The world of fiction is teeming with larger than life, unforgettable characters, some thanks to their spandex (Superman), aggressive antics with a sword (Xena) or brawn (Wolverine). Many of these memorable characters are memorable because of the history come legend behind them. This is particularly true for comic book characters, regardless of who the on-screen actor is or who wrote the latest comic installment, the Hulk is still pure green awesomeness, as is Captain America with his silly little shield or Catwoman with her whip and S&M get-up.
But these aren’t really the characters I’m talking about. The characters I’m talking about are those that worm their way under our skin, take up residence in the soft spot of our hearts and haunt us long after we turn the last page or have watched the credits role. While I’m reading/watching I can become totally attached to the characters to the point of feeling like they’re almost real people in my life that I’d like to hang out with on a Friday night. But, seldom to these characters linger in my mind after I’m done with their story. The exceptions to this, however, are worth discussing.
What makes a character linger at the back of your mind? Looking at the characters that hang around like ghosts in my imagination, they share a few similarities:
- They’re male. Nothing sexist here, just that I have a softer spot for boys in general.
- They’re male and good-looking and that certainly helps me remember them.
- They’re male and vulnerable – I think that’s what gets me every time, the dichotomy of masculinity and vulnerability/sensitivity.
- They’re tortured, haunted characters forced to survive impossibly tough circumstances while maintaining their sensitivities and not becoming hard-as-nails action studs.
- They’re stoic. Despite their vulnerabilites and impossible circumstances, they take the s**t life deals them and soldier on without complaint. I have huge respect for stoic people (real life and fiction).
So according to those criteria, here are my top three memorable characters:
Henry Letham (Ryan Gosling) from the film Stay
Henry is a troubled kid prone to bouts of self destruction including self-harm. He’s an artist (that alone will get me every time) and obsessed with an artist famous for destroying his works before taking his own life – which is a very unsubtle parallel to Henry’s life.
While the film is beautiful in terms of cinematography, poignant and surreal, it’s Henry Letham (yes, that’s an anagram for Hamlet – hinting at the darker elements of the story) that steals the show. It’s a tricky movie to discuss without giving up the punchline but suffice to say that the ghosts Henry is forced to confront are decidedly more ‘real’ than the average Casper.
A broken boy with soulful eyes and quiet stoicism, he deals with inner demons, never complaining, never blaming others for his situation. In fact, part of his problem is assuming responsibility for a world of wrongs that aren’t his fault.
I’ve watched this film many, many times over the past few years since I first saw it and still Henry Letham emerges whenever I’m creating new characters as a reminder to temper self-destructive tendencies with gentleness and grace.
Ghost from the book Lost Souls
This is the only book I read once, finished and then started reading again immediately. I’ve since read it another three times at least. Yes, it’s a book about vampires and contains a rather colourful cast of blood drinkers but it’s a non-vampire that insinuated himself into the chambers of my heart, to forever haunt the fair haired boys of my stories yet unwritten.
Ghost, a southern boy with a big heart and a huge capacity for love and understanding. Selfless, sensitive and gentle, Ghost (the name alone does it) plays in a band (that he’s a musician has the same effect on me as a boy being an artist – an instant increase on the sensitivity/vulnerability meter) with his rather reckless and self-indulgent best friend, and frequently has to help Steve out of trouble. Beneath all that straw-hat and bicycle streamer sensitivity, Ghost is a strong, stoic (yes, my favourite word and trait) guy who doesn’t hesitate to defend those in need, to support his friend in trouble and fight to the death to protect those he loves.
There’s also an air of mysticism surrounding Ghost, a preternatural element that lingers in his aura adding to the haunting quality of his character – as if his name wasn’t enough. Ghost is the unassuming side-kick, the quiet guy in the background who doesn’t need the limelight, who does what he knows is right even when it’s difficult. Every time I read this book I fall in love all over again with Ghost. In the time between reads, that love remains as fondness for a character I’ll never be able to forget.
Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) from the TV series Friday Night Lights *spoiler alert*
Tim Riggins is a tough guy footballer, known to drink too much and get into fights. When not on the field shoving his team mates around, he’s drinking or shagging rally girls and that’s about it. On the surface. But there’s a hell of lot a more to Tim Riggins, and the writers of the show took all five seasons to show just how many layers there were to this character.
Of all the many outstanding characters in this ensemble series Riggs steals the show precisely because he’s a tough guy with a soft heart who makes a series of a bad to worse choices that had me railing at the TV screen demanding to know why the writers felt it necessary to make sensitive, vulnerable Riggs the whipping boy of the show. Riggs is the guy who’s guaranteed to do all the wrong things for all the right reasons like sleep with his best friend’s girl – not because he’s an asshat but because he genuinely loves said girl. He gets involved with illegal chop-shopping not just to make a quick buck but to help his brother out who’s got a kid on the way and who’s broke. Riggs then takes the fall and goes to jail for his brother, glad to give his nephew the father Riggs himself never had.
There is nothing more gut-wrenching than watching a 6-foot 85kg fullback football player break down in tears… that alone is enough to choke me up, and that it happens more than once in the series is indicative of the softer side few if any people ever realise. Here’s a kid with tons of problems, loads of baggage, no parental role model in sight who still manages honour and integrity even when life showers him with rotten lemons. Tim Riggins has made me re-examine the way I think my male protagonists and I now find myself asking, “What would Riggins do?”
A story can have swashbuckling adventure, edge-of-your-seat suspense, jackhammer action, rosebud romance and a dozen other outstanding elements, but if the story doesn’t have heart, doesn’t have a character in whom I can emotionally invest, then that story falls flat and no amount of explosions, erotica, thrills or chills will fill that void.
So, these are a few of my most memorable characters and why. Who are yours?