I doubt I could ever manage to create a Top Ten List for my favorite stories of all time simply because I’ll never stop finding new stories (at the time of this writing, I’m currently reading The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes and loving it). But I can put together a list of my all-time favorite characters.
10. Molly Millions (Neuromancer)
One of my favorite novels is Neuromancer by William Gibson, a classic story of injustice and high-tech counterculture that gave rise to the cyberpunk genre. And what really sold that story for me was Molly, a “street samurai” with mirror lenses grafted over her eyes and retractable claws in her fingers. The moment she appears on the scene, everything safe goes out the window and we truly enter the dark cyberpunk world of Gibson’s creation.
She’s a new kind of femme fatale: deadly to her enemies, aloof to her friends, and a dark mystery to everyone else. The fact that she’s female hardly seems to matter, given how much she swaggers through the story like a bandit. While there is an affection deep inside her that characters like Case and Kumiko bring out, it doesn’t make her any less of a sharp-witted razor-girl who can’t resist a fight and won’t let a grudge slide. And though it’s easy to see other cyberpunk heroines like Trinity from The Matrix as descended from Molly, few have the same passion and menace as her.
9. Caine (The Acts of Caine)
Besides all the success he’s had with his Star Wars novels, Matthew Stover has really shined in developing Hari Michaelson, otherwise known as Caine, the brutal fighter and well-read antihero of the Acts of Caine series. In many ways, Caine represents some of the worst of humanity: brutish, sarcastic, crude, bloodthirsty, apathetic, and unconcerned with other people. He’s frequently touted as being a mass murderer and a harbinger of chaos and destruction.
But the thing about Caine is that he’s a bad guy on the side of the angels. He’s an asshole because he has an ex-wife, daughter, or best friend who needs saving. He’s a monster to those who abuse others. In short, Caine is a wish fulfillment character who beats the shit out of people who deserve it. And it’s a credit to Stover’s writing that Caine’s actions are never glossed over, even while we try to be sympathetic to his past and his family life. We may not want Caine as our friend, but if there’s a god who needs to be slapped around for His Own Good, we know just who to call.
8. GLaDOS (Portal, Portal 2)
Female characters in video games are usually stereotyped as large-breasted, scantily-clothed, eye candy that male players can earn as a prize. So of course Valve goes and develops a female villain who is not human, definitely not sexy (unless you count Ellen McLain’s voice), and spawning endless jokes at your expense while she’s trying to murder you. And then trying to pretend to be your friend.
That is GLaDOS. Even what happens in the second half of Portal 2 doesn’t diminish her ruthless personality or her resourcefulness. Much like Caine, GLaDOS is a dark soul, but there’s something so entertaining about her cruelty and the strange way she “cares” for others. And no one can stay mad at her with such a lovely singing voice.
7. Death (Discworld)
In let’s say around ninety-five percent of fiction, the specter of death is something to be feared and avoided. Human beings want to live, end of story. But sometimes death isn’t scary. Sometimes the Grim Reaper isn’t so bad once you get to know him. So God bless Terry Pratchett for giving us Death in his Discworld series, an anthropomorphic personification who tries so hard to understand human beings and leads an otherwise lonely existence as the End of All Things. In a strange way, it makes sense for him to be heroic because he’s always there for human beings. He tries to make friends and family, and will fight for them no less fiercely than any man–living or dead. And if the thought of Death taking over as a Santa Claus-type figure during the holidays doesn’t warm your heart, then nothing will. This is the kind of face Death should wear: not a terrifying spirit, but a friend greeting us with a considerate nod.
6. Twilight Sparkle (My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic)
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a brony and I regularly watch episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. No audience should ever feel ashamed to be watching something “made for girls” (otherwise what’s the point of Disney princesses?) and the revival of this show has taken that point home.
One of the best arguments to make for that show is its lead, a purple unicorn named Twilight Sparkle. She’s a curious female character in that she has no obvious love interest and isn’t two-dimensional. She loves books, but has a strong social life. She cares for her friends and tries to help them sort out their problems–and accepts their help when she’s having problems of her own. Like freaking out about tests and special occasions gone wrong. And did I mention she’s voiced by the talented Tara Strong? Twilight’s the kind of three-dimensional character that should be seen more often in fiction, let alone in children’s programming.
5. Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit)
Out of all the characters in The Lord of the Rings, my favorite character isn’t even in the three books. He’s in the preceding book, The Hobbit. Bilbo Baggins is a curious hero. While he does eventually fight with a sword and face a fire-breathing dragon, he’s a reluctant companion on the dwarves’ quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain. Bilbo would rather be sitting back at home by the fireside, far from harm and distress. And he’s not even enlisted as a hero, but as a “burglar” to help the dwarves steal back their kingdom. He’s honest, clever, and unfailingly polite, even while scared out of his wits. He’s the hobbit we all feel like and the hero we’d all like to be.
4. The Doctor (Doctor Who)
No matter how many men portray him, there will always be a Doctor courtesy of the BBC. Always a mad and lovable vagabond whose TARDIS will take us anywhere in time and space. I think part of the Doctor’s appeal is that he’s the cool teacher everyone wants to have. He knows so much about the world and can make it enjoyable to learn half as many things as he’s forgotten. He’s also the kind of teacher who encourages his “students” (or if you prefer, Companions) to be better people, to be everything great in a human being. And thank God for that, because the recent Who series has shown us just how terrifying and deadly the Doctor can be when he doesn’t have human Companions to keep his ethics in check. Godlike he might seem, but he’s really just a clever and ancient being who can never stand a dull moment.
3. Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes stories)
Another classic British icon is the great detective Sherlock Holmes. Much like the Doctor, Holmes is renowned for his uncanny deductive reasoning, his skill as a fighter and adventurer, and his energy in pursuing the most baffling mysteries he can find. But that’s only half of the character as far as I’m concerned. The other half is his friendship with Dr. John Watson. It’s too easy to dismiss Watson as a cheap foil to Holmes’s intellect. Holmes needs Watson to keep his focus on a case and sometimes relies on his help in pulling off a quick scheme or plan of attack against a nefarious rogue. Having so few friends and being so isolated by his genius, it’s good to see Holmes recognize his need for a partner and a confidant. It adds a touch of humility and compassion that drives the action in every single Sherlock Holmes story–a drive that even brought the detective back from the dead in The Adventure of the Empty House. Now how’s that for camaraderie?
2. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Star Wars)
Whether he’s played by Alec Guinness or Ewan McGregor, I’ll always admire Obi-Wan Kenobi as the greatest Jedi Knight. Even though he trains Luke to be the hero and succeed where he failed, there’s something honest and noble about Obi-Wan. He never wrestles with his inner demons like how Luke and Anakin Skywalker did. He simply listens to the Force and finds a way to do what’s right. Much like Bilbo Baggins, Obi-Wan is a good example of a humble hero. He’d rather talk than fight and he’d rather wound than kill. He is integrity personified. And even when Obi-Wan fails as he did with Darth Vader, he still finds a way to succeed, just by being who he is.
1. Batman (Batman comics)
I was never a comic book fan, but ever since I was young, I’ve always been a fan of the Caped Crusader. I know I’ve written posts about the Dark Knight film trilogy before, but this goes beyond any one form of media. As a hero, Batman has always appealed to me more than obvious superheroes like Superman or Green Lantern. Despite the running jokes about “prep time” and a spare gadget for every scenario, Batman has no superpowers. He has a costume designed to instill terror, practices martial arts and street-fighting against armed criminals, and uses his mind alongside his gadgets to win the day. Like so many examples on this list, Batman represents the pinnacle of human achievement. But he’s also a flawed and tragic hero, one who can never stop trying to avenge his parents’ murder. The best he can do is protect others from harm and start his own family of fellow crimefighters. I love that we have a superhero who’s tragic without being hopeless, who’s powerful without being superpowered, and whose courage from the shadows can encourage others to be moral and courageous in the light.
Going over this list, I can tell that I have a liking for entertaining psychopaths, heroic sages and scientists, a unicorn scholar, and a man dressed like a bat. I like characters who aren’t dumb and either have quite a large dark side or avoid temptation through a very humble nature (read into that what you will).
I hope you found the list engaging. If you’ve got your own set you’d like to share, feel free to put it in the comments section below.