If you have ever written fiction, or simply wanted to write fiction, you’ve come up against one of the most important questions in writing; how do you make memorable characters? There is no simple answer to this, but I’ll try anyway.
Think of memorable characters you’ve encountered in fiction, the one who make you long for their return when they are not in a scene. What makes them memorable? Here are a few possibilities:
The character is insanely competent- Think Sherlock Holmes, Hermione Granger, Atticus Finch
The character is flawed in interesting ways- Think Miss Haversham, Ignatius J. Reilly, Holden Caulfield
The character is strong/wise/infallible- Think Gandalf, Sherlock Holmes, Atticus Finch, Jeeves
The character is flamboyant/loud/ a force of nature- Think Ignatius J. Reilly, Don Quixote,
The character lives in his/her own world- Think Holly Golightly
The character is obsessed with a mission or an idea- Think Raskolnikov, Captain Ahab, Kurtz
The character is independent, but reacts to the world around him- Think Huckleberry Finn, Robinson Crusoe
So what does this all mean? Can you take the quirks of these characters and create a new one? Probably not. Some authors try to make a character memorable by piling on the quirks. You know; a Lithuanian-Brazilian detective that skydives, collects antique silver, writes best selling novels, brews his own craft beer, sleeps in a hammock, and only dates women whose names begin with a vowel. The problem is that a character can be unique but still not be interesting. We all know unique people that we have no desire to spend time with. So here are a few modest suggestions:
1- A good character does not exist in isolation. You should have a backstory for each character. Where did he come from? What did he do before the story started? How did the character come to be wherever the story starts? Maybe he has a secret that affects what he does.
2- A good character should have flaws. That’s why Batman is more interesting than Superman
3- A good character should be easily distinguishable from the other characters. That can mean quirks, but only a few, and not too outrageous. Maybe he has a weird expression he uses all the time, like Cowabunga, or How cool is that? One easy way is to distinguish a character is in dress. John Dickson Carr’s famous detective Gideon Fell was a huge man who wore a cape, a monocle on a ribbon, and a “shovel hat” (whatever that is). All these quirks might be borderline irritating, but are relatively minor.Exception: An outrageous, bigger than life character such as Ignatius J Reilly has huge quirks.
4. A good character should act in a way that bounces off the other characters.
5. A good character has yin and yang. He has different moods and different aspects. If he’s a good person, he occasionally falls short, but in minor ways. If he’s a bad character, he has the occasional outbreak of compassion/mercy, usually when the reader least expects it.
Well, that was simple enough, wasn’t it?