The Top 5 Most Significant Fictional Characters in Modern Literature

The Criterion Collection

While this title isn't mine, the lack of originality is compensated by the novelty that it encapsulates. Basically, if I were to ask you to list the five most important figures in Western Literature (post 1700 AD), you would probably list your favorites. To be objective is far more important here, however, and we must tread lightly so as to properly compartmentalize the key components that dictate the significance of the characters below.

First, they are inspiring: either to do good or to do evil, and sometimes those lines are cleverly blurred and purposefully clouded to cause one to reflect on the characterisation and plot devices surrounding the focal character. This inspiration can drive personal goals, can inspire other characters/stories similar to them (and sometimes entirely unrelated, at that), and even could be held accountable for being somewhat responsible for either atrocity or salvation.

Second, they are complex. Good characters do not fall down when the slightest breeze wafts into the room. They are multidimensional, often brooding or emotional, but keen in other areas like intellect or fortitude. Sometimes they are stubborn, sometimes they are compassionate. Almost every time, however, they are damaged goods.

Finally, look at the flaws of the focal figure. Many non-fictional "heroes" were victims of psychosis, autism, schizophrenia, or other mental obstacles that were both their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. For example, Einstein was both the forefather of modern physics and a rather scatterbrained introvert as a result of higher functioning Autism. He wore the same outfit daily to not create any more distortion in his daily life than he felt was necessary, so he could focus more on the theory of relativity.

These characters express alignment alterations--in other words, there is no way anyone can occupy solely one alignment. One does not simply stay lawful good every second, every day, til "death do us part." This being said, it can often be difficult to be so black and white about their "good side" or "bad side." Good characters are neither.


Ian McKellan portrays Gandalf the Grey: what modern people associate most commonly with his appearance.
Ian McKellan portrays Gandalf the Grey: what modern people associate most commonly with his appearance.

Number Five: Gandalf the Grey

Obviously the first problem here is that I've limited us to Gandalf the Grey, or more appropriately Mithrandir, and not his ascension to the White. My choice was quite simple in that the character of Gandalf prior to this re-genesis was a fictional representation of a commonly held superstition throughout European mythology: the Wayfarer. Most common among these was Wodan, the chieftest of the gods of the Norse tradition. Sketchings of Wodan in wayfarer form (predating the writings of Tolkien) clearly prove that Gandalf was intended to be this type of figure.

The Silmarillion aside, in which you'll find long winded narrative on the Valar, Gandalf is arguably the most powerful protagonist in Middle Earth. Upon the fall of Saruman, when Gandalf usurps his position, we find this out wholly. Prior to this, though, we see an often lighthearted older man who appears feeble and frail (come to find out, according to Tolkien's canon, this was to severely limit his powers while watching over Middle Earth).

Gandalf is significant to Western Literature for a sum of reasons, but nothing stands out to me like the comparison to Wodan. What we have here is the connection of old world to new, a bridge to span the gorge so to speak. Gandalf is inspiring in that he is vital to the most significant work of literature of the 20th century, and that he is still largely one of the most recognisable and, frankly, lovable characters out there.

He is wise, kind, but honest and even a bit edgy. He suffers not the company of fools and doesn't halt his tongue when reprimanding, as often seen in regard to the "lesser" Hobbits in the tale. He also is a totem character for the old, the experienced, and the intelligent. It's likely because of Gandalf that many fantasy novels, short stories, video games, movies, and television shows exist today. Harry Potter has a head wizard that is virtually indistinguishable from Gandalf, for example. Not to mention the classic Disney masterpiece Fantasia centers around an old wizard and his halfling sized companion who mostly just causes mischief (seeing a motif here?).

Gandalf is also mentally unstable at times. He forgets things he shouldn't, he's somewhat lackadaisical in his overall approach to adventuring prior to his discovering Sauron's Ring, and he has an affection for the halfling's leaf, which he considers medicinal and also enjoyably recreational. It's been proven by modern science that many with mental disorders do tend to embrace psychoactive drugs, and since he is not a member of the Hobbit's race, he clearly smokes it less out of upbringing or habit and more out of the sheer glee of the activity.

