5 qualities of an unforgettable character

Think of your favorite character from a book or a movie. What makes them your favorite? What makes them worthy of remembering? Is it the way they dress? They way they talk? Their general attitude about life, the universe, and everything?

I tried to list the first most memorable characters who came to my mind, and this is the list I made:

  • Stephanie Plum (Janet Evanovich)
  • Captain Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean)
  • Trixie Belden (Carolyn Keene)
  • John McLane (Die Hard)
  • Khan (Star Trek)

Any of those ring a bell? If you haven’t met any of these people, I highly recommend it, especially if you want to learn how to create and present a truly memorable character. Those are just the ones that popped up in my brain. There are tons and tons and tons more for every book or movie or television show out there.

What makes them memorable?

Honestly, it varies for every person. If you ask five people who the most memorable characters in their minds are, you’ll probably get five different characters for each five people. We’re all unique, so different characters will resonate with us differently.

But is there a process to creating a character who your readers will never forget? Maybe not a process. But there are certainly aspects to character design that you’ll want to make sure you include. This isn’t an exhaustive list, of course, but these are usually the things that matter to me when I’m looking at a character.

1. Make them funny

Johnny Depp as the immortal Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies

Nothing screams, “Remember me!” like a funny character. From Stephanie Plum’s voice to Jack Sparrow’s swagger, I don’t think anyone who encounters either of them will forget them. But writing funny isn’t always easy. If you aren’t naturally funny, it’s even harder to fake.

Katherine Heigl in One for the Money, the movie adaptation of Janet Evanovich's book by the same title
Katherine Heigl in One for the Money, the movie adaptation of Janet Evanovich’s book by the same title

Some people are just born with the understanding of comedic timing, and without that understanding, humor can be hard to grasp. But humor can be studied. Even if you aren’t “born funny” you can still keep your eyes and ears open and pay attention to what makes people laugh. Figure it out, and then integrate it into our character.

And it doesn’t have to be crude. I’m really not a fan of crude humor. I’m a fan of Carol Burnett and Bill Cosby, the old-fashioned comedians who used storytelling to entertain instead of shock value.

With that being said, Stephanie Plum is outrageously funny.

2. Make them larger than life

Characters who are larger than life do the things we wish we could do but never would. For instance, a normal woman who has her purse stolen would probably just call for help. A larger than life character who has her purse stolen would chase after the thief, tackle him, and beat him up.

Bruce Willis as John McLane in the original Die Hard movie
Bruce Willis as John McLane in the original Die Hard movie

In real life, I’m not sure if a cop on vacation would try to wreak havoc with the plans of high-class thief masquerading as an international terrorist like John McLane does in the first Die Hard movie. But there are plenty of other things a regular NYPD cop would never do in real life that are featured in the other five movies. But John McLane isn’t real life. He’s larger than life.

Make a list of things you’ve always wanted to do but never have—things that common courtesy or social expectations or whatever prevent you from doing. Then work those things into your character and see what happens. Personally, I’ve always wanted to run around barefoot at my office, but I don’t dare because it’s unprofessional. But I’ve got a character who would.

3. Make them ordinary people with extraordinary problems

Bill is a retired veteran with a tomato garden in the flower bed outside his house. Every morning, he waters his tomato plants, but he worries because there isn’t enough rain. He may not get enough tomatoes to eat this summer, so he might have to buy some from the grocery store.

Are you on the edge of your seat? Yeah, I thought you might be.

No! Bill might be a super nice guy, but everybody who has a garden has the same trouble with weeds and drought and floods and bugs. Bill as an ordinary guy is great, but he won’t be memorable until he has an extraordinary problem. Now, if his tomatoes start trying to eat him, that would be memorable.

John McLane fits here too. Ordinary New York cop. Extraordinary problems with terrorists and things of that nature. Trixie Belden also goes here. If you haven’t read the Trixie Belden mystery books, you’re missing out. She’s so much better than Nancy Drew.

Trixie Belden and the Mystery Off Glen Road
Trixie Belden and the Mystery Off Glen Road

Trixie Belden ends up solving all sorts of mysteries around her home and school and around the country too, as the series continues. There are about 34 of them. There’s nothing really special about her. She’s not particularly pretty. She has three brothers and a dog. She’s an ordinary 14-year-old girl. But not many 14 year olds jump into solving mysteries alongside detectives and police officers. And the thing about Trixie is she doesn’t go looking for them. Things just happen to her. And she responds.

What’s something extraordinary that can happen to your character? Ordinary people are good because your readers can identify with them, but ordinary circumstances are boring. Remember story is conflict. Great stories need big conflicts.

4. Make them sympathetic

This is one of those writing terms that doesn’t always make sense on first read. What is a sympathetic character? It’s someone who you care about. A sympathetic character is someone you’re rooting for, someone you want to win, someone you want to overcome the challenges in their life.

Again, like John McLane. He’s a good guy. Trying to be a good husband, a good dad, a good cop. But life just seems to be against him.

But there’s something you need to consider about creating a sympathetic character—they don’t have to be heroes.

If you can create a villain, and make them an obvious villain, but still manage to make them a sympathetic character, you’ll have an extremely memorable character.

Khan (Ricardo Montalban) and Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch)
Khan (Ricardo Montalban) and Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch)

One of my favorite villains is Khan, actually both incarnations of him (Ricardo Montalban’s version in 1967/1982 and Benedict Cumberbatch’s version in 2009). Brilliant, brilliant character work. The guy is absolutely a villain, but his origins make us pity him. His background makes us feel sorry for him. And even though we can’t condone his actions, on some level, we understand his reasons.

Take your villain and make sure they have reasons for being villainous. Don’t just make them evil for evil’s sake. Readers don’t always respond to one-dimensional characters like that. And the same is true for heroes. Your “good guys” should have as much depth and design as your “bad guys.”

5. Make them quirky

Benedict Cumberbatch trying to give away the secret of how Sherlock survived with the use of a toy monkey

And last but not least, memorable characters usually have something quirky about them that makes them stand out. Stephanie Plum has her love of donuts. Jack Sparrow has his drunken walk and his sea turtles, mate. Trixie Belden has her sandy curls, and John McLane has his catchphrases (“Yippee-kai-yay!”). And Khan? Well, Khan of 1980s repute has his love of Shakespeare, and Khan of 2009? Well, he’s Benedict Cumberbatch, so how can you forget him anyway?

Memorable stories need memorable characters. This is just a brief glimpse at a few of my favorite characters and what I think makes them memorable.

My list is woefully short. I could do a blog just on characters and never run out of material. What about you? Have you got a character you particularly like?

A.C. Williams

Amy Williams left a lucrative career in marketing to write novels about space cowboys, clumsy church secretaries, American samurai, and alternate dimensions. Along the way, she also discovered a passion for teaching other creative professionals how to use technology to make life easier. Through video instruction or one-on-one coaching, she teaches software, blogging, basic graphic design, and many other useful skills that help creative entrepreneurs get stuff done minus the frustration.

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