IT WAS AN invitation no book reviewer could refuse. Several weeks ago, well in advance of the pre-Christmas turmoil, I and a dozen other regular reviewers of fiction for Book World received an invitation to participate in a holiday symposium on this tantalizing question: "Which character in fiction would you most like to be, and why?"

Not in the least surprisingly, none of those offered the chance to participate in this novel seminar declined to do so. For some, as you can see from the pieces below, the choice was easy; for others it was difficult, torn as they were among a number of characters who had managed to work their way into their hearts.

AS FOR ME, like any good American boy I toyed for a while with Huck Finn, whose voyage down the Mississippi rests at the very core of our national mythology. Tom Jones was tempting, too, for reasons that require no elaboration. Evelyn Waugh's Guy Crouchback, Robert Graves' Claudius, John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee, Gabriel Garc,ia M,arquez's Colonel Aureliano Buendia . . . no doubt by now you get my drift.

But the choice, if the truth be known, was incredibly easy. Without a moment's backward glance I marched right into those 11 books wherein are chronicled, by Cecil Scott Forester, the heroic life and magnificent adventures of Horatio Hornblower, a.k.a. Admiral of the Fleet the Viscount Hornblower, G.C.B. No deep reflection was required to arrive at this choice, no agonized soul-searching, no dark inner torment. For 35 years I have wanted to be Horatio Hornblower. Why stop now?

But why Hornblower? Well, the first and most obvious reason is that he is, most indisputably, a hero. His sinking of the Natividad while captain of the Lydia -- a mere frigate sending a ship of the line to Davy Jones's locker! -- is an act of astonishing seamanship and courage. His series of raids against the coast of Southern France while captain of the Sutherland is bold, imaginative and resourceful, as is his battle against four French warships, a battle he eventually loses but not before fatally disabling the French Mediterranean fleet. His escape from captivity and certain death in France is brilliant, and as for his capture of The Witch of Endor and his triumphant return to England -- that, sir, is the stuff of legend.

Small wonder that in the Pacific, after taking the Natividad, he was known as "the lord of the South Sea" or that, in the words of his faithful Lieutenant Bush, "The men worship him, ma'am." I mean, wouldn't you like to be worshipped by your men? For that matter, wouldn't you like to have men -- a whole crew of fellows dashing this way and that in cheerful obedience to your orders and all the while Lady Barbara Wellesley hopefully awaiting you below decks? Just imagine it: "the unbounded liberty -- the widest freedom on earth -- of being a captain of a ship." And wouldn't it just about shiver your timbers -- not to mention your mizzenmast and your quarterdeck and your carronades -- to be known to 50 million frightened Frenchmen as "the Terror of the Mediterranean"?

Of course it would. But those distinctions, grand though they are, tell only half the tale about Horatio Hornblower. Unlike most other heroes of naval literature, Hornblower is no mere cardboard daredevil. Just as his adventures are invariably plausible, so too is Hornblower himself. Great deeds are done, but it is a singularly fallible and complex person who does them and one with whom, I am honored to be able to say, I share more than a few common traits and habits. Hornblower has trained his crew, as I have been unable to train my wife, to morning silence: "During this first hour of the day the captain was not to be spoken to, nor his train of thought interrupted." Just as I drag myself through a walk of many miles each day, "he, a naturally indolent individual who hated routine, forced himself to take that regular morning walk on the quarterdeck." Both of us are afflicted with the "besetting sin of garrulity" and guard constantly against it, though he is considerably more successful than I. Both of us dislike the aristocracy; "it hurt him nowadays to remember that as the doctor's son he had had to touch his cap to the squire." Both of us love books and tend toward conservative tastes:

"Hornblower championed the cause of the classical school which looked back to the days of Queen Anne against the barbarous leaders of the revolt who seemed to delight in setting every established rule at defiance. (Lady Barbara) heard him with patience, even with approval, as he talked of Gibbon (the object of his sincerest admiration) and Johnson and Swift, when he quoted from Pope and Gray, but she could approve of the barbarians as well. There was a madman called Wordsworth of whose revolutionary opinions in literature Hornblower had heard with vague horror; Lady Barbara thought there was something to be said for him. She turned the tables neatly on Hornblower by claiming Gray as a precursor of the same school; she quoted Campbell and that Gothic innovator, Scott, and she won Hornblower's grudging approval of an ungainly poem called 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,' although he maintained sturdily, in the last ditch, that its only merit lay in its content, and that it would have been infinitely better had Pope dealt with the theme in heroic couplets -- especially if Pope had been assisted by someone who knew more about navigation and seamanship than did this Coleridge fellow."

Still it is not, of course, for what we have in common that I yearn to be Hornblower but for what we do not. He is a great taker of risks whose "coldblooded calculation of chances" is exquisitely accurate. In battle he is possessed by a "fierce, relentless determination" that washes away "the physical fear of which he was so intolerably ashamed." He is possessed by self-doubt -- his "persistent and unfounded disbelief in his own capacity left him continually frightened of professional disgrace and ruin" -- but does not permit it to inhibit him in crisis, in fact he is able "to appear a strong silent capable man, unmoved by emotion." Fame, when it comes to him, disquiets him: "He was surprised at himself at finding that he neither liked being cheered by tinkers nor flattered by politicians."

Self-doubting, insecure, worried over money, racked by grief and unwarranted guilt at the death of his first wife, nervous about the good opinion of his men, fretful about the course of his career, superstitious, hot-tempered, impatient -- at every turn Hornblower's humanity shines through. What matters most about him is not that he is a great seaman or that, in the Napoleonic Wars and elsewhere, he is a central participant in great events. No, what matters most about him is that he is a great man. That, above all else, is why I would like to be Horatio Hornblower.