LET’S START WITH an obvious point: this is an impossible list to make. Impossibly subjective, impossibly unfair, impossibly quixotic. (And no, Don Quixote’s name is not here.) When you get right down to it, one could more easily make a list of the 50 greatest names in the works of Charles Dickens than a list of the 50 greatest names in all of literature. But I’m giving it a go anyway, because nothing makes me happier than a battery of “How can [insert your favorite name here] not be on the list? You suck!” comments.
A few notes on the process:
I’m not including plays (again, Shakespeare alone could have his own Top 50), poetry, most children’s literature (Dr. Seuss, ditto), or the books of the Bible (my relationship to the Catholicism of my childhood might look different if I didn’t decide, while still in elementary school, that Pontius Pilate had a much cooler name than did Jesus Christ).
Names culled from “the canon,” such as it is, generally carry more weight than more obscure works. To be truly great, the name must be inherently sublime and also come from a great source. I am aware that “the canon” carries a bias toward dead white European males—DWEMS, as they were lovingly called in the Women’s Studies classes I took in college—and for that I am sorry.
Similarly, the 50 names are culturally biased. They reflect the fact that I am a 40-year-old straight white man who went to public high school in the suburbs of north Jersey, who majored in English at Georgetown instead of, say, Sarah Lawrence, and who spent his formative years in New York City. Also, I have an aversion to the Beats.
In order to compensate for my narrow worldview, I’ve asked my fellow Weeklings editor Sean Beaudoin for input. Although he is also a fortysomething straight married white male who grew up in the outer suburbs of New York City and spent his formative years in Washington, D.C., he is from Connecticut, not New Jersey, and he thinks Jack Kerouac is rad.
I apologize in advance for everything you find wrong with this list, Dear Reader. And with that caveat, here are the 50 greatest literary character names of all time:
An English teacher once told me that Melville was gay and in love with Hawthorne, and the Great White Whale allegory concerns the author’s forbidden and unrequited lust for his friend. So there’s that. Bonus points for being the title of a Led Zeppelin song. And for Moby naming himself after a whale of a character invented by his forebear.
49. Sherlock Holmes, Professor Moriarty (tie)
This pair of monikers is so integral to the popular culture that it’s hard to separate the names from the Benedict Cumberbatch. But the case for their inclusion is elementary, my dear Watson. Extra credit to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for having the foresight bequeath his detective a name beginning with “shhh,” which both a) indicates quiet, pensive thought, and b) allows for the alliterative expression, “No shit, Sherlock.”
48. Binx Bolling
With this bizarre invocation, Walker Percy summons the strange and wonderful spirit of New Orleans in three magical syllables.
47. Patrick Bateman
“Patrick” is an underrated jerk name (sorry, friends of mine named Patrick, but it’s true; if it’s any consolation, “Greg” is also an underrated jerk name) and when you imagine our American psycho as a twisted sibling of Jason and Justine, it locates him beautifully in the pop culture. Sidenote: I want to form an 80s cover band and call it The Batemans.
46. Inigo Montoya
The perfect name. And not just because I was Inigo Montoya for Halloween last year.
45. Jay Gatsby
His name isn’t just great; it’s fabulous.
44. Benno van Archimboldi
I’m including the name of the reclusive German author whose mythology constitutes the engine of Roberto Bolaño’s epic 2666 because it’s an awesome name, but also because I’m a pretentious schmuck who wants you to know that he read 2666.
43. Michael Valentine Smith
What I love especially about The Silence of the Lambs is that the title is never realized; it’s just implied. Lecter’s analysis of the almost-as-well-named Clarice Starling: “You think if you can save just one, you can stop the awful screaming of the lambs.” That’s the closest to the title we come.
41. Count Dracula, Victor Frankenstein (tie)
As with Sherlock Holmes, it’s hard to conceive of a time when Dracula and Frankenstein did not exist, they are so far embedded in the culture. Incidentally, if you’ve never actually read them, these are both much better books than subsequent iterations of the two characters would lead you to believe. The Shelley family in particular is pretty astonishing.
40. Joe Christmas
A subtle derivation of “Jesus Christmas,” as in, “Jesus Christmas, this guy we thought was white is really black, so he must be the killer!”
