Favourite ‘Troubled’ Characters

One of the categories in my Literary Listography is ‘Favourite Troubled Characters’. Writing down a few names for this reminded me of the fact that my favourite characters often fall into two distinct categories: the ‘troubled’ characters with hearts of gold (or, as I refer to them, disaster children) and the loyal, best friend characters (or, the Samwise Gamgee characters). I thought it would be fun to make a couple of posts detailing five of my favourites from each category.

Favourite ‘Troubled’ Characters:

Maggie Tulliver, The Mill on the Floss

Was there ever a character who made as many poor decisions with such good intentions as Maggie? Fiercely independent but hopelessly lost from the first moment the reader is introduced to her, it would be hard not to love her as she grows from an unruly child into an adult simply wishing to do the right thing. Her character is the real heart and strength of the whole novel, as the reader navigates the ups and downs of her life right to the tragic end. Maggie has instantly become one of my favourite characters of all time, and I’m already a little emotional thinking about everything she goes through in the novel.

Fred Vincy, Middlemarch

George Eliot is clearly the go-to for good-hearted ‘troubled’ characters. Fred is proud, idealistic, and stubborn; he is also humble enough to admit when he is wrong and fight for the things he loves. After his many mistakes and irresponsible spending, Fred has one of the most satisfying arcs in the novel as he turns his life around and works hard to become the person Mary believes he can be. Fred and Mary are one of my favourite literary couples because they balance each other so well: Mary is well-grounded and not afraid to stand up for herself; Fred’s irrepressible spirit helps her see more than her everyday life, but she needs to bring him back to reality every now and then.

Hamlet, Hamlet

From the very start of Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet is in a difficult situation; still mourning his father, unable to process his mother’s marriage to his uncle, and confronted by his father’s ghost, he embarks on a mission to prove that his father was murdered. He goes about this in the most convoluted way possible, becoming responsible for the deaths of several of the people closest to him even before the final showdown with Claudius. He is manipulative, impulsive, and incredibly stubborn; yet in his soliloquies, we see his struggles with his grief, his search for a purpose, the consequences of his actions. I have seen a few recent adaptations of Hamlet that have very much brought this struggle to the forefront, and it is hard not to feel sympathy towards him as he exposes the truth that no-one else believes.

Éponine Thérnardier, Les Misérables

Oh, Éponine. Having seen the musical adaptation of this novel before reading it, I went in already a little biased towards Éponine (by far my favourite character). However, I was surprised by how much more devastating her arc is in the novel in comparison to the musical. It is not just that her feelings for Marius are more confused, less certain: she is surrounded by chaos on every page, from her family, to her actions, to her thoughts. From her part in her family’s crimes to her unhealthy attachment to Marius, her thoughts and actions lead her further down the path to tragedy. I have a deep sympathy for Éponine, maybe more so than for any other character on this list; her poor decisions are made out of desperation and a lack of options in a way that makes her arc seem inevitable.

Emma Woodhouse, Emma

This list was getting a little tragic so I wanted to include another light-hearted disaster character. I often hear people describing Emma as annoying in the early part of the novel, but the more I read it the more I disagree with this. Emma may be privileged, vain, and manipulative, but she is a young woman who really just wants the best for her friends and family. Does she go about it in completely the wrong way and end up hurting people? Yes, absolutely. It’s hard for her to hear Mr. Knightley tell her the harsh reality of the effect her behaviour has had on those around her, but she takes his words to heart and tries to make amends. For all her faults, she is an endearing character, and one that I have appreciated more and more as I re-read this novel.

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