After compiling a list of my favorite literary heroines back in March, it’s only fair to devote a post to their male counterparts. Except that, well, I forgot about it for a while, until Sarah J. Higbee recently shared her own list. Thank you for the reminder, Sarah!
Featuring the same number of heroes here as I did with heroines proved tough. It’s not that I don’t like or admire male protagonists. I just happen to be drawn more to stories with female leads. But once I took a close look at my bookshelves, the eleven male characters I eventually picked started jumping out at me. (Not literally, but you know what I mean.) And I’ll admit, some of them won’t surprise you at all. 😉
Here they are, in alphabetical order:
1. Bilbo Baggins (J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit)
For a homebody steering clear of adventure, Bilbo Baggins truly reaps the benefits of his journey with Gandalf, Thorin Oakenshield, and the other Dwarves. He develops bravery through confrontations with trolls, Mirkwood spiders, Gollum – and finally, a greed-ensnared Thorin. It’s not easy to stand up to your friends when you disagree with them, yet Bilbo reminds us than doing what’s right isn’t always easy. Also, Bilbo holds firm to his values throughout The Hobbit. Even though he’s not the same Hobbit when he returns home, he still cherishes friendship and the simple joys of life. This isn’t lost on Thorin, who tells Bilbo during their final scene together, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” I couldn’t agree more.
2. Charlie Kelmeckis (Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower)
While most of the heroes on this list have done or experienced what we’d call “the extraordinary,” Charlie is more of an everyday hero. The Perks of Being a Wallflower follows this bright, introverted, sensitive boy as he navigates the choppy waters of his first year of high school. He’s forced to climb mountains such as socializing, friendship, and vulnerability, and past traumas have made these actions painfully difficult. Yet Charlie yearns for connection and learns to persevere. His struggles reminded me so much of my own from the same time in my life. Maybe that’s why I wanted to hug Charlie when I finished reading Perks. He made it through a year of hell with a few bumps and bruises, but with his soul still intact – and if he could do it, anyone can.
3. Christopher John Francis Boone (Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime)
Here’s another male character I wanted to embrace once I finished his story. Although knowing Christopher, he’d appreciate an algebra textbook more than a hug. The 15-year-old protagonist of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime has an autism spectrum disorder. He excels at mathematics, refuses to eat foods that are yellow or brown in color, and interprets metaphors at face value. However, Christopher’s condition isn’t the only thing that makes him memorable. He remains dedicated to solving the murder of his neighbor’s beloved dog Wellington, even when his father implores him not to get involved. Later, Christopher shows a similar determination to find his mother when he learns she’s still alive. For a character who struggles to understand or express emotion, Christopher still draws empathy from readers because of values that are universal despite differences in gender, age, cognition, and other factors.
4. Frodo Baggins (J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy)
He may not be first alphabetically, but Frodo Baggins was the first literary hero I thought of for this piece. He’s kind, curious, and gentle – and the most unlikely candidate to carry The One Ring to its destruction in Mordor. Yet when others argued about the quest’s purpose and who couldn’t be trusted with the ring, Frodo volunteered to be its bearer, even though he knew the price he might have to pay. No one can argue with that degree of bravery. I cheered for Frodo every step of the way, ached for him as he fell deeper and deeper into the ring’s poisonous thrall, and prayed he would come back around in the end.
4. Ged Sparrowhawk (Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle)
Of all the characters in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series, the legendary wizard Ged Sparrowhawk is the one I hold dearest. As the protagonist of the first installment A Wizard of Earthsea, he’s eager to learn magic but impatient with the training process. His arrogance leads him to attempt to call a spirit from the dead and loose a shadow-spirit on the realm that pursues Ged across the isles of Earthsea. Not only does Ged learn he must confront the spirit, but he realizes what it represents: his own evil, materialized. I’ve always loved what their meeting symbolizes, and how Ged accepts his darkness and becomes a stronger, better person – a wizard wise beyond his years and (as chronicled in Le Guin’s later Earthsea stories) one of the most important archmages in Earthsea’s history.
5. Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series)
Leave Harry Potter off this list? Are you kidding?! He’s smart, responsible, and one of the bravest fictional characters I’ve ever met. He endures the Tri-Wizard Tournament despite scrutiny from his classmates, the media, even his closest friends. He follows his instincts of going after the Horcruxes despite not knowing initially what to look for or where. And above all, Harry’s willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to save the people he loves and the only true home he’s ever had. Hermoine may be the brains of the trio, but you can’t argue that Harry absorbed everything he learned about wizardry and wand lore and used it to outmaneuver Voldemort. I also admired that Harry turned to other characters he trusted whenever he needed help. A hero may want to prove himself, but Harry understood that he couldn’t do everything on his own.
6. Jon Snow (George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice Saga / “Game of Thrones”)
Whether you watch the TV show, read the books, or do both, one of the constants has been the portrayal of Jon Snow. He’s one of the few characters in the Song Of Fire And Ice series with a clear moral compass, placing honor and integrity above ambition and desire. Being a bastard also forced him to grow up quickly and made him an outcast. Yet, Jon was always determined to prove his worth. What I admired most about Jon was his ability to make difficult choices. Sending the wildlings south of the Wall didn’t win him any popularity contests in the Night’s Watch – but John knew what would happen to the wildlings if he didn’t. I know what actor Kit Harington and the producers have said about Jon Snow’s fate at the end of Season 5… but I’m still clinging to a weird hope that his character will be resurrected in some way. He holds too great a key in the overall plot to be gone for good. But you never know…
7. Prince Brigan (Kristin Cashore’s Fire)
Please forgive me if I melt into a puddle. Prince Brigan is one of the few fictional male characters for whom I fell head over heels. (I have good reasons!) And unlike most of the heroes on this list, Brigan isn’t the protagonist of Fire. Instead, he’s the love interest. General and military advisor to his brother King Nash, Brigan doesn’t fit the “soldier / warrior” stereotype. In reality, he’s a soft-spoken, gentle soul weighed down by his duties, and long troubled by the dangerous influence that Fire’s mind-warping father (now deceased) wielded over Brigan’s father (also deceased). No wonder Brigan despises Fire when they first meet. But like Fire, he evolves as the story progresses, opening up as he helps Fire reach her full potential and proving he’s far from perfect yet capable of giving and receiving love.
8. Samwise Gamgee (J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy)
If Frodo’s on this list, then Sam also deserves a spot. Because in many ways, Frodo wouldn’t have made it to Mordor to destroy the One Ring if Sam hadn’t gone with him. This Hobbit is the epitome of a sidekick. He always made sure Frodo had enough to eat or got a little more rest, even if it meant making sacrifices for Frodo’s benefit. And even when Frodo cast him aside in Return of the King, Sam stayed true to his friend, following Frodo in case the creature Gollum betrayed him (which Gollum did), taking possession of the Ring just before Frodo fell into enemy hands, and finally rescuing Frodo and carrying him up Mount Doom so they could finish their task. He’s the friend anyone would want beside them when hope was dim.
10. The Father (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road)
There are few bright spots in what’s still the most frightening book I’ve ever read. One of those highlights is a character simply known as “the man,” or “the father.” Vigilant and haunted by his wife’s suicide, he guards his young son as they trek south across a bleak, disaster-ravaged landscape. They encounter starvation, cannibals, exposure to the elements, and other threats along the way. The father also realizes at one point that he suffers from a potentially fatal respiratory illness. Yet his son’s survival remains his greatest priority, and that might be his only motivation to keep pushing forward. Funny how the father comes after Samwise Gamgee alphabetically. They both epitomize selflessness; and in the father’s case, his is the ultimate show of a parent’s sense of responsibility toward their child.
11. Valek (Maria V. Snyder’s Study series)
Like Prince Brigan in Fire, Valek isn’t the protagonist of Snyder’s Study series. (That would be his magician-diplomat girlfriend Yelena Zaltana.) However, I wouldn’t feel right if I left him off this list. The master spy and assassin first appears in Poison Study, and within the first few chapters I found reason after reason to admire him. His keen observations, ability to outsmart most everyone, and that slowly increasing concern for Yelena’s well-being… At one point, after Yelena’s attacked by a soldier, he demands to know who it was and follows it up with a dead-serious “I’ll kill him.” That got a thumbs-up from me. All that said, Valek truly shines in Snyder’s latest novel Shadow Study, where readers more about his early days as an assassin. Seeing how he honed his persistence and a few trademark quirks (he’s an accomplish stone-carver) shed new light on his character and made him more endearing.
Who are some of your favorite literary heroes, and why? Share your picks by commenting below.