What makes a great character?

What makes a great character?

I was reading Entertainment Weekly‘s 100 Greatest Characters of the Last 20 Years, and it got me thinking.

Of course, like any ranked list, that’s the intent.  🙂

I certainly disagreed with the list, but that’s not a surprise.  They have considerable extraneous factors to consider:

  • It’s pretty clear they only pick one character from each work.  If you pick Locke from Lost, you can’t pick anybody else.  Not Ben?  Not Hurley?  Not Sawyer?  That’s except when they cheated and included multiple characters as one listing (like Mulder and Scully getting a single slot)
  • I presume that who they could get to comment on the character affected it.  Will Ferrell wrote about Ron Burgundy…is that the best Will Ferrell character of the past 20 years, or just the one he wanted to do?  Did that move Ron Burgundy up past other characters without a commenter?
  • Popularity was clearly important (and that might be legitimate), as well as a presence in the visual media (movies, TV, videogames).  I found it a bit odd that the Harry Potter interview was with Daniel Radcliffe, not J.K. Rowling.  Rowling created Harry:  Radcliffe interpreted him.  No well-known big screen adaptation?  Not likely for inclusion…for example, no Stephanie Plum.  Oh, they did toss us Kavalier & Clay, and Cal Stephanides…but that’s a tiny minority

I’m not going to deal too specifically with their list.  I do want to say, though: Edward Scissorhands and no Captain Jack Harkness?  Really?  Okay, I’m done…wait!  Buffy is the best character on that show?  Not Spike?  Or Willow or Angel or…never mind, read it yourself.  🙂

So, back to the main question: what makes a great character?

Well, the first obvious answer is…character.  Great characters stand out.  They are different.  You might say, “That sounds like something so and so would say” to a friend.  If the character ever does something “out of character”, you know it.

How do we recognize character?  Visual is part of it.  We know Indy’s hat and whip.  We know Steed’s umbrella and bowler. 

Verbal is another way.  It could be famous lines, or a way of speaking.  Would John McClane be as famous without that “Yippi-ki-yay” line?  Would he be as good a character?  Would Spock be the same without “Fascinating” or quoting the odds?

It can certainly be a way of acting and thinking, but that’s harder to define.

How do we know a character has been successful? 

One thing is imitation.  If people dress up as the character on Halloween, that’s a good sign…although that’s a culturally recent phenomenon.  If there are imitation characters, that’s a good sign.

If the character lives beyond the original work, I take that as a marker of impact.  That’s especially true if it wasn’t what the character’s creator originally envisioned.

You may think spin-offs and crossovers are new phenomena.  We can certainly go back to Shakespeare’s Falstaff.  He appears in three of the bard’s plays, but also in operas, songs, and contemporary works.

That’s something else for me: the character can work independent of the original story.  Sherlock Holmes, who I would argue is one of the greatest characters of all time, has been inserted into many situations by different authors.  While he isn’t always the same, of course, he’s recognizable.

It can’t be just the way they fit into the original plot that makes them great characters.

It’s interesting, though.  Dr. Frank-n-Furter of Rocky Horror is clearly an exceptional character.  Imitation?  Definitely.  Character outside of the original context?  Not really, unless you count fan fiction.

Is that because the character in the original movie is that collaborative effort between screenwriter actor and director?  That combination hasn’t occurred again in this case.

Written characters may be easier to move to different plots, because they typically only take one person to create them.

Who comes to mind for me as great characters?  I’ll just list a few, in no particular order…

  • Sherlock Holmes
  • Spock
  • Captain Jack Harkness
  • Captain Jack Sparrow
  • Tarzan
  • Barney Fife
  • Kwai Chang Caine
  • Doc Savage
  • Dracula
  • Harry Mudd from Star Trek
  • Catwoman
  • Professor Challenger
  • Sue Sylvester
  • Fonzie
  • Hagrid
  • Herbie Popnecker
  • Austin Powers
  • James Bond
  • Mrs. Peel
  • The Prisoner
  • Darth Vader
  • Odysseus
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel
  • Zorro
  • Dr. Smith on Lost in Space
  • Doctor Who
  • Shere Kahn
  • Jack Pumpkinhead
  • The Shaggy Man
  • Button Bright
  • Artemus Gordon
  • Dr. Loveless
  • Dracula
  • The Robot on Lost in Space
  • Superman
  • Elric of Melnibone
  • Conan
  • Popeye
  • Dorothy Gale
  • Little Orphan Annie

Hmmm…I could keep going on and on.  I notice a preponderance of male characters, and of ones known during boomer times.  I’m sure if I thought about this, I’d come up with quite a broader list.

What do you think?  Who are some of the great characters?  Feel free to let me know.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the The Measured Circle blog.


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