Often the term “hero” and “main character” or “protagonist” are used interchangeably. But in truth there is very little heroic about the main characters in stories. They may be decent people who do good things, but being heroic is quite different. There needs to be a sacrifice for the greater good to be a genuine hero. Jay Gatsby isn’t a hero, and neither is Holden Caulfield. Even Leopold Bloom, who is quite explicitly based on Ulysses, is not much of a hero. So here are my favorite Top Ten list of real heroes from literature. I intentionally left out anything from the Classical Greek or Roman tales because they would obviously dominate the list.
10 Figaro from The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, and The Guilty Mother by Pierre Beaumarchais – I may be playing favorites by including this one, but Figaro may be the best character is all of literature. He tells the nobles what they need to hear and he uses his wits to get over on them.
9 Don Carlos from Don Carlos by Friedrich Schiller – The Roman Catholic King Philip II of Spain went to war against all Protestant countries since they were heretics. In the Schiller play, Philip’s son Carlos stands up to him and defends the people of Holland whom he would oppress, even though it would cost the prince his life.
8 Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens – Sydney becomes a selfless hero who sacrifices himself for love as well as for the cause of revolution. You would think much of him when you see him at the beginning of the novel where he’s a selfish drunken barrister.
7 Robert Jordan from For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway – We already know that Robert Jordan is heroic in his devotion to his politics and his voluntary work as a demolitionist in the Spanish Civil War working for the loyalists. But he learn to love his new family rebels and lays his life down for them to save theirs.
6 Abraham van Helsing from Dracula by Bram Stoker – You may not know that Bram is the diminutive for Abraham. Bram Stroker wrote Abraham van Helsing seeing himself as the brave hero who fights evil monsters.
5 Wilhelm Tell from Wilhelm Tell by Friedrich Schiller – The legend of Wilhelm Tell long predates the play by Schiller, but it is the stagework that stapled him down as a hero for the world to admire and not just the Swiss.
4 Hamlet from Hamlet by William Shakespeare – Hamlet never sought out to be a hero, and he clearly struggled with his responsibilities. Some think him unheroic because of his wishy-washiness, but he is the thoughtful and deliberate hero who doesn’t rush in blindly without thinking. Most other people in his place couldn’t be a Hamlet, but a maybe a J. Alfred Proofrock.
3 Beowulf from Beowulf (anon.) – This epic of unknown authorship is about a Scandinavian hero, and yet this is considered a towering work of English literature. Go figure. But no one can deny his heroism, fighting monsters and dragons, and living well by the ancient desire to seek fame.
2 Jean Valjean from Les Miserables by Victor Hugo – This is the quiet hero who’s great works are unseen and unknown. His love was obvious to his adopted daughter, but his sacrifice her and her husband and for so many others is unknown until he dies
1 Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee – Maybe the nicest guy in all of literature. Just thinking of his greatness makes me cry. He stands against racism and other forms of showing respect of persons regardless to the cost for him.
So what do you think of the list? What would you have done differently? Who would you have included, and who would you have left out? Let me know in the Comment section below. If you want to make your own top ten list of heroes, let me know about it. Post your list in the Comments, or if your post yours online, give me the link in the Comments so that others can see your list, too. And please hare this others who love good stories and great heroes.