Inspired by Charles Gramlich’s Top 100 book list, I decided to do my own list of sorts. But, instead of listing books, I will focus on the characters I have enjoyed the most over the years. And more to the point, my favorite action heroes from books.
I am a huge fan of action. Novels, movies, TV shows, comic books. It’s all good to me. In fact, if I were to broaden this list to include all literary characters, it would still look pretty much the same.
So, here is my list. Though not in order specifically, it comes close, since I named them off the top of my head, and my subconscious probably ordered them for me.
1. Conan – No list of literary heroes would be complete without Robert E. Howard’s archetypal sword and sorcery hero. There have been many, many imitators over the years, but none can compare to the original. Conan is a prime example of the “noble savage,” showing how a man makes his own destiny. I have to say, I am also a fan of all of the Conan incarnations. Well, most of them. That second movie and that horrid live-action TV show notwithstanding.
2. Saul Grisman – In 1984 David Morrell, author of First Blood, wrote a spy thriller called Brotherhood of the Rose. The “protagonist” started out as two characters, adopted brothers, but through the course of the story the focus shifted to Saul. This book stands the test of time, and although some of the technology dates it, the tradecraft and intrigue make it my all-time favorite spy novel. Saul later appeared in the third book in a “trilogy” of sorts, wherein he teamed with the character from another, completely unrelated book. An ingenious move on Morrell’s part, IMHO.
3. John Rambo – Heralded as the first modern action movie, the film based on David Morrell’s novel, First Blood, stands as one of the greatest action films ever. But the character, as written by Morrell, is so much more than what could be shown on screen. Morrell published this novel in 1972, while a professor of American Literature. The character was incredibly complex, and the story was so deep and rich. When Morrell was much later asked to write the novelizations to the next two films, even though the character had died at the end of the first book, he did so quite admirably. He took Hollywood-style action and added literary depth and humanity to the character, to the point that the books stand alone as fine examples of military action-thrillers.
4. Drizzt Do’Urden – The more “refined” fantasy reader may deride these books as mere “gaming fiction.” But that doesn’t stop RA Salvatore from creating a very interesting and relatable cast of characters. Drizzt, a dark elf ranger, has a level of depth and humanity that is only matched by his extraordinary fighting skill, and his pure heart of goodness. This character probably inspired literally thousands of knock-offs and clones around D&D gaming tables. And for good reason. The character is just damn cool. And the novels just get better as they go.
5. Boromir – My favorite character in all of Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece (I cry when he dies every time I watch Peter Jackson’s film). Boromir is the Captain America of Middle-Earth. His only fault is loving his country too much. So much so that it blinds him to the dangers of the One Ring. In the end, he sacrifices himself to save two hobbits. And it is his example that inspires them to greater heights, and gives them the courage to play their part in the War of the Ring.
6. Mack Bolan – In 1969, writer Don Pendleton took the men’s adventure genre by storm, and elevated it to a level never seen before. Mack Bolan, ex-sniper and Vietnam vet, comes home to exact revenge on the mafia whose actions lead to the deaths of his family. War Against the Mafia lead to an ongoing series that is still running today. The character has changed in some ways over the years, adapting to changing times. But, like his literary contemporary, James Bond, Mack has not aged, and continues to fight against the evils that plague men, inspiring several film and literary knock-offs, including The Punisher. Though his focus often has shifted from organized crime to international terrorists and the like, he continues to fight his “war eternal,” under the skillful hands of a stable of authors. Don passed away a few years ago, but his legacy continues.
7. Will Treaty – The Ranger’s Apprentice series is technically a young adult series of fantasy books, but I challenge any adult to read them and tell me they aren’t wonderfully deep and engaging. Will is an orphan chosen to become apprenticed to a Ranger (much like a crotchety version of Tolkien’s Aragorn). What ensue over 10 books (I believe) is a rousing fantasy adventure of action, intrigue, and teen angst. I put Will squarely in the same category as Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, without a doubt.
8. Tarzan – This was a tough choice, because Edgar Rice Burroughs managed to create two of my favorite literary characters. But Tarzan is definitely my favorite. His story and adventures are so outlandish, scientifically inaccurate and implausible, that they are almost believable. Through ERB’s skillful writing, you easily forget those flaws, and find yourself wanting to believe that it really happened. Many of the other entries into the series are excellent, but none stand up to Tarzan of the Apes. Though personally, whenever I read it, I stop just before he joins the Foreign Legion. I’ve always felt the story was finished by that point, and the last quarter of the book is unnecessary.
9. El Borak – Robert E. Howard was amazingly prolific during his sadly brief career as a pulp writer. His stories ranged to almost every genre. One of his lesser known (but wildly popular among fans) characters is Francis Xavier Gordon, aka El Borak. El Borak (Arabic for “the swift”) was a Texas gunfighter who adventured in 19th century Afghanistan. Only five stories were published during Howard’s lifetime, but several posthumous publications have included the desert exploits of Gordon. The stories are high on action and intrigue, with Howard’s trademark pacing and descriptive prose.
10. Orion – Science fiction author Ben Bova is well-known for writing intellectually stimulating novels that span the universe. But Orion is at its heart, a time-spanning action novel. The main character, James O’Ryan, has the ability to consciously control every molecule in his body, giving him extraordinary abilities. There are five novels in the series, and they are all good. But the first one is by far the best. At once a rousing action tale and a thought-provoking dissertation on the nature of time, this book makes you think, and keeps you guessing. And just when the intellectual strains start to get heavy, he hits you with pulse-pounding action and danger. If I were to pick one literary character that I would want to be, it would probably be Orion.
John Carter of Mars - Edgar Rice Burroughs
"Sailor" Steve Costigan - Robert E. Howard
Amos Walker - Loren D. Estleman
Hector and Achilles - Homer
Gath of Baal - James Silke (and Frank Frazetta)