10 Lessons from your favorite fictional American icons

Jun 26, 2014 at 1:07 p.m. ET
Image: WENN

There's so much to learn from books, and I'm not talking biology, algebra and world history. I'm talking life lessons.

Hannibal Lecter.

Photo credit: WENN.com

Books show life as we would like it — or a life we dread. A good book does not just tell a story. No, what makes a book great is its characters, and in the history of American literature, there are some whoppers.

As we celebrate our nation's independence, let's take a look at some of the most iconic American characters from literature and what they can teach us about life.

1. Jay Gatsby: Let go of the past.

Jay Gatsby

Jay Gatsby is way more than a character played by Leonardo DiCaprio. He's the tragic hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald's most famous work, The Great Gatsby. Gatsby rises above poverty, strikes it rich, builds a huge house and throws decadent parties — all in an effort to get the attention of Daisy Buchanan. He grasps for the love they once shared, now gone, and because of this, he ends up dead. I'm not saying you're going to end up dead if you hang on to the past, but how can you face the future if you're always looking behind you?

2. Guy Montag: Do what’s right (even when popular opinion says it's wrong).

Guy Montag

Guy Montag is a fireman in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. His job is to hunt down and burn books, but one day, he steals one to find out what these book things are really about. Guy soon becomes The Enemy, and his old friends vow to hunt him down. Luckily, Guy finds an underground world of fellow independent thinkers, but they're certainly not popular. That's the thing about Guy, though: He knew what he was doing was wrong, and even though the powers that be would have him act in accordance with the law, he escaped the boundaries of convention. You can, too. If you see injustice, don't go with the flow. Stand up, even if you get burned for it.

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3. Dagny Taggart: Sometimes you have to quit to get ahead.

Dagny Taggart

Ayn Rand's world of Atlas Shrugged is one of industry and power. Dagny is a powerful railway woman among men. She knows who she is and what she wants. She knows how to run a business. Soon, though, the laws of America try to bring her down while whispers of a revolutionary named John Galt keep the straightlaced in a state of panic. Dagny does eventually give up her railroad, but in giving up, she does not fail. She finds the freedom to give up one dream in exchange for another. We hate to say we "quit" anything (except, like, smoking), so it's hard to condone such an act. Still, sometimes giving up on one thing frees you to fully focus on something else, and that something might just be the reason you're here.

4. Ender Wiggin: Where you're from has no bearing on where you're going.

Ender Wiggin

In the world of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, being the third child meant being shunned. Due to Ender being a "third," he is mercilessly bullied and constantly reminded of his existence as a mistake. Despite this, Ender becomes the star of Command School and eventually a brave revolutionary. Many of us may have humble beginnings and even past regrets, but neither of those things should ever stop us from looking ahead and conquering the world.

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5. Sara Howard: Screw cultural boundaries.

Sara Howard

New York in the 1800s was not a woman's world, especially in the criminal justice system. Still, in Caleb Carr's massive bestseller, The Alienist, he introduces the character of Sara Howard. Following the brutal murder of a young boy, she is called in as the first woman hired by the police department to assist on the case. What a shocking gesture! Women were supposed to be at home, cooking, cleaning and wearing pretty dresses, not getting their hands covered in blood. Ms. Howard shows that boundaries are made to be broken, with impressive consequence.

6. Edna Pontellier: It's never too late to make a change.

Edna Pontillier

In Kate Chopin's controversial narrative The Awakening, Edna Pontellier is unhappily married and unhappy as a mother. For the love of a younger man, she throws away her careful social constructs and becomes an independent woman in a time when women were not independent. I'm not saying to divorce your husband and put your kids in an orphanage. However, it is important to remember that when we're unhappy, it's never too late to change something. Age doesn't matter. If every day is filled with drudgery and stress, stop it. You run your own life. If you're unhappy, decide to be happy. It's never too late.

7. The Narrator/Tyler Durden: Sometimes it's OK to be crazy.

The Narrator / Tyler Durden

The narrator of Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club has a multiple personality disorder problem that beats the crap out of him. On a scale of one to 10, he's at wack job. But because of the narrator's touch of crazy, he wakes up and realizes he's sick of working a job he hates so he can buy crap he doesn't need. He hits rock bottom and wakes up purposeful, sane. We try to keep it together, don't we? When people ask how we're doing, we default to "fine." Everything's fine — but what if it isn't? What if you have a day where you don't feel fine? What if you have a day when you want to be wild? Do it. A little crazy never hurt anybody. In the case of Palahniuk's narrator, crazy set him free.

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8. Atticus Finch: Live by example.

Atticus Finch

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is filled with excellent characters, but Atticus has always stuck with me. He's a lawyer who takes on an incredibly controversial court case to defend a black man in 1930s America. Meanwhile, Atticus, a widower, is raising two small children who don't quite understand what the court case is all about. Yet Atticus leads by example. He teaches his children about race through his own reactions. You can have the same effect. Despite what you think, someone is always watching (not Big Brother, but...). Be the best you can be, and who knows who you might inspire?

9. Hannibal Lecter: Charm gets you everywhere.

Hannibal Lecter

I know what you're thinking: a cannibal on this list? Totally. Hannibal Lecter is one charming dude. You totally want him to eat that annoying prison guard, right? Author Thomas Harris struck character gold in The Silence of the Lambs. Despite what you might think, we could all learn something from Hannibal — just not in the kitchen. He's a charmer. He makes people like him and trust him, because he's charming. I'm here to tell you that charm gets you places. A simple smile or "thank you" can open dozens of doors. It's the thing your mom probably ingrained in you as a kid: Use your manners, and charm the heck out of people.

10. Scarlett O'Hara: Fight for what's yours.

Scarlett O'Hara

She's a spitfire, of course, but she's more than a lady with an attitude. Scarlett O'Hara is Margaret Mitchell's best-known heroine from Gone with the Wind. When Scarlett loses her home during the Civil War, she fights to get it back. When she loses her fortune, she does what she has to in order to feed her family. When she loses her love, she won't take no for an answer. Scarlett will do anything to get what she deserves, and so should you. Fight for your name. Fight for your job. Fight for the love of your life. You've got nothing to lose but regret.

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