Comus Bassington – The Unbearable Bassington
Here’s the main character of The Unbearable Bassington, a book that’s getting a lot of year-end love from me. He’s a child of wealth, raised to be spoiled, arrogant and repugnant. He’s kind of an idiot and kind of a horrible kid. But as the book progresses and Comus grows into a young man, Saki brings him vividly to life as a young man struggling to find a way back into his family, a way back to the life that he’s alienated himself from with his behavior. Comus is ultimately a deeply tragic character, a young man who wants to be better, but finds that it may be too late.
Kyle Boot – Tenth of December
Kyle Boot appears in the very first story in Tenth of December. He’s a nerdy young kid, you know the kind. But today he’ll have a chance to change everything about himself; because today something odd is going to happen in his neighborhood and the way he chooses to respond is the hinge on which the rest of his life will hang. It’s a story both hilariously funny and also quite suspenseful. It’s a great way to start the book.
Bucky Cantor – Nemesis
Cantor is one of Roth’s finest creations, the athletic teacher in a Jewish neighborhood in New York; he loves his kids, he loves his girl, he loves his life, but when a polio epidemic begins to sweep through the neighborhood, the threat is more than just physical. It’s existential in a strange way and Cantor finds himself questioning everything he’s ever believed. Nemesis is maybe the best of the Roth novels I’ve read and the journey of Bucky Cantor is one of the most emotionally charged character journeys I’ve read in a long time.
Simon Jordan – Alias Grace
Simon Jordan is a young doctor tasked with examining a convicted murderer in order to see if she’s insane enough to be sent to an asylum. But, of course, this task is complicated by his own experiences and perspectives. Atwood climbs inside Jordan’s mind and brings him vividly to life.
Marcus Messner – Indignation
Marcus Messner is a university student during the Korean conflict, but that conflict is nothing compared to the constant war within; Marcus is a guy who can never let things be easy. To say too much about the character would be to spoil details of the story that should be left unspoiled, but Marcus is a figure not as tragic as he wants to be. He’s more pathetic, in the negative sense of the word; he’s frustrated and frustrating, as complicated a piece of work as I discovered this year.
Mike – Tenth of December
Well, I’ve talked a bit about Home, the best story in Tenth of December already; the story is narrated in the first person by Mike, a soldier just home from a tour in the Middle East. This isn’t so much a story about the struggle to reintegrate as it is about the despair that settles after the struggle to reintegrate is revealed to be useless. Mike’s voice is laced with bitterness, sadness, annoyance and, in the astonishing final line of the story, an unbearably painful rage. Saunders is good at creating characters; Mike may be his best.
David Miscavige – Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief
In Lawrence Wright’s masterful Scientology expose, he brings the people of the story vividly to life, from celebrities to ground-level workers to the founder himself. But no character leaps off the page with as much electricity as Miscavige, Hubbard’s second in command during Hubbard’s declining years and, after a masterful power-grab, the leader of the Church of Scientology. Wright paints Miscavige as calculating but also explosive, as intelligent as he is merciless, as devious as he is vicious, but also as a puzzling enigma, as, ultimately, everyone on the inside of Scientology must remain. Is he, after all, a true believer using every faculty at his command to protect the true faith? Or is he a conniving manipulator using every faculty at his command to accrue wealth and power? At the end of Wright’s book, you’ll be 95% certain which one, but that other 5% will keep you up for a few nights. And once you realize that other readers are 95% certain in the other direction . . . well, that’s a great character.
Boris Pavlikovsky – The Goldfinch
Pavlikovsky is a supporting character in The Goldfinch, but he’s easily the most vivid character. He enters the story of the main character, Theo Decker, when they’re both in high school in Arizona; Boris is, strangely enough, a drugged out Russian kid with ties to the Russian mob. He only gets more interesting. Should I give more details? I should not. But he’s fascinating, fully realized and he pops right off the page.
Tom Sherbourne – The Light Between Oceans
Tom Sherbourne is a soldier back from war; he’s finally found his peace: an isolated post as a lighthouse keeper on a deserted island with a beautiful wife that he loves. But that peace is to be short lived and Tom Sherbourne will learn to know his wife and himself in a different way by the time the story is through. Sherbourne is a deeply empathetic character; his struggles speak directly to the reader on a visceral emotional level.