Gandalf is otherwise a rather concise character in the sense that he doesn't have the inner turmoil that some of the forthcoming characters exhibit, and also that he doesn't mirror symptoms of psychopathy (many protagonists are indeed psychopathic).

Gandalf is most usually neutral good, though he requires some adherence to law due to his Valar lineage.

Gene Wilder's Wonka is the standard by which most people associate with this character.
Gene Wilder's Wonka is the standard by which most people associate with this character.

Number Four: Willy Wonka

To borrow the immortal words of Monty Python, "And now for something completely different!"

I'm going to go way out into left field for this one. Why on earth would someone start a top five list of significant literary characters with someone as epic as Gandalf only to watch that character be one upped by the eccentric, purple clad, sociopathic candy creator?

It's elementary, my dear...wait, I'm in the wrong place for that...

Willy Wonka is without a doubt one of the most prominent children's book characters since his creation in 1964 by Roald Dahl. Anyone that is literate knows that name, and I'd wager that 75% of those people also know "The Candyman Can" and "Imagination" by heart (I know I still find myself singing those songs on a regular basis during menial labour).

But popularity is not a part of the criteria that makes a character significant. What is important here is what the book inspired: two movies, though only one is significant enough to mention even if the remake is more accurate to the actual novel. Not simply films that are tossed aside, either, as the original portrayal of Wonka by Gene Wilder is -- to this day -- heralded as a masterpiece of acting. Gene's idiosyncratic display of wit and charm combined with the chilling nature of a spurned man seeking to teach a lesson to "those meddling kids" pierces the heart of the tale, and at every turn his unblinking stare and his lackluster attempts to "save" them prove he's not the hero of this story at all.,,and yet, he very much is.

It's a tale that portrays psychopathy in every possible facet to a child: it shows actions with consequences, yes, but it also shows actions of what we immediately predetermine to be "good people"...and those actions shown are not good and do not mesh with the envisioned reality we want to see.

In fact, so well created is Wonka that we actually empathise with him. Logically we should only empathise with Charlie and his mother, as those are the sole characters with any ethics or moral fiber whatsoever in this grim tale. Grandpa Joe is equally sociopathic, ignoring needs...yes, needs...of those he lives with to suit some childhood fancy he masks as "helping" his grandson fulfill a dream. When given the chance to do the right thing later, he encourages the opposite and endangers his own grandson in the process.

Wonka is aware of this, and to a limited degree there is a brief sense of goodness to his character. He knows Charlie isn't the bearer of bad news, it's his grandfather, and he does give this ONE individual a second chance. Amid this entire tale, only a single soul was good, and that was Charlie Bucket. Wonka eventually reveals that this was all part of the plan, but the path leading to that point is so full of anger and disdain toward the world outside his factory that Charlie even begins to walk away, disillusioned with his lifelong hero (who is only at such a capacity due to his futs-as-nuck grandpa).

Mr. Wonka is equal parts Sherlock Holmes and Cat in the Hat. On the one side, he's a clever and quick witted narcissist with an ego big enough to power the sun; on the other, he's this unbridled sense of chaos that is dismayed by the conventions of society and the way the world is losing its imagination.

In the end, Willy Wonka as a character is vital to a modern social criticism. Dahl's work, intended or not, envisioned what we are seeing quite commonly these days in regard to parental responsibility and wanton greediness. While I'd never call Willy Wonka the good guy, he's the quintessential anti-hero that allows the true hero to find his strength.

Wonka's character is most usually Chaotic Neutral.

Russell Crowe's recent portrayal of Inspector Javert on the silver screen was as accurate as could be, encompassing the inner turmoil that defines this character in every scene.
Russell Crowe's recent portrayal of Inspector Javert on the silver screen was as accurate as could be, encompassing the inner turmoil that defines this character in every scene.