39. Angela Argo
The well-pierced, punked-out femme fatale of Francine Prose‘s masterpiece Blue Angel—a novel you should not read when you are about to start teaching an undergraduate creative writing class, as I can tell you from experience—has a name that suggests the titular cherub and the vessel that conveyed Jason and the Argonauts to Colchis, where they fetched the Golden Fleece. Note to Hollywood: make a movie of this already.
38. Huckleberry Finn
An American classic. “Huck Finn” is easily switched to make “Fuck Hinn,” whatever that means. Points are deducted because the Rush song and Winona Ryder’s character in Heathers are both named for Tom Sawyer instead.
37. Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler (tie)
Gone with the Wind is Exhibit A in the argument for Ho-Hum Epic Novels Make Better Movies Than Great Works of Literature. Either way, Margaret Mitchell came up with some dynamite names. And if you don’t agree, well frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
36. Bigger Thomas
The only way this name could be better is if it indicated, instead of the ill-fated protagonist of Native Son, the star linebacker for the New York Giants. This would have been in the top five greatest pro football names of all time.
35. Jane Eyre
Immediately calls to mind the Brontë sisters, which calls to mind the daughters of Orson Scott Card, who are all named for Brontë sisters, which calls to mind how Card has become a homophobic asshole of Dubai skyscraper proportions, which is probably why Jane Eyre made the list and not 3Jane from Speaker for the Dead. And now that I’ve googled it, I see my memory is faulty, and 3Jane is from Neuromancer, not Speaker for the Dead. OK, then…
34. Lady 3Jane Marie-France Tessier-Ashpool
I defy you to come up with a better name for a cloned heiress to a technology fortune from the future. William Gibson is a fountainhead of cool names. If you’re starting a band, you’ll find a clutch of killer options in Neuromancer.
33. Randall Flagg
The best name in arguably Stephen King’s best book. I read this in junior high, and couldn’t come up with the name of another character in The Stand for all the vampires in Salem’s Lot. But this? This is gold! The double Ls and the double Gs. The way “Randall” reduces to “R and all” if you stare at it long enough. Mr. Flagg is the banner of pure evil.
32. Milo Minderbender, Major Major Major Major (tie)
Catch-22 is one of those rare books whose cleverness is almost too much to bear. Every sentence is constructed with such precision, for maximum comic effect. Example: “His mother was a Daughter of the American Revolution. His father was a Son of a Bitch.” The sheer density of its comedy prefigures current TV shows like Arrested Development and Archer. Interestingly, the character whose gory death provides the novel’s emotional wallop at the end has a name now familiar to anyone who reads the newspapers: Snowden.
31. Frankie Machine
A Sean Beaudoin selection: the hero of The Man with the Golden Arm, whose portrayal yielded a Best Actor nomination for Frank Sinatra. And if it’s good for Frank, it’s good for me.
30. Veruca Salt
I am breaking my own “no children’s books” rule, but I can’t fight the seether. Bonus points if there is a successful band named after the character.
29. Uriah Heep
Yes-man from David Copperfield and British band who do “Lady in Black.”
28. Eustacia Vye
Don’t take my word for it. “I read a lot of classical books, like The Return of the Native and all, and I like them, and I read a lot of war books and mysteries and all, but they don’t knock me out too much. What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it… I wouldn’t want to call Somerset Maugham up. I don’t know, he just isn’t the kind of guy I’d want to call up, that’s all. I’d rather call old Thomas Hardy up. I like that Eustacia Vye.”—J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
Creepy, cultish Manson and Koresh-like guy from the novel Trilby, who keeps the young ingenue under his sinister spell. In other words, Tom Cruise sourcing Wife #4.
The only way the name of the Last Tycoon could be better is if Monroe were a woman. Monroe Starr and Jordan Baker should be the lead singer and guitarist in an all-girl band called East Egg.
25. Arthur Dimmsdale
On the (excellent) cartoon Fairly Oddparents, Timmy Turner lives in a town called Dimmsdale. That is the best fake town name ever. Even Gotham City isn’t that good.
24. Bucky Wunderlick
Great Jones Street is Don DeLillo’s best novel, and I’ll smash a guitar over the head of anyone who says otherwise.
