Flipping through Joseph Conrad's 1896 novel An Outcast of the Islands I came across this passage:
"Consciously or unconsciously, men are proud of their firmness, steadfastness of purpose, directness of aim. They go straight towards their desire, to the accomplishment of virtue - sometimes of crime - in an uplifting persuasion of their firmness. They walk the road of life, the road fenced in by their tastes prejudices, disdains or enthusiasms, generally honest, invariably stupid, and are proud of never losing their way. If they do stop, it is to look for a moment over the hedges that make them safe, to look at the misty valleys, at the distant peaks, at cliffs and morasses, at the dark forests and the hazy plains where other human beings grope their days painfully away, stumbling over the bones of the wise, over the unburied remains of their predecessors who died alone, in the gloom or in sunshine, halfway from anywhere. The man of purpose does not understand, and goes on, full of contempt. He never loses his way. He knows where he is going and what he wants. Travelling on, he achieves great length without any breadth, and battered, besmirched, and weary, he touches the goal at last; he grasps the reward of his perseverance, of his virtue, of his healthy optimism: an untruthful tombstone over a dark and soon forgotten grave."
He's talking about Tom Lingard, who appears in a few of Conrad's novels and comes to reveal himself as something of a benevolent despot. Conrad is brilliant at portraying the anti-hero in a way that illuminates the trials of the human spirit, so that the reader becomes engrossed in why his characters behave the way they do and, whether they choose to like them or not, can empathise to some extent with their motivations and the choices they make.
In any book, the characters that stand out to me are the ones you can pick apart and dissect and debate, because the writer has created such a fullness to them (even in their limitations, of which Lingard has many) that they could exist as real people, and because they highlight aspects of the human experience that resonate with people regardless of the time or place of reading.
I'm constantly thinking about character development because it's so critical to authenticity... Which characters resonate with you? And what is it about them that makes them stay with you after you finish reading a novel...?
Pictured above, Joseph Conrad's plaque on the NSW Writers Walk in Sydney. He visited Australia twice in the late 1800s in his job as First Mate on the merchant ship Torrens. (Click image to enlarge.)