Creating vivid characters


I am far from an expert on writing. If I were, I would be published by now, right? But for every novel or short story I’ve ever written, the one comment I get all the time is how real my characters seem and how vivid they are. And the other day, someone asked me how I do it. And honestly? … I hadn’t really thought about it.

I’ve been creating characters since I was in kindergarten, not imaginary friends but characters who play huge roles in epic stories. Whether it was the My Little Ponies or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, every toy I played with as a child had a personality all its own; those personalities figured in to whatever story I was telling. It’s the same with writing, and I guess my natural inclination to attribute human characteristics to inanimate objects carried over from toys to people who live in my brain.

So how do you create a memorable character?

The study of fiction throughout history provides a vast variety of options for creating memorable characters. And I’m not just talking protagonists. I’m talking side characters too.

I have a love for side characters. Maybe it’s because I am something of a side character myself in the story of life. I have an affinity for them, so most of the time my side characters are more interesting than my main characters.

But how do you make them stand out? Do you give them funny colored hair and eyes? Do you make them talk funny? Do you dress them in odd clothing? Those are all good devices for identification.

I just finished reading The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan, number two in the Wheel of Time series, and I ran across a character who only appeared once in the first book, The Eye of the World. But the only way I remembered him was the funny way he speaks. I didn’t remember his name. I didn’t remember the name of the ship he captained. But I did remember his strange dialect that changes all his nots to nos. (e.g. “I did no hear you come in.”) So dialectical peculiarities are definitely a way to make a character stand out. But until I get to know this guy a little better, he isn’t going to be memorable.

I had a similar experience with one of my drafts of the science fiction trilogy I’m working on. The first book is called Nameless, and at one point there’s a character walking through a busy space port. He’s wearing a red scarf. I spent two paragraphs talking about the character in the red scarf walking around in the space port, and none of my betas picked up on the fact that it was important. Why? Well, as far as they’re concerned, it’s just a guy in a red scarf. There’s nothing beneath it to catch their attention and hold it.

That’s the key. You can catch someone’s attention, yes; but can you hold it? And that’s where the memorable part of memorable character comes in.

The key to crafting a memorable character is to make them real.

They have to make mistakes. They have to hurt other people. They have to trip and fall down. They have to royally screw up their lives. They can’t be perfect. Because if they do everything right, nobody will care what happens to them. That’s just the way it is. We don’t care about people who do everything right; if they do everything right, they’ve already got their lives figured out, and there’s no story.

Story is conflict.

If your main character never does anything wrong or never has anything wrong happen to them, you don’t have a story. Your main character either has to be conflicted about something or has to encounter conflict around him, but conflict has to exist.

Example? Elizabeth Bennett. On the surface, Elizabeth Bennett doesn’t really do anything wrong. She’s a polite, intelligent, witty woman born in an era that doesn’t appreciate her intelligence and wit, and she encounters Mr. Darcy, a man who presents himself as a pompous, proud, miserable gentleman. So what does she do? She makes a snap judgment about his character. Granted, he does the same thing. And that’s part of why Pride and Prejudice is such an endearing story. The two main characters misjudge each other and others around them. And I don’t know about you, but I do that all the time.

Another example? Slightly more obscure? Trixie Belden. Are there any Trixie Belden fans out there? As a kid, I grew up reading Trixie Belden and the original Nancy Drew series, and let me assure you, Trixie has Nancy beat. Don’t get me wrong. I loved Nancy Drew, but she was just too good for me. She was an adult practically. She was polite and appropriate all the time, even when she was doing things that weren’t exactly legal. Trixie Belden, on the other hand, is a rough, tough, teenage tomboy from rural New York. She’s harsh. She’s brash. She’s majorly impulsive. She leaps to conclusions and jumps to suspicions. She argues with her brothers and squabbles with her parents. Guess what? I’ve been there and done that. I identified with Trixie Belden as a kid, except Trixie got to solve exciting mysteries and I didn’t.

See where I’m going with this?

If you want memorable characters, characters who reach off the page and grab your reader by the heart and refuse to let go until they’ve finished the next chapter, your characters have to be like real people. You don’t have to base them on real people, although you can. But you have to present them in a way that makes the readers care about them. And to do that, your readers have to be able to identify with your characters.

So how do you do it?

The best place to look is in the mirror.

Your characters aren’t you, but they’re close. You will leave a piece of yourself in every character you create. Part of your personal story, if you will. Accept it. It’s just how writing works. You can’t write about a character until you truly know and understand that character, and you can’t truly know and understand that character until you’ve invested yourself in him or her, and by the time you invest in him or her, you’ve imprinted so much of yourself onto that character that they will become a part of your life.

So start with yourself. Start with your own experiences. What makes your heart clench? What makes you cry? What makes you hurt? When have you been the most angry? When have you been the most sad? When have you been the most frightened?

Look back on those memories and dig deep into the reasons why they are memorable to you. Most likely, you’ll discover a gold mine of emotion and potential that is not only meaningful to you but to your readers as well.

Do you have dreams? What happens when your dreams fall apart? What happens when your dreams come true? How do you feel? How did you react?

Or if you don’t have dreams, if you’re an engineer or something, do you have goals? Do you have a desire to reach a certain potential? Well, what happens if you fall short of your potential? How does that make you feel?

Everyone fails. Everyone loses a dream. Everyone breathing has experienced those two concepts, and your task is to create a character who has experienced something similar so that your readers will identify with them.

It doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing in. This principle is universal.

If your readers don’t identify with your characters, they won’t remember them. And identifying with a character goes so much deeper than what they’re wearing or what they look like or where they’re from. Yes, it can start with that. You can grab the readers’ attention with a statement about how they’re dressed or how they talk. But if you want your characters to be truly memorable, they have to make an impression continually. They have to strike a chord with your readers, and you can’t do that until you know them inside and out.

The best way to get to know them is to spend time with them. Even if you’re not writing about them in your actual novel, branch off and just write a simple scene with them. Take one of your characters and put them in an awkward situation and see what they do. That’s the best way to understand who they are. And the more you understand that, the better you will be able to communicate to your readers.

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