Crafting Memorable Characters

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

A convoluted, exciting plot or exotic, sensual setting is worthless without compelling characters. It doesn’t matter what happens in the story if the characters are boring, flat caricatures whom readers care nothing about. But like an episode of Seinfeld, a story “about nothing” can be entertaining if the characters are interesting. If readers care about the characters, they’ll keep reading.

Without a reason to care, readers will secretly hope a rogue Mack truck or pesky asteroid will swoop in and pulverize everyone. When this fails to happen, they’ll end their misery by closing the book—forever. If they don’t care what happens, why should they keep reading?

In his review of Accordion Crimes, Walter Kendrick of the NY Times lavished praise on Annie Proulx’s way with words, her attention to detail, and her impeccable research. He praises her prose as “brilliant”. And yet, he sums up his review by saying “Ms. Proulx wrings glorious language from her characters’ agony, yet in the end the spectacle is both repellent and trivial.”i

Accordion Crimesii is a novel without a single compelling character. The book follows an accordion as it passes through a series of owners, but these characters are generic and uninspired. They appear to exist only so that they can meet increasingly more ludicrous fates—even if they manage to generate an iota of sympathy, they aren’t around long enough for readers to bother. The lack of intriguing characters in Accordion Crimes makes the quality of the writing and the depth of the author’s research irrelevant.

One of the many negative reviews at Amazon reads, “I have been reading this book for months, am almost done with it, and I still don’t know if I’ll ever finish it, it is that uninteresting. This author writes marvelous prose and I loved “The Shipping News”, however, I have been totally unable to develop an interest in the characters, the accordion, the crimes; the total absence of humanity in any of these characters is remarkable. Should one become slightly interested in the fate of one of these families, it is too late, as they will be devastated by a weird calamity and that will be the end of them. This book was eminently putdownable.”iii

Naturally, we want to prevent this from happening in our own writing. We want to create characters so convincing that they keep readers turning pages, characters who, like Holden Caulfield, Scarlett O’Hara & Rhett Butler, Heathcliff, Huck Finn & Tom Sawyer, Anna Karenina, Jay Gatsby, Ebenezer Scrooge and Jo March, are so memorable they stick in our minds long after the details of the plot have faded.iv

A memorable character is composed of three basic elements: they must have a history, they must need or want something, and they must have both good and bad qualities.

Background Image: Thomas Hawk/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

A HISTORY. Characters must have a history and you, the writer, must know this history. Based on their past, you know how they’ll act and react in whatever situation they find themselves in. But even though you may know such minutiae about your character as their favorite brand of toothpaste, the color of their hair at birth or how their front tooth was chipped, it’s not necessary for your readers know all these details. Many times even more significant information can be left unsaid. In Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway said: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”v

To use Hemingway himself as an example, in The Sun Also Risesvi, we know that Jake Barnes is unable to perform sexually, but Hemingway never actually comes right out and supplies us with all the gory details of Jake’s injury. That in itself is not important. What is important are the consequences of that injury: how the characters react to it.

A NEED. Characters must want or need something. It’s what makes what you’re writing a story! Sometimes characters may not know what they want, but you, the writer, must know. Characters may achieve what they want/need or they may be stymied in their attempt to possess it, but regardless of how the story turns out, they must be given a choice of actions on the way to the conclusion. They can make the wrong choice, the right choice or choose not to choose, but if they don’t have the opportunity, you don’t have a story. Readers don’t want to feel that the character’s fate has been predetermined. There needs to be an element of surprise, the possibility that things could turn out more than one way—that’s what keeps them reading.

Anne Shirley, the orphaned protagonist of Anne of Green Gablesvii, wants a place to call home and a family who loves her. When she is selected from the orphanage by an acquaintance of people who are looking for a child, she thinks her dreams have been answered. But it turns out a mistake has been made—the bachelor brother and spinster sister wanted a boy to help out on their farm, not a girl. Do they keep her or send her back? And so it goes through the book. While the story ultimately has a happy ending, Anne faces a series of obstacles on her road to happiness and each time there is a choice to be made.

BOTH GOOD & BAD QUALITIES. The more “human” characters are, the more believable they’ll be. Real people are not 100% good or 100% evil; they fall somewhere in between. Let your characters exhibit inconsistencies in behavior: an otherwise perfect priest may be unable to keep his vow of celibacy, a sweet stay-at-home mom may clean her house in the nude, a straight-A college student may be addicted to methamphetamines.

In Belovedviii by Toni Morrison, Sethe kills one of her children. But this terrible act doesn’t make readers hate her, instead, we feel more deeply for her and her plight and we wonder what we would we do if we were in her situation. It’s the protagonist’s defects that endear them to readers. Real people are not martyrs; they behave in ways that are not always admirable. No one can relate to a character who’s perfect.

Readers need to see a little bit of themselves in the characters, and that goes for antagonists too. Give your antagonist some good qualities—this will make them human and real, rather than impossibly wicked: a serial killer may break down when his cherished dog is run over, a cliquey high schooler who torments less popular students may be the primary caregiver for an ailing parent. Don’t tell your readers to hate your antagonist; let them make up their own minds.

If you provide your characters with a history, a need, and both good and bad qualities, your readers will be engrossed to the last page and will close the book dreaming of sequels. And perhaps your characters will even become iconic, like Jake, Anne and Sethe. Characters that have transcended the books they live in. Characters that everyone recognizes and no one can forget.

iWalter Kendrick, “The Song of the Squeeze-Box”, The New York Times, June 23, 1996

iiE. Annie Proulx, Accordion Crimes, Scribner, 1996 reviews of Accordion Crimes

ivHolden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger), Scarlett O’Hara & Rhett Butler (Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell), Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë), Huck Finn & Tom Sawyer (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain), Anna Karenina (Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy), Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald), Ebenezer Scrooge (A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens), Jo March (Little Women, Louisa May Alcott)

vErnest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon, Scribner, 1932

viErnest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, Scribner, 1926

viiL.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables,1908

viiiToni Morrison, Beloved, Knopf, 1987

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