James Plath profile IWU professor

 Wesleyan Professor James Plath had co-authors jump on board to help him tackle his goal, a book about 100 of the greatest literary characters.

Before he began work on his newest book “The 100 Greatest Literary Characters,” professor of English at Illinois Wesleyan University James Plath thought he would complete the manuscript himself. 

“Unfortunately, shortly after I signed the contract, I learned why I was so chronically tired: I had lymphoma,” Plath said. “The next two years involved chemo and plugging away with my teaching and other responsibilities.  I got so far behind on the 100 Characters book that I knew I had to get co-authors to come onboard.”

Plath, alongside co-authors Kirk Curnutt and Gail D. Sinclair, published the completed book on July 15. 

Each contributor agreed to write a series of 1200-word essays focusing on individual characters from the list of 100 but narrowing down the list proved to be a challenge itself.

“A Google advanced algorithm estimates that in modern history close to 130 million books have been published. It’s humanly impossible to read them all, and so we wrestled with the idea of compiling a list like this,” Plath said.

He explained that eventually, the three authors came to an agreement about the method they would use to select characters.

“We decided to prioritize those who have somehow entered the collective public consciousness, ones who were influential models for others to follow, and ones who have become so popular with readers that they have become significant, memorable or even cherished,” Plath said.

However, the authors made sure to include vibrant, underrepresented characters by allowing each writer to select five characters of their choice, if the others approved. 

After the list construction, the authors had to get to work to meet heavy deadlines.

“We had to reread or read for the first time the book in which our assigned character appeared, then acquaint ourselves with any criticism, interesting reviews, then search to find out how much of a pop culture influence the character has been,” Plath said. 

Plath compared an upcoming deadline to rain clouds on the horizon, explaining the way that deadlines transform reading from a leisurely activity to a legal commitment.

“And finally, because life continues to intrude, and you continue to fall short, you get to that final stretch run where you do the math and break it down to what you have to accomplish,” Plath said. 

If readers don’t find their favorite character in the published book, they can rest assured that the character may have been a heated point of discussion between co-authors. 

“There were at least another 100 characters that deserved to be included — maybe more,” Plath said. “With three co-authors, the list became a negotiation, but I think the book is stronger for it.”

MAIA HUDDLESTON is a News Reporter for The Vidette. She can be contacted at mkhuddl@ilstu.edu Follow her on Twitter at @maiawrites 

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