By Joe Moore
As insatiable readers, we all have a favorite character or two or three. From Jay Gatsby to Sherlock Homes, from Atticus Finch to Hannibal Lecter, from Jack Ryan to Dirk Pitt. They all bore their way into our brains and became memorable. What was it about them that made them so? Why is it that even after years have passed since you read their stories, you still remember them as if they were your friend or neighbor? As a writer, can you produce characters like Scarlett O’Hara or Santiago or Jason Bourne? There’s no reason you can’t. Just follow these simple tips to creating memorable characters.
Probably one of the most effective techniques in character building is to give your characters flaws. If you want characters with perfect looks, perfect bodies, or perfect personalities, pick up a copy of Vogue. Otherwise, give them imperfections for which the reader can relate. We all have flaws, so should your characters—all of them from the main protag and antagonist to the most minor walk-on. They need to be imperfect.
Speaking of flaws, your protagonist should always have a fatal flaw. It could be anything from speaking in public to something life threatening like Kryptonite. It’s always there hanging over the protagonist’s head never knowing when it will fall.
Next, your main characters should be larger than life. This has nothing to do with physical size although it could. I’m talking larger than life in regards to courage, faith, kindness, intelligence, generosity, loyalty—a characteristic that exceeds most people, one that becomes necessary by the end of the story to solve the story question. We all have courage, but at the point where the common man’s courage gives out, the protagonist’s kicks in to save the day. And whatever the larger than element is, let the character learn how to use it having not known it existed before.
The antagonist should be equal to or in some respects greater than the protag. But not by much. The antag must challenge the hero’s standards and morals down to his very fiber. The antag must be a worthy adversary. If it’s a heavy weight fighting a bantam, who cares.
Your characters should have multilayers. They’re not just a tough guy or a beautiful woman or a genius. Give them a defining characterization such as being an introvert, then place them in a situation where they must become the opposite.
Indiana Jones had a fatal flaw—snakes. He had to overcome his biggest fear to answer his biggest call to action. Put your hero in a situation where the thing that stands in the way is that biggest fear. Now have them figure out how to overcome it.
Throw obstacles in your protags path. Never give them a cakewalk assignment. Always place speed bumps and walls in their way. You want your reader to be asking “How will they get out of this one?” And make each wall higher than the last. Even if the reader has no idea how to escape that current predicament, the protag somehow figures it out. That’s what makes them memorable.
Finally, make life miserable for your protagonist. When it gets bad, make it worse. Never give them a decent brake. Push, push, then push some more. That’s why we read thrillers. We want to see what happens when the good guy or gal gets pushed to the limit and overcomes it. If need be, torture your protag. Not necessarily physically. It could be mental or moral. Give him or her a decision that builds their character. Memorable characters are those that step up to the plate, make the right choice, and swing for the bleachers.
Happy Tax Day!