I haven’t posted anything vaguely writerly for a while, probably because I haven’t been reading or writing lately — but I have been watching a lot of movies. So, splicing these together, tell me who are your most memorable characters in literature and film — and why.
Just kidding. Unless some unfortunate potty-training incident left you fixated at the Enid Blyton stage of your psychosexual development, I bet the characters you’re thinking of are almost exclusively villains. I also bet it’s a lot easier to list a dozen nefarious bastards than it is to name a top three. Of course lists are totally subjective, but also I think they’re a useful late-night exercise more illuminating perhaps than a Myers-Briggs exam, if only we could agree what a preference for Batman, say, over Superman actually signifies. They both wear their underpants on the outside, so that isn’t it. But putting all the hard stuff to one side (because it’s late, and I don’t have the answer) here’s my list!
Bronze in the film-favourites category goes to Annie Wilkes, played by Kathy Bates in ‘Misery’ (1990). Why? Because of all the monsters Stephen King has created, she is the one you’re most likely to meet. The hobbling scene (an amputation/cauterisation in the book) is one of the most horrific acts of violence I’ve ever viewed. As if a writer’s lot is not grim enough: peddling your stories to obscure, ill-paying magazines and literary journals that nobody reads, imagine ‘making it’ and discovering Annie is your number-one fan. I mean, with admirers like that, who needs Brian Reynolds Myers?
Silver in film has to go to Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins in ‘Silence of the Lambs’ (1991). The creepy noise he makes after delivering his ‘fava bean’ monologue contemptuously to poor Clarice makes me jump every time. Forget the allegedly transmisogynistic portrayal of Buffalo Bill for a sec — because if that’s all you’re getting out of the film then it’s time to climb out from under the massive chip on your shoulder — this is your evil cannibalistic genius incarnate. We are in the presence of cinematic greatness.
The gold award for most memorable filmic character of all time (for me) goes to Roy Batty, played by Rutger Hauer in ‘Blade Runner’ (1982). Batty steals every scene he’s in, but none more so than his dying monologue, which for me provided an unlooked-for epiphany. Deckard (Harrison Ford) is the fifth replicant, and nobody can pass the Voight-Kampff test. Hauer demonstrates this by revealing himself more human than Deckard. This is Frankenstein redux: “I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel.” [ED: I was going for erudite there. Does that make me seem erudite? I hope so.]
Bronze in the fiction category goes to Humbert Humbert, the protagonist in ‘Lolita’ (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov. Intensely uncomfortable reading. Read it once, and you’re shocked to sympathise with a predator who kidnaps and rapes a twelve year old girl for two years. Read it a second time and you stop blaming the girl; but can you read it a second time? That Vanity Fair once described this novel as ‘the only convincing love story of our century‘ makes me want to gag. It is the diary of a self-absorbed monster.
Silver in fiction goes to Bran Stoker’s infamous Count in ‘Dracula’ (1897), not just because I found the character particularly interesting, but because of his enduring presence in the ouevre as a, if not the Gothic icon — horror and sexuality combine in ‘Dracula’ like water rupturing a dam. Without Stoker, would we have had Anne Rice, Richard Matheson or John Ajvide Lindqvist? The list of contenders is tantalising, but the bloody crown still rests with a slim Gothic horror novel by a beardy Irish bloke.
The gold medal and first place goes to the only good guy in this post — the character of Ralph, from William Goldings’ ‘Lord of the Flies’. Might seem an odd choice to some, but remember, this is MY list — the plight of selfless, civilised Ralph on that unnamed island marks the point where I matured into an adult reader. I suddenly ‘got’ the subtext. This was no ‘Boys Own Adventures’ type read, where all the characters retire to the tuck-shop for sweets after some rollicking adventure, oh no. They sharpened a stick at both ends and then began hunting Ralph. The single most chilling scene in English Literature.
So what does it signify that I found Clarice boring, Deckard wooden, or that I can’t remember the actor who played the author in ‘Misery’? Is it because the writer/director invested more in the villain, so they are more fully-realised than the heroes, or is it because I recognise myself in these creatures? There’s got to be a better explanation than — ‘I just like it’ — but I guess if I ever crack that particular secret, then you’ll be reading about me on the New York Times’ bestseller list!
Just don’t hold your breath.