“It’s a while now since anyone referred to the main character of a novel as the ‘hero’.”

The world of literary criticism can be a fun one to spend a little time in. Although it is not always wise to project realistic values, morals and behaviours onto fictional characters (the current fad for declaring every sitcom character from Basil Fawlty to Alan Partridge to having some kind of mental illness is a little tiresome), it can be interesting to think of them as they are beyond the page. We get to spend so little time with some of these people, it’s nice to dig a little deeper for a while. British literature is a great place to start, with some of the most famous fictional characters in the world nestled in its pages. Is there anyone on the planet who doesn’t know the names Sherlock Holmes or James Bond? In his book, written to accompany a 2011 TV series of the same name, author Sebastian Faulks analyses twenty-eight of the most famous characters in British literature via four archetypes: heroes, villains, lovers and snobs.

First up, he dives into the heroes, exploring the first hero of British literature, Robinson Crusoe, along with minx Becky Sharp, anti-hero John Self, and the hero who fails, Winston Smith. When he discusses lovers, the takes on – of course – Mr Darcy and Heathcliff, but also studies Constance Chatterley and Nick Guest. The snobs archetype is perhaps the most interesting, including such luminaries as the etiquette snob Jeeves, intellectual snob Chanu Ahmed, and brand snob James Bond. Finally, he ties things up with the villains, including Fagin, Steerpike and Barbara Covett.

I vaguely remember the show from the first time around, and it was nice to revisit the characters again – I’ve read a few more of these stories since then, too – with some interesting insights. There are indications, however, that time has moved on, and I wonder if we would see some of these characters in the same light now. One point that shows how we changed the culture we consume is when Faulks seems to believe it’s impossible to imagine a television series getting a budget for 14 episodes of an hour long. The Golden Age of Television has apparently yet to start.

The quality is variable, with some chapters going into intense and interesting detail on the character as a whole, with others focusing more on the whole plot, and in the James Bond section, most of the chapter is taken up with Faulks talking about how he came to write a Bond book of his own. Granted, it does tie up nicely and explains the character a little more, but it feels a touch self-indulgent. I suppose in 2020 people would complain about the lack of diversity (only seven of the characters discussed are women, and just one is explicitly a person of colour) but I don’t think you can actually hold that against him here. He has picked several of the most interesting and well-known characters in these four archetypes, and it so happens that most of them are men. Could he have selected Elizabeth Bennett instead of Mr Darcy? Perhaps, but truthfully it is Darcy that has permeated the culture more so than Elizabeth. Similarly, the central character picked from Oliver is Fagin, rather than the title character. The selection through the ages and genres is pretty good, although as ever there is a focus on the “canon” and more literary fiction, with a slightly begrudging dip into fantasy (Gormenghast) and dystopia (1984). If you wanted a better selection, I suppose you could have undone the fact that Dickens and Austen both get two characters selected, but then again they are perhaps the most influential novelists in English. The Jeeves chapter stands out above the rest for me, as Faulks adopts Wodehouse’s style to talk about him.

An interesting look at some of fiction’s finest. Of course it’s a little subjective, but then again all fiction is, so you can’t fault it for that.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!