I am a character reader. I like themes; they add a lot to the messaging and ideas of a book. Worlds are awesome, I love closing my eyes and imagining slinging spells and exploring unknown wilds. But, at the end of the day, the real reason I show up to read a book, and the thing that defines many of my favorite books, is the characters.
I love people. I studied psychology in both undergrad and graduate school, and that passion has boiled over into my reading. Characters don’t always have to be deep or complex for me to love them. There are many tropes and identities that I adore. But, the characters I obsess over, the ones I find myself constantly thinking about, are those with a complicated story but a good heart. Here are examples of five characters I can’t stop thinking about.
1) Dalinar Kholin – Oathbringer: For those unfamiliar with the Stormlight Archive, it might be confusing why I chose the third book in a series. I just recently finished a Stormlight reread, and the thing that stood out to me the most was how astoundingly powerful I found Oathbringer – which focuses on a particular protagonist, Dalinar.
Dalinar is… a lot of things. He’s a hero, a father, a stubborn relic, a warrior, a messiah, a leader, a friend, and a monster to name a few. To say his past is troubled is an incredible understatement. He is a person who constantly lives in the shadow of who he was and what he did, as he struggles to become someone different. He is unlike any other characters I have read and I cherish him.
Dalinar isn’t a representation of wholesome redemption, he is an embodiment of the idea that your past is a part of who you are, and while you can’t escape it, you don’t have to let it define your future. People can change, if they want to. It isn’t easy, it will never be easy, but it is possible. I change my mind on whether I think he is a good person constantly. His very identity will have you question if it’s possible to weigh the actions a person takes in their life. If you commit a crime, is there a good deed you can do that balances it out? Sometimes I think yes, most times I think no.
Another thing I like about Dalinar is he is old. He has lived a life, he has learned lessons, but he’s not done living. He is still growing and evolving, and he likely will until the day he dies. The one tenet of his identity that remains constant is his drive to do better, to be better. And while he makes missteps and falls, he always gets back up, reorients himself, and keeps going. Dalinar is one of my favorite characters and I can’t stop thinking about him.
2) Turyin Mulaghesh – City of Blades: I know it sounds strange, but I like books about the horrors of war. War is an obviously complicated subject that has been examined from thousands of angles by some of the greatest minds in history, but almost all of them would agree that it is profoundly damaging to the people involved in it. As someone who has never been to war, and will likely never go to war, I find smart portrayals of the effects it has on the human mind equal parts sorrowful and captivating. Turyin Mulaghesh is my favorite pick from the myriad of characters who tell you their struggles through their stories.
Mulaghesh has this pervasive sense of exhaustion that permeates her character. She is just so tired, which seems fitting for someone who has seen the terrors that she has, regardless of whether or not they were justified. She is a walking personification of how taking lives tears off a part of the person doing the taking, no matter how much they distance themselves. Her viewpoints on conflict feel like they closely align with my own, and it breaks my heart in the best way possible to see her struggle.
Whenever I want to feel sad, I read Mulaghesh’s story. Her life is so incredibly tragic, yet somehow still hopeful – it’s inspiring. Her wounds inflict despair on the reader, but they aren’t just sad for sadness’s sake. Every scar on her body is a lesson learned and a step towards becoming a better person. Mulaghesh exhibits a self-awareness that elevates her character. She knows the mistakes she has made and owns them to push herself toward a better her.
Mulaghesh is a character that deserves rest, but she is the kind of person who keeps getting back up because there is always more that she can do. She has paid more than her fair price several times over, but the personal cost of her choices never slows her down. She is a beautifully complicated woman, and I find myself thinking about her life constantly.
3) Caius Crispus – Sailing to Sarantium: Sailing to Sarantium is a book about opportunity, indecisiveness, and accepting big changes in your life – themes so universal to the human experience that I refuse to believe that someone could read it without resonance. Caius Crispus, or Crispin as he likes to be called, is an old artist who thinks his life is winding down when he receives the opportunity to take a risk, go to the big city, and try to accomplish something grand. He has been spending his recent years mourning the loss of his family, and to move on feels like a betrayal. It is a terrifying choice that leaves him paralyzed and the focus of the book is on the big decisions that people need to make in life, and how they change us. His story is one about learning to live life regardless of where it takes us.
