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English Professor Helps To List '100 Greatest Literary Characters'

James Plath
Laura Kennedy
The heat of spirited discussion forged the list of 100 greatest characters.

Jay Gatsby made the list. So did Hester Prynne, Huckleberry Finn and Harry Potter. 

Chances are, one of your favorites made the list of “The 100 Greatest Literary Characters,” the latest book from Illinois Wesleyan University English professor James Plath, along with two co-authors. The volume cherrypicks those fictional characters who have captured the hearts and imaginations of readers while making a lasting cultural impact. 

Creating this book was a work of joy, explained Plath. It was done for the pure pleasure of it, but he couldn’t do it alone. He was joined by Gail Sinclair and Kirk Curnutt as fellow raiders of the pages, not only for their valuable input, but because Plath received devastating news just as he was beginning the book project.

“Shortly after I signed on, I found out I had lymphoma,” Plath revealed. “I was still going to go ahead and power through. But after two years of chemo and treatments, the project got pushed to the back burner and I couldn’t keep up. And so I recruited two of my colleagues.” 

Having two additional voices chiming in on what make a character worthy of inclusion helped to improve the manuscript, said Plath.

Plath and book
Credit Laura Kennedy / WGLT
Curl up in a chair with a few great characters....or all 100 of them...

"In an ideal world, 100 co-authors would have been preferred. But then it would take 100 to get that book out because there would be so much disagreement,” he laughed. “We had enough disagreement just among the three of us.” 

“It’s tough narrowing things down. We were also very concerned about things like are we going for coverage, are we going for a broad spectrum? Are we consciously trying to make this book about more than just the 100 greatest fictional characters? How do we define the 100 greatest?” 

In setting their parameters, Plath and his co-authors decided not to limit themselves to just those characters most readers got to know in high school literature classes. You’ll find Katniss Everdeen from “The Hunger Games” and Daenerys Targaryen from “Game of Thrones” alongside of Anna Karenina from ... well, “Anna Karenina.” Pop culture and classic fiction were given equal weight. 

Given the millions of books that have been published since Gutenberg got printing, Plath admitted that it’s virtually impossible to come up with a definitive collection of 100 greatest literary characters. 

“Once you accept that, then you look at how to narrow it down,” Plath said. “We leaned heavily in the direction of time-honored reader favorites, prototypes and cultural influencers; characters that have become larger than their lives on the page. We prioritized those that have entered the collective public consciousness.” 

That earned Ebenezer Scrooge a place on the list. Same for James Bond.  

“Characters that were influentially models for other to follow and ones that have been so popular with readers that they have become significant, memorable, even beloved. We narrowed it down that way and put an emphasis on pop culture.” 

Sherlock Holmes was a natural for the list because the great detective, created by Arthur Conan Doyle, has become entrenched in pop culture. “That’s the direction we leaned. Characters that were so big that they are a part of culture now.” 

There’s a few surprises in the book, as well. Plath chose the character of Philbert Bono, from “Powwow Highway” by David Seals. 

“Most people would draw a blank on that,” said Plath. “The reason I could justify including him and not other colorful characters is that they made a movie out of the book, and Roger Ebert commented that it was probably one of the best characters he’s ever seen in a film. And it’s the same way in the book. Because of Ebert’s stamp of approval and the fact that it grew beyond just an indie publication, we were able to justify a character who burst those pages and became something more.” 

The trio of authors tussled a bit over which characters to include in the book. 

“We met in person to talk about our lists,” explained Plath. “We argued for quite a long time. And then we went back and forth over email, we had telephone conference calls. Each time we’d have a list of more recommendations to go to.  We would argue quite a bit.” 

Finally, the authors settled on their list, which included some classics that Plath admitted he hadn’t read before the book project. 

“One of them was 'The Tin Drum' by Gunter Grass. I was so mesmerized by the character of Oskar. And without this project, I would not have been introduced to him. And that’s kind of the feeling that we hope some of the readers will get as they scope out some of these choices.” 

“Let’s be clear: this is our list of the 100 greatest characters. And we understand perfectly that readers will agree with some choices and question others. That’s OK! After all, isn’t that part of the nature of such lists?” 

“We hope that in an age when so many other things vie for people’s attention, our list can spark a return to libraries and bookstores, as much as it prompts debate or controversy.”


Why do fictional characters mean so much to us?

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the name of the university where Plath teaches. It's Illinois Wesleyan, not Illinois State.

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.