How to create memorable characters
Compelling characters serve your story and linger in the reader's mind
Promotional photo of Boris Karloff from The Bride of Frankenstein as Frankenstein's monster, via Wikimedia Commons.
A literary character is a complex creation. In most types of fiction^, your characters will need to be well-rounded; empathetic (if not likeable); act in a believable way; carry the story’s tensions; and have an arc that ties in with that of the narrative. They will most likely also represent, in conflict or concert with other characters, the themes of the overall work.
Many manuscripts fall down because their characters are weak and are not harmonious with the other elements of the work. These characters are cliched, flat; they are carried by events rather than having an effect on their unfolding; they answer their own questions (destroying tension); they are illogically uneven (rather than consistently complex); and they experience no meaningful growth despite the events occurring in the story.
How do you create meaningful, memorable, effective (in terms of their story role) characters and avoid the pitfalls? Here are five areas to consider:
Characterisation and character voice
What is meant by characterisation? It’s the full formation of your character: their likes, dislikes, desires, fears, habits, tics, physicality, and the background and environment that has shaped their psychology. Their voice – their unique ways of thinking, speaking, acting – will be informed by their characterisation, and how much they also know about themselves. You can play with this further by making smart choices about point of view: will we witness events through their eyes (first person), from somewhere over their shoulder (third person limited), or at a distance or as part of a cast of characters (omniscient third person or shifting points of view)?
Throughout the narrative, show the reader who they are through their actions, gestures, thoughts, dialogue, memories. Be careful not to open the book with a character profile, telling the reader who your character is. (This is extremely common in manuscripts I’ve worked on.) Instead, kick off the story, give us just enough, and let the reader discover more about your character as they act in accordance to the events of the narrative.
A character’s arc is, at its most basic, a shift in the character’s psychology from one state to another via their interactions with, and reactions to, the events of the plot. A character will be active in this, too. Things will not simply happen to them. They will fumble, make mistakes, get in their own way. Why? Because then there is tension. Because then the reader is invested in what they will do and how they will act – how they will find their way to where they want to be (or discover what that is).
What does your character want? And why? What they seek is often related to the forward motion of the narrative.
But what do they really want?
That is something you may not even know, to begin with. It can be fun to find out! Once you’ve figured out your character’s motivations, remember that you don’t have to explicitly tell the reader what they are. Instead you will show, consistently, through the character’s actions, what they desire and what desires they may be hiding (from others and/or from themselves). The realisation of a true motivation can form part of the crisis or resolution of your story.
Additionally, tie character motivation to the story’s central conflicts: the opposing forces that exist within the narrative and aid its tension. For example, Dr Frankenstein’s motivation to be a god-like creator, and the creature’s motivation to be acknowledged as human, represent the grand conflicts of Frankenstein such as morality vs ambition, humanity vs God and person vs self.
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing something set in 1400 or 2078 or in a fortress under the sea, your characters have to be plausible and believable. Their characterisation must be informed by the circumstances of their background and physical context. In this sense, creating characters is an aspect of world-building. They may also be informed by the tone of the overall text. Where it gets tricky is when your characters are required to act in certain ways in order for the plot to progress. You have to be creative in ensuring their actions are believable and not too obvious as story devices. When doing this, consider not only the character’s physical context but the above points of characterisation and motivation. Remember their desires (apparent and subconscious); remember who they are. Make them act accordingly. If they are acting out of character, unless it’s for plausible reasons, your story will fall down. You may have to adjust their characterisation and motivation back through the manuscript (get to know them all over again) in order to make the pieces fit the way they should.
I could honestly spend weeks writing about this. I haven’t covered secondary and background characters, how to write unconventional characters or ones that populate experimental narratives*, how to swap between multiple protagonists, how to create antagonistic characters… And, actually, I’m going to do it! Spend weeks on this, that is. I also want to create some in-depth case studies, so you have a range of models for creating characters. (It might just be an excuse to re-read some of my favourite books…)
So, I’ve decided to create a capsule course on creating compelling characters, to launch in October, and you can pre-order it here for a steal (70% off).
^ There are styles of literature that vary from what we might call mainstream, in which character plays a different kind of role rather than a narrative role. A place can be a character; an object can be a character; a character might actively invert some of what’s present here.
* In Samuel Beckett’s novel, Malone Dies, Malone essentially spends the book in bed. It is a book devoid of plot, situation or characters (in the sense described here) and yet is compelling, IMO. In works like this, the writer often understands what it is they are inverting, has a sophisticated grasp of the philosophical (or other) concepts they are engaging with, and has a strong ability to engage the reader on the line level.
Opportunity of the month
Entries close soon for the Richell Prize for Emerging Writers. It is open to unpublished writers of fiction and narrative nonfiction. You only have to send the first three chapters and a synopsis of your manuscript. The winner will receive $10,000 and a year’s mentoring with a publisher from Hachette Australia!
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Take care, stay safe, and get in touch if I can help with anything,