Crispin is just an agelessly relatable character. His story and struggles never feel like they don’t apply to my life and his experiences in Sailing to Sarantium have been a north star, leading me forward, ever since I read it. He feels like an avatar for growth and I often find myself reflecting on his experiences and lessons learned when searching for meaning in my own life.
On top of this, he’s an interesting protagonist personality-wise. He’s gruff and closed off emotionally, but there is still some kick in him. Watching life and love get slowly pushed back into him over the course of the story is wonderful and it makes his growth moments and emotional climaxes so memorable and touching. Conjuring his scowling face in my mind is all I need to start smiling uncontrollably.
I truly hope that when I reach the end of my life I manage to achieve the same levels of self-awareness and contentedness that Crispin arrives at over the course of his story. His life teaches you to appreciate the little things, to really see those around you, and to take pride in the journey, not the destination. There are definitely worse ethos to follow, and I have found few better.
4) Tommer Jillard – Saint’s Blood: Sometimes the characters that stick with you aren’t big, sometimes they have hardly any page time at all. Sometimes they are small support characters but have identities so big that they just pour off the page.
Tommer Jillard is a beautiful individual. He is the son of a villain and tyrant, a man that the heroes of de Castell’s Greatcoats are constantly struggling against. From the very beginning of his life, he has grown up in an environment that praised selfishness and greed. He was taught that the only thing that matters in life is what you can get away with, and he told that lesson to fuck right off.
There are a lot of characters who are the products of their surroundings, and later grow to be a better person – but I don’t think there are enough characters that are who they are despite their surroundings. People who are given nothing but hate and vitriol, and stand-up, back unbowed regardless. Not everyone can do it, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Oftentimes we are who we are because of the environment we grew up in, and we have to work hard to learn to be better. But, I think it is truly wonderful to see the rare character who turns from the easy life of domination and power, to forge a kinder yet more difficult path. I find that when I am in a difficult situation in my own life, thinking of Tommer’s strength gives me the resolve to do what is right.
5) Tehol Beddict – Midnight Tides: Malazan is a wonderland of characters I am obsessed with, and if you haven’t read it we have a full guide on why you should. I decided to only talk about a single character for the sake of brevity, and it was genuinely hard. But, really, if I had to pick a single character from Malazan it was always going to be Tehol Beddict.
I love a good 5D chess master; commanders of strategy and mental warfare that are so far ahead of the game that their opponents don’t even know they have lost yet. Of these mental masterminds, there are none that play out their machinations with as much style, grace, and humility as Tehol Beddict. He is just so unpretentious, and his absurd theatricality clashes incredibly well with his impressive ability to be humble, making him impossible not to love. Lots of characters in this trope are difficult because they usually exist as just a flavorless pit that readers can shove their feelings of inadequacy into. They are suave, flawless, and effortlessly in control. Tehol is a lovable disaster, and it makes him so much more impressive and believable.
Tehol’s rags to riches story is just so odd it’s hard not to be obsessed with it. He is a character completely unmoored from time and reality, watching the rest of the story going by from the outside – yet still affecting its flow. He’s one of the few Malazan characters I wish I got to spend more time with simply because the joy of Tehol isn’t just his grand plans and brilliant reveals, but the weird quiet downtime that he spends in a towel talking to a chicken. He is the perfect combination of weird and admirable – there is nothing about him I would change.
Finally, while Tehol is character enough for a spot on this list by himself, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about how he is also defined by odd relationships to the side characters around him. In particular, his partnership with his immaculate butler Bugg is as strange as it is wonderful. I have always struggled to classify my feelings towards the occupations of personal service to single people. Sometimes I feel like it is debasing and dehumanizing, other times it feels honorable and meaningful. Bugg’s relationship with Tehol has complexity and does a wonderful job examining both sides of the coin to give readers food for thought. Tehol, and his menagerie of acquaintances, are possibly my favorite characters to think about in my ever-expanding library, and that should count for a lot.