Number Three: Inspector Javert

Indeed the most intriguing character in the daunting Victor Hugo novel Les Miserables is also the most damaged, contorted, and dismal images to be seen in this already depressing piece (as the name so aptly implies). Javert is by all means the hand of God, which in his eyes pertains to "The Law." He adheres so strictly to his principles that he disgusts himself because he cannot separate in his own mind what is truly good from evil, or if there even is such a thing.

His antagonist is the plot's main protagonist, Jean Valjean, an escaped convict. Valjean is so easily sympathised with, he is the "greater good" that exists outside of man's laws, outside the realm of social convention (in that time, in the common mindset, Javert would have been such a character). What struggle we see surpasses the tangible, however, and instead we need to look into the philosophical viewpoint of this broken vessel to really delve into what makes him so significant.

Javert is not a bad man. He has not committed a crime, he merely brings those who have to justice--his justice, and by his justice, God's justice. He is, in his own eyes, the flaming sword that was held by the Archangel to prevent Adam and Eve from ever returning to the Garden of Eden. His sole role in the world is to ensure that this mission--again, directly bestowed to him by the highest of powers--is never deterred from its proper course. Javert is neither cold, nor is he sensitive. He is instead utterly confused by everything that transpires around him, as his principles are conflicting with his conscious. The penultimate chase ends in his realisation that he cannot live this way, nor can he let Valjean live differently so long as he himself has breath...and he commits suicide.

Javert's character leaves more than enough room for analysis and critique, and scholars likely will continue to debate facets of his persona for centuries to come as he still stands as the ultimate heroic villain, the bad guy who isn't at all evil, the villain who is misrepresented by mankind's faulty sense of morality and ethics.

Javert is the quintessential lawfully good persona.

Alex DeLarge has been compared to other fictional characters such as the Joker from Batman.
Alex DeLarge has been compared to other fictional characters such as the Joker from Batman.

Number Two: Alex DeLarge

I'll begin this segment with the confession that I have never read the novel "A Clockwork Orange". I will also supply my reasoning for avoiding it. My opinion on the matter, once I did enough background research on the subject, solidified due to the general consensus that Stanley Kubrick visually created the impossible AND he ended it without the final chapter. The feeling you're left with after the credits cannot be undone. The final chapter of the novel, according to most, was indelibly "American", and Kubrick felt it was not simply unnecessary, but detrimental to the plot--more importantly, perhaps, the persona of Alex himself.

This aside, Alex DeLarge is not a role model. He's not a hero. It'd be a stretch to even consider him an anti-hero, as many might pigeon hole him as a victim more than anything else. He's erratic, egotistical, insane, angry, and charming. He's subjected to the grossest of tortures of the mind only to resurface a "changed" man (though as anyone familiar with this masterpiece is aware, he doesn't truly change in Kubrick's edition).

He's inspiring in the sense that we all watch knowingly understanding his sins. He isn't the sort of chap that upstanding citizens would sip coffee with at a newsstand or converse lightly with at the watercooler. He's a mix of volatile emotion and cold affliction. He appreciates the highest forms of art while he relishes in the lowest of debaucheries.

The antithesis to a character such as this might be along the lines of V (V for Vendetta). Chaos is not always damaging, but it gives a new meaning to "the end justifies the means." Alex is loathsome and petulant and yet you somehow are forced to feel pity for the scoundrel. You walk away from the experience with confusion, wondering just how blurred the lines between light and dark really are. Who are the actual good guys in this story? Who are the villains? Are there victims or are they self made monsters who deserve to pay for their crimes?

Malcolm McDowell has yet to surpass his performance here. He exquisitely creates the perfect tone necessary to make Alex believable, and yet equally as impossible. Many consider the work to be disturbing, but this aside, the characterisation present throughout this work of art is a standalone in literature. There is nothing like it anywhere else, and because of its uniqueness, deserves to be placed this highly on the list. Considering the critical acclaim both media have accrued over the last few decades, it goes without saying that Alex DeLarge is still one of the most perplexing and regretfully rewarding psychopaths ever to be penned.

Alex DeLarge is truly neutral.

