best historical fiction war books

10 Unforgettable Historical War Fiction Characters: Heroes and Antiheroes of the Battlefield

Historical war fiction has long been a captivating genre, transporting readers to the frontlines of some of the most significant conflicts in human history. Within these gripping narratives, readers encounter various characters—heroes and antiheroes alike—who leave an indelible mark on the battlefield and in readers’ hearts. In this article, we’ll explore 10 unforgettable historical war fiction characters from some of the best historical fiction war books.

Captain John Yossarian (Catch-22 by Joseph Heller)

Captain John Yossarian, the protagonist of Joseph Heller’s satirical novel Catch-22, is a reluctant bombardier stationed on a U.S. Army Air Forces base during World War II. Yossarian’s efforts to evade combat and maintain his sanity in the face of bureaucratic absurdity make him a memorable antihero of the battlefield.

Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Apocalypse Now by Joseph Conrad)

Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, immortalized by Robert Duvall in Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, is a fearless and larger-than-life figure who epitomizes the brutality and madness of the Vietnam War. Kilgore’s iconic line—”I love the smell of napalm in the morning”—has become synonymous with the horrors of war.

Pierre Bezukhov (War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy)

Pierre Bezukhov, one of the central characters in Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace, undergoes a profound transformation as he navigates the tumultuous events of the Napoleonic Wars. From his experiences on the battlefield to his inner struggles with identity and purpose, Pierre’s journey reflects the complexities of war and its impact on the human psyche.

Liesel Meminger (The Book Thief by Markus Zusak)

Liesel Meminger, the young protagonist of Markus Zusak’s novel The Book Thief, finds solace and courage in the power of words amidst the devastation of World War II-era Germany. As she navigates the horrors of war and the loss of loved ones, Liesel’s resilience and humanity shine brightly in the darkest times.

Captain John Miller (Saving Private Ryan)

Captain John Miller, portrayed by Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan, leads a squad of soldiers on a dangerous mission to locate and bring home a paratrooper whose brothers have been killed in action during World War II. Miller’s unwavering commitment to duty and sacrifice epitomizes the heroism of the Greatest Generation.

Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Inglourious Basterds)

Lieutenant Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt in Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglourious Basterds, leads a group of Jewish-American soldiers on a vengeful crusade against Nazi officers in occupied France during World War II. Raine’s ruthless tactics and unwavering determination to defeat the enemy make him a formidable—and unforgettable—figure on the battlefield.

Anne Frank (The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank)

Anne Frank’s poignant and profoundly moving diary, chronicling her experiences as a Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam during World War II, remains one of the most enduring and heartbreaking accounts of wartime survival. Anne’s resilience, hope, and unwavering faith in humanity continue to inspire readers around the world.

Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins)

Katniss Everdeen, the fearless and resourceful heroine of Suzanne Collins’s dystopian novel The Hunger Games, symbolizes resistance and rebellion against an oppressive regime in a post-apocalyptic world. Katniss’ courage and determination to protect her loved ones and challenge the status quo make her a memorable character in the annals of war fiction.

Captain Benjamin Willard (Apocalypse Now)

Captain Benjamin Willard, portrayed by Martin Sheen in Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, embarks on a perilous journey up the Nung River in Vietnam to assassinate a rogue colonel gone mad. Willard’s descent into the heart of darkness mirrors the moral ambiguity and existential crises soldiers face in war.

Thomas “Tommy” Shelby (Peaky Blinders)

Thomas “Tommy” Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy in the television series Peaky Blinders, is a charismatic and cunning gangster who rises to prominence in post-World War I Birmingham, England. Tommy’s strategic brilliance and ruthless ambition make him a formidable—and morally complex—figure in historical fiction.

The Bottom Line

From the trenches of World War I to the jungles of Vietnam and the streets of post-war England, the characters of historical war fiction continue to captivate readers with their courage, resilience, and humanity. Whether heroes or antiheroes, these unforgettable figures remind us of the enduring power of the human spirit in the face of adversity—and the eternal truths revealed on the battlefield.