23. Ramona Quimby
I know, I know; I’m breaking my own rule. But Jesus, Beezus, how can we leave Ramona off?
22. Robinson Crusoe
Defoe’s legendary shipwrecked protagonist makes the list every day of the week and twice on Friday.
21. Miss Havisham
We read Great Expectations my freshmen year in high school, and the teacher looked exactly like how Miss Havisham was described in the novel. Minus the wedding dress. On most days, anyway.
20. John Galt
The answer to the question posed in the opening sentence of Atlas Shrugged is: “#20 on the list of the 50 greatest literary character names of all time.” And yes, I do realize that there is some conflict including Ayn Rand on a list of anything “literary.”
19. Tristam Shandy
I never read the book, but this name sounds like a really excellent dive bar of the kind that are quickly disappearing in Manhattan.
18. Lady Chatterly
When it comes to her name, I’m a lover.
16. Dorian Gray
A case in which a picture is worth more than a thousand words. The author of this Gothic masterpiece, Oscar Wilde, is himself endowed with one of the greatest literary names of all time, if we ever get around to making that list.
15. Mustapha Mond
Said to be a play on words: “Must have a monde,” or a world, and thus a hodgepodge of the Islamic, the Turkish, and the French: shorthand for the One World Government conspiracy theorists fear. Was Huxley on to something? Or was he just on something?
14. Ichabod Crane
I like to think this is the Headless Horseman’s name, although of course it’s not. Washington Irving was a maestro of naming things. He coined “Gotham” as a nickname for New York, and called its inhabitants Knickerbockers, thus inadvertently naming my favorite basketball team.
13. Pierce Inverarity
Oedipa Maas’s late lover and possible gateway to the realm of madness. All the words you can make with this: pierce, rarity, invert, verity. Next time, use W.A.S.T.E.
12. Bathsheba Everdene
One of the most memorable of Thomas Hardy’s strong, engaging female protagonists, this one from Far from the Madding Crowd. How could a strapping young shepherd like Gabriel Oak not fall in love with a lovely, strong lady with such an awesome name?
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
10. Pip (Philip Pirrip)
A case in which the nickname and the full name from which it derives are equal parts funny and brilliant.
9. Atticus Finch
In the second grade at my daughter’s not-terribly-big school, there are two boys named Atticus. Two! Harper Lee FTW! Pretty much everyone in Mockingbird has an awesome name: Jem, Scout, Calpurnia, Boo Radley.
8. Jean Valjean
[sings] Who am I? Who am I? It certainly ranks higher than 2-4-6-0-1.
7. Lady Brett Ashley
I’ve had a thing for Brett Ashley since I first read The Sun Also Rises back in high school. The inversion—there are certainly more Ashley Bretts in the world than Brett Ashleys—the cropped masculinity of the first name that matches her cropped masculine haircut, the title that she doesn’t really want or need or care about…is this the sexiest female character name of all time? Isn’t it pretty to think so?
6. Big Brother
Easy to overlook, but certainly a character—one of the most relevant characters to our experience in this Age of Surveillance. He should feel the wrath of our two minutes’ hate, but also many hours of unqualified appreciation.
5. Holly Golightly
Worthy of breakfast at Tiffany’s, lunch at VanCleef & Arpel’s, and dinner at Harry Winston’s.
She’s at once zero and a perfect circle, an initial for climax and symbol for nothing, the sound of sweet pleasure and of unwelcome news understood. None of the other 25 letters—writ in however many shades of grey—could accomplish so much with so little.
3. Ebenezer Scrooge
Again, such a part of the culture that we take it for granted, but it’s even more apt than “Sherlock Holmes.” The last two syllables of the first name hint at “miser,” and the surname is a twist on “screw.” Dickens strikes again!
2. Hester Prynne
For coming up with the best female character name of all time, I give Hawthorne a (scarlet) A.
1. Humbert Humbert
“You can’t make this list and not have Humbert Humbert be #1,” declares Sean Beaudoin. As usual, Sean is right. And so the top spot goes to Nabokov’s greatest creation and literature’s favorite statutory rapist. He fits right in with the malevolent dictator, willing sex slave, egregious miser, and notorious adulteress who also populate the top six on the list. Which probably says more about me than it does about literature.