Larger than Life Characters

It’s Friday Fiction time!  I recently read a great post by Literary Agent Kate McKean (top ten things agents and editors want to see every day of the week) and noticed a phrase she used to tell people not to wallow over their rejection: “Don’t go all Havisham over it . . .”  Of course, having read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, I knew immediately what she meant. Miss Havisham was a character who grieved desperately for years over a lost love. It didn’t hurt that I had also read Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde in which Miss Havisham also plays a significant role.

Miss Havisham, a purely fictional character, is well known and has come to represent extensive self-pity. I wondered about other fictional characters who are indeed larger than life – those concoctions of an author’s mind who take on their own identity and become conversational touchpoints.

I could nominate a few:

Don Juan & Donna

Don Juan. The famous lover was likely first introduced by Spanish dramatist (and Roman Catholic monk) Tirso de Molina, who wrote a play which included Don Juan. More famous renderings are Lord Byron’s poem Don Juan, Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, and Don Juan de Marco, a film starring Johnny Depp, Marlon Brando, and Faye Dunaway (which I love). Say “Don Juan,” and we all think of a consummate seductor and lover.

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Should this count as one character or two? We hear this one in conversation quite a lot as well, indicating a split personality – one of which is a-okay, while the other is certifiable. Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 tale, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, is related by a London lawyer who investigates the strange goings-on involving his friend Dr. Jekyll and the evil Mr. Hyde. But we use the phrase not really to talk about the psychiatric condition of dissociative identity disorder (aka multiple personality), but usually someone who inexplicably changes tone or manner.

Sherlock Holmes. Typically, it’s just Sherlock . . . as in “No duh, Sherlock!” (Or “No ___, Sherlock!”) Arthur Conan Doyle brought us the brilliant, if odd and opium-addicted, detective who solved numerous mysteries for Scotland Yard with Dr. Watson at his side. The first published work, A Study in Scarlet, appeared in 1887 and spawned four novels and 55 more short stories. “Elementary, my dear Watson” is a common phrase, and references to someone being Sherlock means they are truly brilliant, or you are using irony to mock their stupidity. Either way, we all know what you mean.

The Cheshire Cat. Lest you think me homo sapien-centered, may I suggest that the Cheshire Cat is larger than life as well? Lewis Carroll‘s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass popularized the Cheshire Cat and his tell-tale grin, even though “grinning like a Cheshire cat” was used beforehand. Yet, a regional phrase like that might have died out but for the fictional character who gave us a mental picture of a large smile, so big that the cat even disappears before its grin.

"...with some fava beans and a nice chianti."

Hannibal Lecter.  Hannibal Lecter is a cannibalistic serial killer introduced in The Red Dragon and memorialized in the sequel and movie, The Silence of the Lambs.  If you mention Hannibal in a conversation about hunger, people know exactly what you are talking about.  Hannibal Lecter has come to stand for cannibalism itself.  And for crazy as well.  But don’t the two things go hand-in-hand?  We can thank horror author Thomas Harris for bringing us this character and reprising him in two more novels, Hannibal and Hannibal Rising.

Ethan Hawke as Starbuck

Starbuck.  Little did Herman Melville know that his fictional character of Starbuck, the first mate to Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, would become the name of an international chain of coffee shops.  But it does make me wonder what the Seattle partners, Gordon Bowker and Terry Heckler, would have named their restaurant instead.  And wouldn’t we miss out on seeing that mermaid on the cups?  So thanks, Melville.

What do you think?  Are there are fictional characters whose presence is so impactful that they have joined our vernacular?  Their names have become representative of a concept or condition?  Who would you add to my list?

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6 thoughts on “Larger than Life Characters

  1. Fun new blog design, Julie!This is a great list.A few others who come to mind: Romeo, Oedipus, and Lady Macbeth. I think they are all used to describe people who act a certain way. Though maybe not as widely known as your examples. I wonder what modern novels will inspire this kind of cultural significance? Harry Potter? Or maybe Snape? Will we call a know-it-all a Hermoine?

  2. I guess I could add Al Paciino in Scarface when he says, "Say hello to my little friend". Everyone knows he's referring to a gun. That's about all I can think of to add. I loved this post. Well done.Patti

  3. I'm feeling pretty dumb here, but I can't think of a single one. I've heard people make reference to Dorian Gray in regular conversation. I've also heard references to Hamlet when talking about someone who is indecisive. I'm sorry I can't come up with anything more interesting! Great blog.

  4. WHAT a fantastic post, Julie! Hannibal is definitely worthy of making this list. BTW, Great Expectations is one of my ALL TIME FAVORITES to read and/or watch. Captain Jack and Harry Potter are not as serious a role as you've mentioned in your post, but I think they qualify today as larger than life characters. I also agree 100% with Erin – Shakespeare's characters (almost every single one of them) make the list.

  5. This was one of my favorite fiction posts. I had to scan the list to ensure that Hannibal Lecter was listed…he has been a favorite of mine ever since my 1st viewing of the Silence of the Lambs. I confess, he has chased me through some terrifying scenes in my nightmares. If I ever need inspiration for a villain, it's Hannibal.

  6. Shakespeare's characters often qualify! How many times have you heard someone called Romeo? (I can't believe I didn't include any of them!) I guess Hannibal stuck with several others as one of the creepiest fictional characters ever.Erin & Tiffany – Interesting thoughts about Harry Potter! I do wonder if it will be a main character, or maybe Dobby (elf-like) or Hagrid (gigantic). The series is certainly well known enough to get the characters into everyday conversation. (I don't want it to be Voldemort because we already have Hannibal. No more scary guys!)

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