Staff Picks: 6 Iconic Characters Every Reader Should Know

June 7 2022
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It’s impossible to say exactly what makes a character iconic—but we sure love to discuss it. Is the label of “icon” only reserved for stars of the classics? Or can some characters be catapulted to icon within a year of publication? Do they have to impact a certain number of people, or does the quality of the impact mean more than the quality? Help yourself to your own fun debate over iconic characters at your next book club. And if you’re looking to meet some new icons, here are a few that every reader should have the pleasure of meeting.

Tracy Flick Can't Win
by Tom Perrotta

Tracy Flick

Brianna’s Pick: When it comes to iconic characters, few spark as much controversy or conversation as Tracy Flick. First introduced in Tom Perrotta’s novel, ELECTION, and then brought to vivid life by Reese Witherspoon in the cult classic movie adaptation of the book, Tracy Flick has come to represent a certain kind of woman—one who is unapologetically ambitious or, as Vanity Fair put it, “a woman who is just too much—too accomplished, too hardworking, too ambitious.” Strong women like Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren have been branded Tracy Flicks. The term is pejorative, shorthand for the overachiever in school who’d sit in the front row, answer all the teacher’s questions, and earn the derision of her cooler classmates. But was that Perrotta’s intention? With his darkly comedic new book, TRACY FLICK CAN’T WIN, Perrotta revisits his classic character, now middle-aged and vying to be the principal of Green Meadow High. Tracy is older, wiser, and more relatable, but the toxic masculinity she faces while trying to secure a position she is immensely qualified to fill is the same. And in her quest to succeed despite a culture and community that frowns on female ambition, women readers everywhere will find themselves hoping beyond hope that, just this once, Tracy Flick Can Win. 

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Tracy Flick Can't Win
Tom Perrotta

Tracy Flick is back and, once again, the iconic protagonist of Tom Perrotta’s Election—and Reese Witherspoon’s character from the classic movie adaptation—is determined to take high school politics by storm.

Tracy Flick is a hardworking assistant principal at a public high school in suburban New Jersey. Still ambitious but feeling a little stuck and underappreciated in midlife, Tracy gets a jolt of good news when the longtime principal, Jack Weede, abruptly announces his retirement, creating a rare opportunity for Tracy to ascend to the top job.

Energized by the prospect of her long-overdue promotion, Tracy throws herself into her work with renewed zeal, determined to prove her worth to the students, faculty, and School Board, while also managing her personal life—a ten-year-old daughter, a needy doctor boyfriend, and a burgeoning meditation practice. But nothing ever comes easily to Tracy Flick, no matter how diligent or qualified she happens to be.

Among her many other responsibilities, Tracy is enlisted to serve on the Selection Committee for the brand-new Green Meadow High School Hall of Fame. Her male colleagues’ determination to honor Vito Falcone—a star quarterback of dubious character who had a brief, undistinguished career in the NFL—triggers bad memories for Tracy, and leads her to troubling reflections about the trajectory of her own life and the forces that have left her feeling thwarted and disappointed, unable to fulfill her true potential.

As she broods on the past, Tracy becomes aware of storm clouds brewing in the present. Is she really a shoo-in for the Principal job? Is the Superintendent plotting against her? Why is the School Board President’s wife trying so hard to be her friend? And why can’t she ever get what she deserves?

In classic Perrotta style, Tracy Flick Can’t Win is a sharp, darkly comic, and pitch-perfect reflection on our current moment. Flick fans and newcomers alike will love this compelling novel chronicling the second act of one of the most memorable characters of our time.

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If It Bleeds
by Stephen King

Holly Gibney

Sara’s Pick: Stephen King has a lot of memorable characters: Carrie White, Jack Torrance, the members of the Losers’ Club, Randall Flagg. But one of my absolute favorites who deserves some more love is King's investigator Holly Gibney. Gibney appears in a number of King’s novels, including THE OUTSIDER, The Bill Hodges Trilogy, and the novella IF IT BLEEDS. What makes her such an engaging character is the fresh perspective she brings to every situation, especially because of her lack of a filter, and although Gibney is autistic and has OCD, it does not hold her back or make her less of an investigator. Rather, it provides her with a different take and knowledge base to help solve mysteries and combat evil. And combating evil is what she does best! Brave but also conscientious, strong but also vulnerable, Holly Gibney is definitely a character you want to get to know (especially since she'll be getting her own novel soon!).

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If It Bleeds
Stephen King

*#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER*

From the legendary storyteller and master of short fiction Stephen King comes an extraordinary collection of four new “exceptionally compelling novellas that reaffirm [King’s] mastery of the form” (The Washington Post).

Readers adore Stephen King’s novels, and his novellas are their own dark treat, briefer but just as impactful and enduring as his longer fiction. Many of his novellas have been made into iconic films, including “The Body” (Stand By Me) and “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” (Shawshank Redemption).

Four brilliant new tales in If It Bleeds are sure to prove as iconic as their predecessors. Once again, King’s remarkable range is on full display. In the title story, reader favorite Holly Gibney (from the Mr. Mercedes trilogy and The Outsider) must face her fears, and possibly another outsider—this time on her own. In “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” an intergenerational friendship has a disturbing afterlife. “The Life of Chuck” explores, beautifully, how each of us contains multitudes. And in “Rat,” a struggling writer must contend with the darker side of ambition.

