An Examination of Eccentric Characters

Mr. MicawberOne great thing about reading novels is enjoying some very eccentric characters. You might only find them once in a while, but they’re worth the wait.

The latest quirky fictional person I stumbled upon is the father in Polish author Bruno Schulz’s memorable, melancholy, lushly prosed The Street of Crocodiles (1934). This odd dad houses a huge number of live birds in the family attic, is convinced that mannequins feel imprisoned in their lifeless bodies, etc.

Clearly, some eccentric characters have psychological issues, though that’s not always the case. Some are quite sane, albeit…different.

Quite different is health resort owner Masha, briefly mentioned in last week’s blog post when I discussed Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers. That Australian immigrant from Russia is highly intelligent, driven, ruthless, voyeuristic, an outside-the-box thinker, a fitness fanatic after suffering a massive heart attack, and…weird.

There are some authors — including Charles Dickens and John Irving — we associate with quirky characters in multiple books. One of Dickens’s best-known eccentrics is David Copperfield supporting player Mr. Micawber (standing in the image above), who’s partly ridiculous and partly hilarious in his perpetual unrealistic optimism. One of Irving’s quirkiest creations is A Prayer for Owen Meany‘s title character — an obsessive fellow who speaks in a high-pitched voice, feels he’s God’s instrument, and believes he can predict the date of his own death (correctly, as it turns out).

It’s a bonus when an appealingly odd character appears more than once — as is the case with “Sully” in Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool and later in Everybody’s Fool. Donald Sullivan is a brainy, funny blue-collar guy who’s comically unambitious.

There are of course eccentric types who appear in way more than two novels, aka series. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are certainly peopled with many a quirky cast member — including the spacey Luna Lovegood, to name just one. And, when you think about it, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher is a rather peculiar guy who roams from place to place meting out justice. No permanent home, carries little more than a toothbrush, and can even tell time to the minute without a watch.

Getting back to appeared-in-just-one-book characters, notable eccentrics include the silly/likable/delusional star of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the clairvoyant/telekinectic/distracted Clara del Valle Trueba of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, the strange/cruel/passionate Heathcliff of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, the slobby/antisocial/uproarious Ignatius J. Reilly of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, the overeating/clownish/sympathetic Samson-Aaron of Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar, the brilliant/offbeat/anxiety-ridden architect title character of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and Sylvie Fisher of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. The calm/independent Sylvie has wanderlust, eats dinner only in the dark, hoards magazine and newspapers…

I’ve barely scratched the surface in naming eccentric characters. Some of your favorites?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about silver linings in the time of coronavirus — is here.

65 thoughts on “An Examination of Eccentric Characters

    • No age limit, I think, Susan. Kids can definitely be eccentric, though their personalities might be described by a different adjective (“bratty” in some cases, like the kid in O. Henry’s story “The Ransom of Red Chief”). Owen Meany was eccentric from birth! 🙂

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  1. After your comment last week, Dave, I now want to start So Much For That even more than I did. Unfortunately, David Mitchell’s enthralling Cloud Atlas also jumped off my shelf demanding to be re-read, so between those two distractions, and Ulysses which actually seems to add pages overnight, I don’t think I’ll be making a dent in my TBR for a while.

    I don’t know if Eleanor Oliphant is eccentric exactly, but she’s definitely quirky. And despite the title of Gail Honeyman’s quite touching novel, she is definitely NOT fine. A very memorable book that resonated quite deeply with me.

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    • Thank you, Susan! I totally understand — many novels vie for our time and attention. 🙂

      “Ulysses which actually seems to add pages overnight” — ha ha! 🙂 🙂

      The ironically titled “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine” is completely on my to-read list…

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  2. Oooh what a fun category! 🙂 I’ve definitely met some memorable and eccentric folks in the books I’ve come across. Definitely in Harry Potter, which you mentioned! 🙂 One of my favorites recently is Eve from “the Alice Network,” whom I believe you know too! 🙂 But the first book that came to mind under this category was “Little” by Edward Carey. It takes place during the French Revolution, and I’d say it’s a book that is crammed full of very eccentric characters, including the main character and her legal guardian. It’s an odd journey of a book, but I still really enjoyed the read. I’m also finally reading the book version of “Ready Player One,” which has plenty of eccentric types, loaded with all kinds of 80s trivia, as they hunt down that billion dollar egg. It’s a very interesting read, and the movie is good too.

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  3. L.M. Montgomery created many eccentric characters in her books, including Anne (of Green Gables), at least as she was in her childhood days. Marilla certainly considered her to be eccentric. But her books are filled with quirky characters–I think she really enjoyed creating them.

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    • Thank you, Sheila! Great observation! There are indeed various eccentric characters in “Anne of Green Gables,” its sequels (I’ve read them all), the “Emily” trilogy, “The Blue Castle,” etc.

      Yes, Anne herself was quite quirky as a teen, becoming more conventional as an adult. Marilla was also eccentric in her way, as was Rachel Lynde, Aunt Josephine…

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  4. Oh Charles Dickens for sure! Tom Robbins has created quite a few. Almost every character in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest could be labeled eccentric. So many good suggestions here I’ve yet to read. Great topic and thread, Dave!

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    • Thank you, Mary Jo! Glad you enjoyed the post and comments!

