Dean Caudwell – Indignation
Indignation is a short novel by Roth, but it features some of his best character work, all the way down to the minor characters. Caudwell isn’t minor exactly, but he’s perfect. Roth captures the pretentious, bloviating university dean to perfection, but still manages to make him human and not a caricature. It’s truly fine writing.
Theo Decker – The Goldfinch
Decker narrates The Goldfinch, a sprawling novel that takes us from Decker’s adolescence to his adulthood. He’s a fascinating character, driven by forces beyond his control to spend his life bound up in a never ending relationship with a stolen painting, a mysterious red-headed girl and an edgy, dangerous Russian. Decker’s voice is strong and keeps you turning the pages, anxious to see where he finds himself next.
Everyman – Everyman
Everyman is exactly that. In Roth’s sparest novel, the unnamed main character stumbles through a life seen through the prism of the body’s frailty and illnesses. Through it all, he remains however and the emotions are sharp and realistic, immediately recognizeable. Which seems to be the point.
Bud Harris – American Rust
Bud Harris’ role in American Rust is a relatively small one, but he’s perhaps my favorite character in the book, a weary, burned out small-town sheriff. He’s given up on just about everything except putting one foot in front of the other. The human connections he finally manages to forge in this book don’t make things better, but only worse. He’s a tragic character in a tragic tale, sick, tired and altogether worn.
Sherlock Holmes – The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, Or On the Segregation of the Queen
Getting Sherlock Holmes right is no small achievement and Laurie King sets herself the task of stretching the detective’s character in interesting emotional ways, while also remaining true to the character’s very specific original characterization. It’s kind of miraculous that she manages it, but she does.
Jeff – Tenth of December
Escape from Spiderhead is a brilliant short story in Saunders’ collection; Jeff finds himself, for his crimes, living out his days in an experimental facility where he’s given drugs and experiences, a human lab-rat as it were. But as the days were on, Jeff finds himself awakening to more than just the routine of his life at Spiderhead; but in the limited confines of his world, what does emotional growth even mean?
Frank Mackey – The Likeness
Mackey’s a supporting character in Tana French’s second novel, an abrasive undercover officer who arrives out of the past to torment Cassie Maddox, the main character. He’s a figure of menace, humor and unpredictability. He’s a live wire, crackling off the page and he’s the perfect character to stir into The Likeness, a book mostly given over to a kind of dreamy beauty.
Fu Manchu – The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu
A figure of the yellow peril, a stereotyped version of a Chinese scientist, Fu Manchu is, despite his racist origins, a genuinely compelling villain. He’s a figure of dread that broods over the book, even when he’s not actually present. When he is present, he’s terrifying, a figure of intelligence and passion and mercilessness. When, toward the end of the book, you actually see a glimmer of his real humanity, it’s a jaw-dropping moment. This book is undeniably racist and undeniably pulp, but Fu Manchu is the kind of villain that comes along once in an author’s lifetime.
Mike – Wait Until Dark
In the brilliant play Wait Until Dark, Mike is a charming con-artist, perfectly assayed by Richard Crenna in the film version. He at first seems callow and charming, but as the play unfolds, he reveals surprising depth and intelligence.
Roat – Wait Until Dark
As the terrifying villain of Wait Until Dark, Roat remains mostly an enigma; where he comes from, who he actually is, what drives him to the psychotic measures he uses . . . these are all left vague. But that’s part of why he’s so frightening; he’s a force of nature, unstoppable, vivid, visceral.
BONUS: Worst Male Character
Prospero the Enchanter – The Night Circus
Yes, The Night Circus takes a third “Worst” award, after also taking Worst Writing and Worst Female Character. Prospero the Enchanter is a wizard. Of some kind. Who’s up to something. Of some sort. His character is nonsensical, annoying and basically useless. In a novel packed with stupid characters, Prospero is the worst. This guy needs to be rounded with a sleep.