I find it hard to stick with a book that centres around a character I dislike, cannot relate to or don’t care about. These characters, either protagonist or evil villain, don’t have to be perfect (preferably not) but they have to have desires and challenges and take action in such a way that
I want to turn that page and race to the next chapter. I want to be able to cheer the hero on, weep when something tragic happens, or desperately hold my aching heart together in empathy. All this works so much better when the author has fashioned a bad guy who is a worthy opponent, a force to be reckoned with, who chews up the scenery and is so despicable they shock you at every turn.
Here are a few characters that stayed with me long after the book was over. Resonant and unforgettable.
24th Day of September
The stars and my family align to make my life black and miserable. My mother seeks to make me a fine lady–dumb, docile and accomplished–so I must take lady lessons and keep my mouth closed. My father, the toad, conspires to sell me like cheese to some lack-wit seeking a wife.
What makes this clodpole suitor anxious to have me? I am no beauty, being sun-browned and gray-eyed, with poor eyesight and stubborn disposition.
Corpus bones! He comes to dine with us in two days’ time. I plan to cross my eyes and drool in my meat.
(the delightful and rebellious Birdy from Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman)
Schoolmaster Bane slapped his pointer down on his desk and barked out a question. “What is the purpose of snow?”
The question floated out into the dead air of the classroom and over the bowed heads of the boys. Then it gave up hope and began to sink toward the floor.
Edwin heaved himself out of his desk and stood in the aisle. An answer surfaced in his head, and he gave it with a sure sense of defeat. Edwin had answers, but they were never the right ones.
Slap! The desk took another lashing from the pointer.
“No you scurvy lump of semifitted ne’er-do-well. Sit! Hugo!”
A bullet of chalk whizzed down the aisle and connected with the ear of the dozing Hugo.
(the mean Mr. Bane from The Several Lives of Orphan Jack by Sarah Ellis)
The Trunchbull lifted the water-jug and poured some water into her glass. And suddenly, with the water, out came the long slimy newt straight into the glass, plop!
The Trunchbull let out a yell and leapt off her chair as though a firecracker had gone off underneath her.
She stared at the creature twisting and wiggling in the glass. The fires of fury and hatred were smouldering in the Truncuhbull’s small black eyes.
“Matilda!” she barked. “Stand up!”
“Who me?” Matilda said. “What have I done?”
“Stand up you disgusting little cockroach! You filthy little maggot! You are a vile, repellent, malicious little brute!” The Trunchbull was shouting. “You are not fit to be in this school! You ought to be behind bars, that’s where you ought to be! I shall have the prefects chase you down the corridor and out the front-door with hockey-sticks!”
(the terrifying Miss Trunchbull from Matilda by Roald Dahl)
“What did I look like when I was born?”
“You didn’t have any clothes on,” I said.
“I know that,” he said.
“You looked like this.” I held the bread dough up in a round pale ball.
“I had hair,” said Caleb seriously.
“Not enough to talk about,” I said.
“And she named me Caleb,” he went on, filling in the old familiar story.
“I would have named you Troublesome,” I said, making Caleb smile.
“And Mama handed me to you in the yellow blanket and said…” He waited for me to finish the story. “And said…”
I sighed. “And Mama said, ‘Isn’t he beautiful, Anna?”
Caleb thought the story was over, and I didn’t tell him what I really thought. He was homely and plain, and he had a terrible holler and a horrid smell. But these were not the worst of him. Mama died the next morning. That was the worst thing about Caleb.
“Isn’t he beautiful, Anna?” Her last words to me. I had gone to bed thinking how wretched he looked. And I forgot to say good night.
(the heartbreakingly tender Anna from Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan)