Five Key Ways to Make Your Characters Memorable

by Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

On one of our first TKZ Reader Friday Posts, we asked for suggestions on posts you wanted to see. I went back to read a comment from TJC, a steadfast follower, and wanted to respond to this request:

I find the “first page” submissions and discussions informative and engaging. Any thought of other similar exercises, e.g. “character introductions”, “action scenes”, “backstory insertion” or other? ~tjc

I went back into our TKZ archives and found a post I did called “The Defining Scene – Character Intros,” but here are my thoughts on creating unforgettable characters.

Five Key Ways to Make Your Characters Memorable

1. Add Depth to Each Character—Give them a journey

  • With any journey comes baggage. Be generous. Load on the baggage. Give them a weakness that they’ll have to face head-on by the climax of the book.

  • Make them vulnerable by giving them an Achilles Heel. Even the darkest street thug or a fearless young girl with magical powers should have a weakness that may get them killed and certainly makes them more human and relatable.

  • Whether you are writing one book or a series, have a story arc for your character’s journey that spans the series. Will they find peace or love, or some version of a normal life? Will they let someone else into their lives or will they be content to live alone? Will a villain have a chance at redemption? Do what makes sense for your character, but realize that their emotional issues will cloud their judgment and affect how they deal with confrontations. By the end of a book, they should learn something.

2. Use Character Flaws as Handicaps

  • Challenge yourself as an author by picking flaws that will make your character stand out and that aren’t easy to write about. Sometimes that means you have to dig deep in your own head to imagine things you don’t want to think about, but tap into your empathy for another human being. You might surprise yourself.

  • Stay true to the flaws and biases you give your characters. Don’t present them to the reader then have the actions of the character contradict those handicaps. Be consistent. If they have strong enough issues, these won’t be fixed by the end of the book. Find a way to deal with them.

3. Clichéd Characters can be Fixed

  • If you have a clichéd character, you may not need to rewrite your whole story. Try infusing a weird hobby or layer in a unique trait/quality that will set them apart. Maybe the computer nerd writes porn scripts for a local indie film company or the jock writes a secret blog under a girl’s name giving advice to teens on love and romance for the local paper. When that hobby is surprising and unexpected, that’s what will shine about the character and that’s what editors will remember.

4. Create A Divergent Cast of Characters

  • Portray your characters in varying degrees of redemption—from the innocent to the “total waste of skin” characters.

  • As in real life, not everyone is good or bad. They are a mix of both.

  • Sometimes it’s great to show contrast between your characters by making them do comparable things. How does one character handle his or her love life versus another character?

5. Flesh Out your Villains or Antagonists

  • Villains or antagonists are the heroes to their own stories—Spend time getting to know them.

  • Give them goals.

  • Give them a chance at redemption—will they take it?

  • Give them a unique sense of humor or dare to endear them to your reader.

  • The better and more diabolical they are, the more the reader will fear for the safety or well-being of your protagonist.

Character Exercise: A great way to explore what makes a memorable character is to analyze ones you see on TV or in the movies. Pull apart the layers of the depth of their personalities, warts and all, and share some of your favorites. Describe a character you found unforgettable and tell us why.

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32 thoughts on “Five Key Ways to Make Your Characters Memorable

  1. Det. Goran from Law and Order Criminal intent.
    So brilliant he’s borderline crazy, right on the edge. Not much social ability.
    His brother is an ex-drug addict, his mother is very sick.
    Add some very intense cases and there is enough pulling him in different directions to make him very interesting.

  2. thanks for this
    tyrion lannister from the game of thrones series is a perfect example and sooo memorable. one of my favorites of all time. george rr martin makes a ton of flawed, memorable, good & bad characters!

  3. Thanks, Tara. Yes, Martin does. I love how complex characters, that can easily be drawn to the dark side or light, can be so much fun to write. Actors love these kinds of roles too, with good reason.

  4. In the TV show Supernatural, one of my favorites, the two brothers who are battling demons are more compelling because of the complications the writers of that show heaped on the two young men.

    The older brother, Dean, can’t help but protect his younger brother, Sam. He’s protected his brother ever since he was a small boy and Sammie was a baby. (Sam is Dean’s source of strength because he’s family, but he’s also his greatest vulnerability.) When Dean is willing to die and be cursed to an eternity in hell to save his little brother from dying, that motivation comes from more than him being protective. He doesn’t think he deserves to be saved. He isn’t good enough, smart enough, not like Sam. Sam is worth saving, not him. Dean’s internal conflict, his low self-esteem, becomes a major handicap.

    Sensitive Sammie had the same loyalty beyond reason for his older brother, even though he is battling his addiction to demon blood and a fate that puts him at odds with Dean’s fight against demons. He becomes part demon himself—the one thing he never wants to be—but his humanity never wavers. Again, internal and external forces battle inside these young men. The fight goes well beyond demon forces and God’s dark angels.

    Be analytical of TV and movies that you are drawn to, in order to dissect why the characters work for you.

  5. Two more TV show series that hooked me as a viewer and as an author are:

    Elmore Leonard’s JUSTIFIED and Showtime’s HOMELAND. Great writing, plenty of twists in the plots and intense action, but at the heart of these two amazing shows are the layered characters.

  6. Excellent tips, Jordan. For distinctive characters, I am liking Grimm, Royal Pains, and Covert affairs on TV this season. As for character quirks, Richard Dean Anderson’s lead character on Stargate: SG1 enjoyed the Simpsons on TV. That was such a cute aspect that you wouldn’t expect from a warrior type.

  7. Hey Nancy–I’m a GRIMM follower too. And Stargate is classic. I love the premise of the whole world. I wasn’t sure how Richard Dean Anderson would do over the series, but he got to be iconic. His love of the Simpsons was fun too. I loved his quirks.

  8. Do you have suggestions for secondary or minor characters or would you use a scaled down version of these same suggestions (since not everyone in a story gets the same air time).

    I ask because I’m fond of large cast novels. One of my novels is complete (but I’m forever revising) that is a team-centered fic, so while there are two primary lead characters, I still want to make the secondary or more minor characters leap off the page, even though I can’t flesh them out as much as the leads.

    And another novel I want to write but haven’t started yet is also a team centered work–I will have to approach the same problem.

    Because the danger when writing a large cast novel is the reader getting confused and thinking “now who was that guy again?”

  9. Hey BK – Great question. I’ve worked with a full cast of characters in my Sweet Justice series as well as my latest YA series, THE HUNTED with Harlequin Teen. I love discovering secondary characters and putting as much effort into them as you would your main characters. You never know which one might lead to a new spin-off. If you make them intriquing enough, readers will let you know it.

    As far as the reader being confused by a large cast, one small tip I would suggest is to watch your names. I try and pick names with different starting letters so none of them sound alike.

    The other thing I would do is limit how many scenes you have in succession of your secondary characters. Don’t leave the readers hanging for a long period of time without the main characters on the page. The plot can make this tough sometimes, but you as the author can mold the story into the scenes that best showcase your main peeps.

    If you get carried away with a secondary character that overshadows your “star players,” then maybe you need to work on your stars. They should clearly be the ones in the limelight.

    But you might be surprised how many characters are listed in books, beyond the main ones. When I get my edits back, my house sends me a list of all the names. (Even if a secondary character is only on the page for one scene, if he/she needs a name, I give it one and encapsulate a full feel for them in that scene, as if the reader is getting a slice of that character’s life in the moment.) In HUNGER GAMES and some of the recent popular YA series books, I’ve seen 25-40 character names. So I would recommend you make a lush rich world filled with interesting people, but keep the focus on your plot and your stars, without losing control.

  10. BK–Another thing you can do to distinguish your characters in a larger cast is to give them quirks, physical distinctions, or a unique voice in their dialogue. Many times I write more than two main characters (I suppose because I love my cast and want to give the feel of the real world. We all have many people in our lives that come and go.) In the HUNTED, I have a larger cast of boys and I make each of them very different in the way they dress, talk, and even the slang they use or their physical characteristics. Building them is fun. You might even consider creating a storyboard of images for your main ones. When it is their time on the page, pull up your story board, or perhaps music that reminds you of them, and write away.

  11. And that brings me to another dilemma–to name or not to name minor characters. I know it’s just fiction, but when I’m writing a story, they are real people to me–even the walk ons. I feel guilty if I don’t give them names–as if they were a non-entity.

    I have found this especially difficult when writing military or battle scenes–in a given story you might not have the same soldiers or fighters by your side and they really may only show up on one page. On the one hand, under high stress situations no one is going to use names anyway, but in your narrative it gets tricky.

  12. A storyboard of images. Now that’s a cool idea. I think that would be especially helpful for the novel I haven’t started yet because I want to know this core group of guys inside and out.

  13. I’ve always greatly admired Carol Berg’s Demon War series of three books, starting with Transformation. http://www.amazon.com/Transformation-Rai-Kirah-Carol-Berg/dp/0451457951/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1347547846&sr=1-4&keywords=carol+berg+books

    Berg manages to transform every named character in the story, from the most important to the least. Much of the same cast is carried from one book to the next, and she transforms them all again in each book. At the time I read the series, I was struggling with how to do character transformation over a series of books for just one character, never mind the whole repeating cast. I learned a ton from watching how Berg managed it, and I loved her main character, who was both likable and flawed.

    Kathy

  14. BK–Another key thing is to do a character questionnaire about your key characters. I used to do that when I first started out. Now I’ve trained my brain what to ask and know it when I build my characters, but the questionnaire can start out with where he/she lives, wears, who their friends are, but then have meatier questions like what are they deathly afraid of or what would they die for. Once you write things like this down, your brain automatically absorbs it (since most people are visual learners) and the writing will become almost effortless for those characters. I have a post on my FOR WRITERS page on my website at http://www.jordandane.com but there are many character questionnaires online too. I may have blogged about this on TKZ before.

  15. BK–On the name thing for minor characters, sometimes I give them only a last name or a nickname. That might help to minimize their importance, yet you could still color them well.

  16. Another really useful post with great advice, thank you Jordan.

    I also enjoy the distinct characters in HOMELAND, STARGATE: SG1 and COVERT AFFAIRS to name but a few.

    I also have to mention one of my all time favourite works of fiction, BABYLON 5. (I say work of fiction because if you watch the entire series from beginning to end, the depth of the characters, setting and plot and the quality of the writing has more similarities with a series of novels than most TV.) Every major and many minor characters have a story arc that develops over the course of the seasons, so that nobody at the conclusion is who they were at the start.

    If I had to pick one I would mention G’Kar, played by the late Andreas Katsulas. When first introduced he appears to be nothing more than a one-dimensional war monger and could even be considered a villain. But over the course of five seasons we learn more about him and he himself changes.

    We see he has a sense of humour, that deep down he is really a compassionate person who loves his people and his only really aim is to see them free and safe. He forms a friendship with someone who he would quite happily have killed at the beginning, to the point that at the end their final act is one of friendship, not hate. He goes through great hardships and suffering, he is tortured, betrayed and treated like an animal at the hands of his enemies. But rather than give in to hate, he finds another way, not just for himself but for his people. And when his people eventually take revenge on the race that occupied and enslaved his world, he is disgusted by their actions. It’s a combination of great writing and great acting that just really sticks with me.

  17. That sounds great.Matthew. I’ve often thought that if you give two opposing characters the same goal of protecting their home or family, yet put them as enemies, what powerful drama that would be. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  18. Jordan –

    Another very useful post! I revisited the “Defining Moment – Character Intro” post you tagged – still excellent (thanks to my Halfheimer’s seemed almost brand new to me).

    Today’s tips(one in particular) stimulated some provocative thoughts for revision of my WIP (“Nerve Damage”).

    I very much appreciate the posts and discussions relating to writing craft. Thanks to you and the other KZ’ers for the education.

    A character intro that i found remarkably effective was Stieg L.’s ‘Lisbeth Salander’ of the dragon tattoo series. I do not remember the specifics of setting or action but her physical description really registered.

    I found the character to be fascinating, hugely flawed yet highly engaging.

  19. TJC – Thanks for your suggestions on ideas for posting. It’s not always easy to come up with notions as often as we post on TKZ and other places, so your suggestions are always appreciated. Our READER FRIDAYS have turned into a gold mine of opportunity for us to hear from our readers. Glad you found this point helpful.

    I’ll have to find the Dragon Tattoo book. I found book #1 slow so I didn’t read any more of them, but Lisbeth was a real highpoint for me. LOVED her character, for sure. I saw the movie version with Daniel Craig and found that it did a pretty good job of capturing that book. The actress (can’t remember her name) did a great job at portraying her too. Thanks for stopping in and for being an active member of our TKZ family.

  20. I got a lot out of this post, and all of the other great advice and tips in the comments.

    I’m struggling with the opening of my new book. It features three quick scenes showing the heroine, hero and villain in a moment of crisis.

    My heroine kicks things off and right now she’s a weak link.

    Today’s post helped.

    Thanks.

  21. You’re in control of your heroine. Make her steal the show, Sheri. Pick something really memorable to make her do, out of the box. Glad this post helped. Thanks for your comment. You’ll find our TKZ family is very helpful & supportive.

  22. OOOOOO this is an awesome post! I feel pretty good about my abilities to put a strong character on the page (it’s the pesky plot that keeps me up at night), but tips are always handy, and these are superb.

    Jarron: Detective Goran is a great example. We used to call that show “Cheese and Crackers” because we’d wait every week for Goran’s cheese to finally slip off the cracker and him to go completely nuts. 😀

    BK: Michael Stackpole describes something he calls Blitzkrieg Characterization in his newsletter for writers (which he says he came up with from reading lots of Stephan King). Basically, you describe the character with two similar traits, and then one opposing trait.

    So for example: Mr. Richardson was always the first to arrive at church on Sundays, and impeccably dressed, but you wouldn’t trust him with the collection plate.

    This creates a image and a mystery about the character in only a few words. I use this technique for main characters, but it’s also really great with secondary and minor characters, since you want to characterize them quickly. Obviously you wouldn’t want to use the same sentence structure every time, and some traits can just be implied by how we meet the character, but it’s helped me to keep it in mind.

    • I’ve done this too, particularly with minor characters where you need to get in and out quickly with a flash of description that instantly gives the reader all they need. But until your comment, Elizabeth, I hadn’t thought about defining it. Thanks so much.

  23. Thanks, Elizabeth for the tip. I like that. Blitzkrieg Characterization.

    Thanks to all for the great discussion on this topic. It was a big help.

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