      Charles Dickens’ canon is indeed Eccentricity Central, especially the supporting characters! (I took a “Dickens” course when majoring in English, and read about a half-dozen of his novels consecutively. Quirkiness immersion!)

      I haven’t read any of Tom Robbins’ work or David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest,” but, as I think I mentioned before, I did read DFW’s nonfiction collection “Consider the Lobster” and was greatly impressed.

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    • A novel with an entire eccentric cast! Nice. 🙂 On my list. Thank you, catonthedovrefell!

      I’m trying to think of novels I’ve read with all (or mostly all) eccentric characters. Perhaps Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”? Carson McCullers’ “Reflections in a Golden Eye”? Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex”? Almost any John Irving novel?

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  5. Dave, I’m going to limit myself to only one character, not that there aren’t many to choose from many books (classics, contemporary fiction, and mysteries). But my favorite of all has to be Auntie Mame Dennis, from the novel “Auntie Mame” written by Patrick Dennis (aka Edward Everett Tanner III). I can’t remember whether I saw the movie, starring the great Rosalind Russell, before or after I read the novel. I was also privileged to see the play adapted from both, starring Ginger Rogers as “Mame,” in the West End production (London in 1969). All three were wonderful and absolutely hilarious. Mame seems to me to be the personification of the word “eccentric,” as described somewhere as an unconventional individualist socialite.

    Like Clanmother, I was always considered the eccentric of my family, especially by my nieces and nephews — never married, no children, moving more often than anyone I’ve come across, definitely unconventional — popping in and out of their lives, though quietly rather than flamboyantly, and I certainly never was a socialite! 🙂

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    • Thank you, Kat Lit! Excellent mention — and I had no idea there was an “Auntie Mame” novel! I always thought of that absolutely eccentric character in terms of the theater or film. I definitely learned something new today. 🙂

      I think it’s often a badge of honor to be eccentric — to make different choices than many other people do. Something to be proud of, though I know your life has also had difficulties.

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        • If and when you do, I request you look out for signs that the main character in this property might be seen as a thinly-disguised bit of substitution of a woman for a flamboyant male– the way one can read Tennessee Williams now and see males cast in what are ostensibly female roles.

          Last time I saw the movie– and I’ve probably seen it 4 times– that’s what struck me, anyway. I have yet to encounter the book.

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          • Interesting, jhNY! That would certainly be in approximate keeping with what some other authors have also done in various ways. For instance, Jim Burden in “My Antonia” is clearly a stand-in for (the gay) Willa Cather, and Lionel Verney in “The Last Man” is a stand-in for (the not gay) Mary Shelley.

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  6. For me, the syphilitic/insanely optimistic/ridiculously deluded Dr. Pangloss wins this one hands down. In the best of all possible possible comments to the best of all possible blog posts on the best of all possible Internets in the best of all possible worlds!!

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  7. Another great post!

    My mom and I are currently listening to Jane Austen books in audio, and having a fabulous time discussing the eccentric characters there. I just finished “Persuasion” and have been enjoying the hopelessly self-centered Mary Musgrove. My mom is listening to “Emma” and chortling over Mr. Wodehouse and Mrs. Elton.

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    • Thank you, Elena! Very glad you mentioned Jane Austen. She definitely created some quirky characters, and you offered several excellent examples. Must indeed be fun to experience them via audio!

      I think Mrs. Norris of “Mansfield Park” could also be considered eccentric, and she was of course further immortalized by her name being used for Mr. Filch’s cat in the “Harry Potter” series.

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  8. It’s Sunday!!! The day I know that I will be seeing another one of your fabulous post, Dave. A couple years ago, I announced to my nieces that I wanted to known as their eccentric aunt. And they all said, “You got that covered, Auntie Becky.” Without the eccentric characters, we would be hard pressed to understand the full depth and breadth of the human experience. Is it possible that we are all just teeny bit eccentric?!!! Oh, the questions that come to mind when I meet them – what happened to prompt the eccentricity? An event, an experience, a tragedy. My most favourite eccentric is Miss Havisham, a character in the Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations. And it seems that I am not the only one who is interested in this character. Consider all those who have portrayed her in movies: Helena Bonham Carter, Gillian Anderson, Martita Hunt (didn’t see this one) Anne Bancroft, Charlotte Rampling and even Joan Hickson. Thank you again for another wonderful Sunday conversation!!

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    • Pleased to have made the introduction, and pleased that my procrastination proved so timely. Your local library closes and there’s my perennially promised package in its stead!

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      • Yes, it was excellent timing, jhNY! Thanks again!

        Unfortunately, still no working CD player in my apartment to listen to your music — and virtually no driving these days to use the CD player in my car. As the currently circulating joke goes, I’m getting two months per gallon.

        But there will be longer rides in the future…

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        • Should you tire of your in-house seclusion, you could always retreat to the driveway for a while… the electricity expended on cd listening would not overly tax your battery, i don’t think.

          But then, the last car I owned was a ’56 Ford. And the last time I drove was 40 years ago.

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          • Sounds like a plan!

            Yes, no need for a car in NYC. I had one when I first moved to Manhattan, but quickly got rid of it. I’m impressed with how long it’s been since you’ve driven! And the ’50s had some GREAT cars.

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