Five unforgettable contemporary (short story) characters

I’ll be teaching a creative writing course in the fall, so I’ve been shuffling, brushing, idling my way through all my favorite short stories, mining them for the best possible instances of pen to paper or fingers to keys. In doing so, I realized that plot–while important–doesn’t wedge itself into the crevices of my mind like some characters have a way of doing so easily.

Here are the few inimitable characters that my students will definitely be meeting.

  1. Jackson Jackson from Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem.” He’s a sharp, homeless Spokane Indian on a quest to rescue his grandmother’s pawned powwow-dance regalia. Except that, like every other Indian in the story, he can’t raise more than a couple dollars before he’s traded them for a drink. The interesting thing about Jackson Jackson is that shades of his voice–more largely, Alexie’s–appear not only in this story, but in all of his work that I’ve read. So I guess I should say, Alexie’s protagonist represents much of his work, which would be a bad thing if his voice wasn’t so magnetic.
  2. Arnold Friend from Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” The best way of describing Arnold Friend: he’s everything that he appears to be and nothing that he claims. So much of his development is accomplished through his boots. He might be the creepiest short story character ever sprung from a writer’s mind. Pretty amazing for a guy who spends the bulk of the story simply standing by a car.
  3. The nameless protagonist of Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s “Farangs.” He’s a Thai teenage boy helping his mother run a beach-side hotel, though most of his time is naturally spent looking for amour amongst the female tourists. He has a pet pig named Clint Eastwood. This character has a jagged voice, yet his innocence is palpable throughout. Lapcharoensap’s protagonist is also unforgettable for that rare obverse look into cosmopolitanism and its effects on Thai culture.
  4. Mel from Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” He’s one fourth of a pair of couples sitting around a table–talking about love. Though really, it’s largely Mel talking…and talking, his wherewithal well-tempered by alcohol. He’s (arguably) not the protagonist, nor is he very sympathetic, but he’s unforgettable for the way his thoughts translate to his tongue and spill right out onto that table.
  5. Natalia of Michael Faber’s “Bye-bye Natalia.” Without slipping you the ending, she’s a young Ukrainian woman having an online romance with Bob in Montana. She has a bleakness about her that upends “mail order bride” almost from the first page. Her choice has a universality about it, though the circumstances she’s in are very much of this place and this time; she is particularly Natalia.

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