During their time on our creative writing courses, students get advice, lessons, and the chance to pitch to top agents from Curtis Brown and Conville & Walsh. Great characters are vital to making your novel stand out from the crowd. So we asked some of our literary-agent colleagues to tell us about their favourite characters from literature, whether heroes, villains or somewhere between the two.
I hope my other authors won’t be offended if I choose George Smiley from John le Carré’s novels. He appears in le Carré’s first novel, Call for the Dead, and the book opens with ‘A Brief History of George Smiley’, where we learn his unfaithful wife describes him as ‘breathtakingly ordinary’. Short, fat and of quiet disposition, he is the perfect anti-hero – or more appropriately the anti-Bond. I love his role in all the novels: a man at war with himself, his facility to love, his feelings for his country.
His ability to get to the heart of a situation through painstaking analysis and extraordinary interrogation skills, coupled with his own personal vulnerabilities, makes for one of the most complex characters in fiction. No wonder so many actors have wanted to play him on screen/tv – from Denholm Elliott to Alec Guinness (even Arthur Lowe) and James Mason to Gary Oldman. I would have loved to see Philip Seymour Hoffman have a go. He is both familiar and unreachable. He lives beyond the pages of the novels he inhabits and his world weariness belies a deep, romantic belief that the world could be better. A truly great character. If you have enjoyed Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or Smiley’s People, do read The Secret Pilgrim as he returns to the training academy and holds forth on his wisdom. We need more Smileys in this world
– Jonny Geller, Curtis Brown joint CEO and literary agent
My favourite fictional character of all time is Rotten Ralph from the picture book series of the same name written by Jack Gantos and illustrated by Nicole Rubel. Ralph is a baddie and a goodie all wrapped up in one, and the first character I ever came across with real depth. Of course, I was four years old at the time, but Ralph has stuck with me and I still find him captivating.
– Lauren Pearson, Curtis Brown agent (Children’s books)
Odeline from Chaplin & Company by Mave Fellowes. She is utterly infuriating in her ‘me and only me’ little bubble as she shambles along in her Chaplin shoes thinking she is going to make it as a Charlie Chaplin impersonator. She can’t see vulnerability and neediness in others, she looks at them with disdain. But then she has a very painful journey to make, to turn her into a decent human with compassion. She is someone I love to hate!
My other favourite is Ruby from The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton. She is profoundly deaf, cannot speak, very young and undefeated in that way children often are. She thinks and describes vividly without losing her childlikeness. Her story is epic, so brave and determined.
– Alice Lutyens, Curtis Brown agent and audio manager
Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley has got it all: a devil you admire, someone you know it would chill you to the bone to meet and yet who you’d desperately want to meet; an immoral character whose skills of self-protection seem to a create a morality all of their own; a man who has been a lover but who can probably never truly love, given that his first love is himself; a character you can’t hate and yet you know it is wrong to love.
He threads in and out of Highsmith’s work like a brooding presence; even when he’s not there, if you’ve read a Ripley novel then you know that what might, for a better word, be called his ‘character values’ are at the very heart of how she creates her fictional worlds, so he’s somehow in the DNA of all her writing. One way or another he seduces his accomplices, his strangely compliant wife, his longsuffering housekeeper and his victims, and always gets away with it – but also always nearly doesn’t. Quite simply, he’s spellbinding, and even though he leaves a bitter taste in your mouth after every sampling, you go back for more.
– Gordon Wise, Curtis Brown agent and Vice President of the Association of Authors’ Agents.
There are so many people I’ve only met through the written word. But the first name that springs to mind is Dean. ‘…I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.’ In Jack Kerouac’s 1957 masterpiece, the majority of characters were loosely based or inspired by real people. They were labelled ‘the Beats’ and the novel features many, including Jack as Sal, Burroughs as Ray Lee and Ginsburg as Carlo Marx. But the star of the novel for me will always be Dean, based on Neal Cassady.
In On the Road, Dean is cast as the angel and devil. We don’t hate Dean for his actions because the reader is left feeling for him instead; Dean doesn’t recognize what a mess he is. He’s the flawed hero with no remorse and bad timing. In painting Dean, Kerouac gives the reader the biggest feeling you could have for a character, sympathy. He’s the one you don’t want to be, but want to meet. He’s the one you see on the street sometimes and maybe sometimes you cross the road to avoid. I think of Dean.
– Carrie Kania, Conville & Walsh agent and co-founder of the Society Club
One favourite character of mine is from a book published recently, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. I wouldn’t necessarily want to spend time with Nate, but Adele Waldman has created such an incredibly astute, knowing and funny portrait of the young male mind. I understood and was fascinated by all of Nate’s motivations, even if I didn’t agree with them!
– Carrie Plitt, Conville & Walsh agent and host of Literary Friction book show on NTS radio
As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our three- and six-month novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on submitting your novel to literary agents – and include sessions on writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter. Click for more information or to apply for our creative writing courses.