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With over sixty novels, and countless characters, Stephen King has created the dreamscapes that define our imaginations. So much of modern make believe is informed by King’s creations, and invariably we are affected by these scribblings of words on paper. The fake men and women who are tested remain with us long after we close the book. There are thousands of people and creatures that populate the inscapes of King’s imagination, we should talk about them all. I hope we do. For now, let’s only regard those who have leading status in the stories.
Many lists are self evident by their title, but when you say “Best Lead Characters” you have some defining to do. Therefore I present to you the criteria for the list you’ll find below. A character must be the lead protagonist in the story. We’re not talking about the narrator, or someone telling the story, but the one whom, if they’re removed, the whole narrative disappears. This gets tough with ensemble epics like It or The Stand, but in every tale there is a pivotal character. They’re usually easy to spot: wave hello Jack Sawyer, and of course you Jake Epping. But that leaves out great people like Sandy Dearborn of Troop D, and everyone’s favorite inmate Red.
With the main criteria over, and a list that is at a glance over 30 characters deep, it’s time to whittle away. It’s sad to say, but a good story’s lead will more often than not trump a bad story’s lead. That cuts at least a handful of wannabes. The questions that have to be asked are: Do you miss the character when the book is done? Does their life have an impact on the world and story in a meaningful way? Are they important? Do they feel real?
These are among the many questions you have to ask yourself when you decide to take on the monumental task of narrowing Stephen King’s best lead characters down to just five. Because when you go below ten with this list you find yourself cutting some of the most iconic persons in modern literature.
5. Stephen King - On Writing
Oh yes, my friends, we’re going to do this thing right. Because King’s memoir of how he became the writer we may not all love, but can at least respect his craftsmanship, is as much a story of a man’s perseverance as instruction manual. In fact, it’s the very story of King’s life and struggle as a writer that makes this the best guide to being a quality writer in the history of the craft. King is at the center of the story the whole way through, and by extension also includes you in on the secrets.
The book is more important for writers than anything your literary professor forced you to read. That’s because of the man at the center of the tale goes on a life changing journey, and along the way shares vast swaths of wisdom with the reader. By the time you’ve finished you’re compelled to call or write Stephen King, the man in this book not the one who just released a sequel to The Shining, and let him know that you’re going to try and be brave enough.
4. Stuart Redman - The Stand
While the narrative changes throughout The Stand, and Stuart is not the only major player in the story, it’s always good ol’ Stu we come back to. He’s the one we follow morally, and he’s the one the reader latches onto as the leader. It’s true that there may be people in the novel who are better than this man, although not many. The story of The Stand has a lot of metaphors and various meanings, but if you want to narrow this thing down: it’s about a man who tries to stand for something good.
Perhaps Stu is a better character, or person, than some others higher on this list. It’s his goodness as a figurehead in a changing world that has landed Mr. Redman on the list at all. Unfortunately this epic tale is filled with characters, good and bad, who rival Stu for the role of most pivotal to the story. Calling Stuart Redman the lead character of The Stand is more of a feeling than actuality. When you read those last lines and realize that even after all he’s been through and witnessed, even Stu isn’t sure if mankind can learn its lesson.
3. Paul Edgecombe - The Green Mile
The brilliance of Paul Edgecombe as a character is that he might be your grandfather. This man feels real. Better yet, he acts in a real manner. When he discovers what John Coffey can do, Paul uses it to get what he wants. He helps smuggle John out of prison so that he can cure the warden’s wife of cancer. Then allows Coffey to infect the evil Percy with the disease. It’s not the actions of a pure man, but of one who wants to do right.
Paul is a good person, but he’s still a man with prejudices. The Green Mile is death row, and even Percy is going to die there. So there’s no reason to destroy the man. That’s the journey Paul is on, to live in a world where you witness such gruesome and terrible things that you want to stop all the horrors. But you can’t. You’re just a man, except for one shining moment when maybe you can make a small difference in the world with the help of a giant black convict and a little magic.
2. Roland Deschain - The Dark Tower Series
Perhaps the most important person in all of King’s works, Roland Deschain of Gilead is everything we want to be. He’s smart, strong, capable, and a straight-up fucking badass. You put Roland in a room with Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules Winnfield and the gunslinger wouldn’t have to say “What” but one time. Because the end of that parley would be Roland slapping iron and smoking Jules, and being out the door and on his way to more important matters before the synapses in Jules’ brain stopped firing.
It’s not just Roland’s attitude and bad assery that make him so amazing. The fact of the matter is that this man is responsible for keeping everything King writes going. Without Roland keeping the wheel of ka moving along via The Dark Tower, there is no Pennywise, Crimson King, Randall Flagg, John Coffey, Jack Torrance, Gordie Lachance, and on and on the list goes. Roland is the axle upon which all other Stephen King stories pivot. When the man in black fled across the desert, not only did the gunslinger follow, we were compelled to as well.
1. Andy Dufresne - Rita Hayworth And The Shawshank Redemption
The innocent man who gets his revenge is a sweet story. You endure a lot as you watch Andy find his way through the prison yard political system, working with the guards, and generally being the smartest man in the room. The story is not a simple revenge story where Andy gets to exact bloody vengeance on those who’ve wronged him. No, it’s far more interesting to watch this man spend decades taking back his freedom.
Being a free man is something young Andy took for granted, and he had no choice but to wretch it back from those who’d taken it away. That’s what makes Andy such a compelling and wonderful character. He’s not only an everyman archetype, but also the best of what a man can be if pushed to the limits. No matter where you end up, you have to live your life for you in the best manner available. Delivering a little comeuppance gives Andy a little of that badass vibe, and as you finish the story you can’t help but envy him a smidge, despite the hardships he’s had to endure.