourite, you may ask?
Why of course, I would reply. Let me offer another.
Gandalf obeyed and lived by the only rule he was ever given, and if you don't know it, it may answer some of your questions.
Either when reading the books or watching the films have you ever wondered why Gandalf didn't do… more?
He seemed all-powerful and yet the extent of his tricks were lighting pinecones on fire and the occasional luminescence (among a few other things).
Well there is in fact a reason.
Before leaving for Middle Earth, when he was known as Olórin and not Gandalf, Olórin was in service to the ultimate deity named ‘Eru.’
In case you don't know, Eru is the creator of all in Tolkien’s universe.
Anyway, the rule Gandalf and his four companions heading to Middle Earth were given was that they could only ever instruct and advise, never dominate or intervene.
Now you’re thinking: Saruman totally broke that rule! And yep, the bastard did.
But Gandalf did not, and even then managed to basically win the war. Imagine for a second how quick a story it would be without Gandalf.
No one would even know what the ring was.
So, now you’ve heard it. Gandalf who conquered death, and lead the fellowship, is basically the only reason anyone actually survived. He’s gracefully written, and the subtle (but practically sole) guardian of Middle Earth.
Number 5 - Roland Deschain (The Dark Tower)
I love many books, but it’s hard to think of a series I remember more fondly than this one. And particularly, it’s main character. If you haven't read Stephen King’s masterpiece, you really should. It is, quite literally at times, the culmination and peak of all his works.
And it is absolutely phenomenal.
But as for our character, his name is Roland Deschain. In his world and universe, he is known as a Gunslinger. Both a diplomat and peacekeeper. As that title suggests, he does indeed carry a gun, and is in fact the last to do so (the story arc is awesome, and so are the settings. It's all just really awesome actually).
But why is he specifically so great?
Well because I have never come across a more beautifully complex character in all my time of reading. Throughout every book, right up until the very last scene (which is… just SO good…), you learn new things about him as though he were a character newly introduced.
You’ve heard the phrase: ‘surprised at every turn,’ but until Roland, you couldn't really possibly understand it. He’s cold and distant and dutiful, and yet underneath it all there’s a comic and a romantic. It takes a while to see that side of the character, but King writes him so masterfully that slowly we gather there is actually more to Roland than his quest. That there's more to the tired old poet.
Remember that scene from Shrek the movie? When he and Donkey are talking about what it means to be someone (talk about another deep character), and he tells Donkey that ogres are like onions?
Well, Roland Deschain is like an onion.
No doubt that’s a rather weird simile, but it’s an accurate one all the same. And I don't mean ascetically (although, from what I gather…). No, I mean how there’s layer after layer of story and character. There is so much to him as a person, but then there’s also this intricate history shrouded in mystery and teased at occasionally (until Wizard and Glass at least where we learn more).
In a cool evolution of character development, readers get to see how Roland’s first past (first group of friends) influences his decisions with his second. And how the other characters shape who he is.
In a way, I suppose we actually get to see Roland humanize.
His first time around Roland cannot see past the ultimate goal: to find and climb The Dark Tower. To him finding it is everything, and it consumes him, and for it he sacrifices everything. He believes it as the single connection between all the universes that exist, and that at it’s top is a force/deity that controls all worlds. And he believes finding this force will give him the chance to save his own universe.
But as Roland and his new group of friends (Ka-teet) near the end, we start to see how their well-being does in fact at times come between him and his goal. He starts questioning himself, never his goal, but the character of his own self. He connects with the youngest member (Jake) like a father to a son and we see how his choices surrounding Jake haunt him, and shake the unshakeable resolve he’s carried his whole life.
What Im trying to say is that the way Roland develops, and the writing that reveals him as a character, are both brilliant and sublime. In an utterly non-confounding way, there are very few characters more delightfully complex.
Layer after layer, just like an onion.
If you haven't already, do yourself a favour and get to know a character unlike any other.
So there you are. Any others you would have personally added? Any there you (incorrectly) disagree with? Let me know what you think!
Otherwise, thanks for reading.