If these novellas show King’s range, they also prove that certain themes endure. One of King’s great concerns is evil, and in If It Bleeds, there’s plenty of it. There is also evil’s opposite, which in King’s fiction often manifests as friendship. Holly is reminded that friendship is not only life-affirming but can be life-saving. Young Craig befriends Mr. Harrigan, and the sweetness of this late-in-life connection is its own reward.

“Exactly what I wanted to read right now,” said Ruth Franklin in a rave on the cover of The New York Times Book Review. “Phenomenal," said Brian Truitt in USA TODAY. “King still owns the fright business like none other.”

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A Man Called Ove
by Fredrik Backman

Ove

Holly’s Pick: After reading a Fredrik Backman novel, I always close its pages feeling immensely satisfied with a character’s growth—and I think that’s what makes almost every character he writes about feel iconic. Bestselling novel A MAN CALLED OVE is perhaps the perfect example. Ove is a miserable curmudgeon who spends his time sulking in anger. In Ove’s eyes, he is done with this world and is determined to off himself. But in his attempts, Ove is continuously (and thankfully) interrupted. After a chatty young family moves in next door, an unexpected friendship sparks. Readers will sit in heartfelt wonder as a cranky and miserable old man once again opens his heart, and the story continues to unfold in ways that’ll open your own heart in turn. I can’t wait for Tom Hanks to play him on the big screen and launch this already popular character into an icon for the ages.

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A Man Called Ove
Fredrik Backman

“If you like to laugh AND feel moved AND have your heart applaud wildly for fictional characters, you will certainly fall for the grumpy but lovable Ove (it’s pronounced “Oo-vuh,” if you were wondering).”

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The Secret of the Old Clock
by Carolyn Keene

Nancy Drew 

Kerry’s Pick: As an elementary student who loved mysteries, Nancy Drew was my go-to read. Every week, I visited the school library and picked up a new novel starring the plucky, whip-smart amateur sleuth, learning valuable lessons as I dove into each one. From how to be brave in the face of danger to learning how to read roman numerals (the vintage editions at my library listed all the chapters in this manner), Nancy Drew was and continues to be an indelible icon for me. She was clever, confident, and collected. She fearlessly went on spooky adventures with her best friends and dreamy boyfriend Ned. She always did the right thing and looked great doing so. I desperately wanted to be her, hoping that my own teenage years would be spent searching for clues in dilapidated old mansions with secret passageways. I even wrote my own Nancy Drew mystery on a long car trip, and today I proudly own official Nancy Drew stationery. Even though I haven’t read one of her books in years, she’s still, and will always be, my girl.

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The Secret of the Old Clock
Carolyn Keene

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One for the Money
by Janet Evanovich

Stephanie Plum

Heather’s Pick: Out of all the books I’ve read in my life, there are only a handful for which I can tell you exactly where I was the day I read them. Janet Evanovich’s first Stephanie Plum novel, ONE FOR THE MONEY, is one of them. A friend of the family was hosting a pool party, but I didn’t feel like swimming (sullen teenager alert), so instead, I spent the whole day in a comfy lounge chair getting to know Stephanie, Ranger, Morelli, Lula, Grandma Mazur, and the whole crew of side-splittingly funny characters. Several years and twenty-eight Stephanie Plum novels later, our favorite sassy bounty hunter’s status as a literary icon is indisputable.

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One for the Money
Janet Evanovich

Now available in a special 25th anniversary edition! Discover where it all began—#1 New York Times bestselling author Janet Evanovich’s first “snappily written, fast-paced, and witty” (USA TODAY) novel in the beloved Stephanie Plum series featuring a feisty and funny heroine who “comes roaring in like a blast of very fresh air” (The Washington Post).

Meet Stephanie Plum, a bounty hunter with attitude. In Stephanie’s opinion, toxic waste, rabid drivers, armed schizophrenics, and August heat, humidity, and hydrocarbons are all part of the great adventure of living in Jersey.

She’s a product of the “burg,” a blue-collar pocket of Trenton where houses are attached and narrow, cars are American, windows are clean, and (God forbid you should be late) dinner is served at six.

Out of work and out of money, Stephanie blackmails her bail-bondsman cousin Vinnie into giving her a try as an apprehension agent. Stephanie knows zilch about the job requirements, but she figures her new pal, el-primo bounty hunter Ranger, can teach her what it takes to catch a crook. Her first assignment: nail Joe Morelli, a former vice cop on the run from a charge of murder one. Morelli’s the inamorato who charmed Stephanie out of her virginity at age sixteen. There’s still powerful chemistry between them, so the chase should be interesting…and could also be extremely dangerous.

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The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Evelyn Hugo

Emily’s Pick: In reflecting on what makes a character iconic, I keep being drawn to the idea of mystery. What often elevates a character for me is when I can spend hours wholly absorbed in trying to figure them out. I had that experience reading about Evelyn Hugo. Even as her walls came down while she recounted her story of becoming a famous darling actress and her cycles of falling in love during the Golden Age of cinema, she kept up an air of mystery, but by the end she’d also started to feel like a real person. It’s easy to fall in love with her alongside reporter Monica as she uncovers Evelyn’s story in the present.

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The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
Taylor Jenkins Reid

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Photo credit: iStock / DmitriiSimakov

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