Jeremy Brett's impeccable portrayal stands alone atop the mountains of material inspired by A.C. Doyle's reluctant hero.
Jeremy Brett's impeccable portrayal stands alone atop the mountains of material inspired by A.C. Doyle's reluctant hero.

Number One: Sherlock Holmes

This should have been expected. The widely adored "reluctant" hero of Holmes was most likely a caricature of Sir A.C. Doyle himself, though that has never truly been confirmed. Doyle detested writing his Adventures catalog, and in his attempt to move onward in his artistic endeavors killed off his hero. This lasted only so long until the public demanded that there be more Holmes produced, so he wrote The Return as an answer, with a rather simplistic and somewhat insulting solution to the once befuddling downfall.

This aside, Holmes has been portrayed more often on stage and on film than any other fictional character. Also, he is the direct inspiration for the Batman (and conversely, Moriarty for the Joker). The laundry list of actors who have attempted such portrayals is very long, though none need mention as much as the impeccable Jeremy Brett. Brett owned the character, as he'd learned and practiced Holmes-esque techniques in the same vein as the character himself would have--in seclusion, in obsession, and with imagination.

Holmes also is the fictional blueprint for Asperger's Syndrome, which wasn't discovered until a half century later by Hans Asperger, but allegedly Doyle was considered an eccentric with tendencies that mirror exactly the common symptoms of high functioning autistics. With the massive improvements science has made in the field of neurology, we now have a better diagnosis and basis to judge, but during the time of this character's existence, he was an outcast. Socially, he was inept. He was perceived as egocentric and rude, but was more or less simply a brutally honest genius who was exhausted by the slow moving minds he had to deal with every second of every day, and therefore he took on an almost anti-hero form in his day.

Today, however, with the knowledge we've gained, he is much more widely accepted as the first superhero of the Western world. He was trained in hand to hand combat, was considerably stronger than average for his size, and had a knack for role playing oddball disguises during attempts of espionage. His companion, Dr. James Watson, often remarked at how adept Holmes was at not being himself when necessary, and always marveled at the amazing--almost "supernatural"--abilities exhibited by the man.

Aside from direct inspiration to stage and film, as I have mentioned this character is the source of the Batman franchise, and there isn't any need to introduce, explain, or promote how popular and influential that series in all its incarnations have been for nigh on one hundred years now. Also, don't forget that this fictional character literally created the job Private Investigator (in the capacity by which Holmes operated, a consulting detective). Much like science fiction has spawned the submarine, space station, and television, Holmes began a wave of study that became a vocational choice instead of a mere hobby. That in and of itself is impressive.

The character is so complex that the debate has yet to end on who portrays him better on screen, what his antics really were like, and his personality being anywhere from severely introverted and cold to more on the chipper-manic end, as you can see with the two most recent incarnations (played subsequently by Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey, Jr.)

In the end Sherlock Holmes has held captivated audiences spellbound for its entirety of life. He has never vanished, he isn't a museum piece, and quite likely he will be the subject of many media outlets and scholarly debates among those snobby literary types as long as mankind lives on this planet. Given the fact that we still read Beowulf in schools, I'd consider Holmes a much needed mainstay for centuries to come.

Sherlock Holmes is a balance between lawfully neutral and good, depending on his mood or circumstances.

Conclusion

There are arguably hundreds of honorable mentions: from Holden Caulfield to Frodo Baggins, Indiana Jones to Oliver Twist, and so on. What the five characters above do, however, is cover five totally separate types of characters with entirely different tones and principles. Each one is the most significant in his class, though there are others who could compare.

Most important is the psyche that these facades display: gender/race/religion aside, they are the five personifications of characterisation. All are somehow in their own right a protagonist, and all of them place the human experience in plain view for all to see, unabashed by deceit or bias. Fictional characters allow us to criticize humanity without pointing a direct finger, and by doing so we can open our eyes to see the almost-invisible line between good and evil. Oftentimes neither side really is separate from the other, and that is how great characters are exemplified.

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