Make Your Characters Memorable

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

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Have you ever noticed that as a writer, you rarely can sit back and simply enjoy watching a TV show or a movie without thinking about plot or character development or pace? As authors, we “see” how the writers disguise plot twists or change direction. We may see behind the curtain of the Wizard of Oz, but on those rare occasions when you can forget you’re a writer and utterly enjoy the show, that’s when you truly are watching something special.

So the next time you watch a memorable movie or TV show, observe the traits of the main characters, the ones you can’t take your eyes off of. What makes them unforgettable? For most of us, it’s not the high-octane action that sticks in our heads. It’s usually what makes that character human, something we can relate to.

Here are some 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.

• 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 “totally vile” 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.

At the end of a TV show or a movie or your next book, characters that linger in your head are a gift that can help your writing. Examine what works in movies or TV shows as an exercise to tapping into your own creativity.

For Discussion:

1.) Do you have any personal tips for making your characters memorable?

2.) What characters have you been drawn to and find hard to forget – in TV movies, or books? Why have they stuck with you?

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

12 thoughts on “Make Your Characters Memorable

  1. Excellent advice, Jordan!

    Recently have been watching “The Sopranos” which handled vile characters masterfully. In one scene, mobsters may mercilessly pound someone into hamburger, then in the next, they worry about going to hell.

    They’re relatable b/c they have the same concerns that “normal” people do, like how to afford their kids’ college, but their ways of solving those problems are outside the norm.

    • Great example, Debbie. When you dare to craft your bad guys with things in their life that they would kill or die for, it puts them on par with good guys in their motivation to protect loved ones. Their lack of morality tips them over the edge but it can be hard to condemn them if they are motivated by the things everyone values. Such fun to create characters like this.

    • I think of enemies fighting for their countries, desperate to protect their way of life and freedom, yet drawn into the atrocities of war that’s bigger than the two of them. Their personal stories and emotional journeys are compelling when the reader is torn on who to root for. The story theme becomes greater than the characters and forces the reader to think.

  2. Great post, Jordan, with practical advice stated simply.

    In my opinion, the most memorable movie villain is Magneto from X-Men. Yes, he does despicable things, such as sacrificing Rogue to advance his plans. But his backstory explains what drove him to wage war against the human race. A Holocaust survivor who lost his parents, he’s angry and paranoid, so much so, that he doesn’t realize he’s become a Nazi himself (temperamentally, though not politically.) He’s brilliant, charismatic, and resorts to bad means to achieve worthy goals, but the audience understands why.

    • Great example, Mike. Add him adapting to his physical changes & dealing with that superiority, a writer has a character cocktail with depth and miles of storylines & conflict. Any storyline could put him on either side of right & wrong in surprising ways.

  3. I will always fall back on my favorite character being Tony Stark in the movies (BTW, never seen another movie with RDJ so I’m not biased). The most memorable scenes in Iron Man II is his interactions with the other people in his life and his struggle with the realization that he’s gonna die. Before rewatching it a few weeks ago, I couldn’t even remember who the villain was let alone the fight scenes.

    As for keeping characters not cliched, I say it’s in the details. I try to be as specific as I can with everything in my character’s life. You can still have a stereotypical jock, but he plays one sport over the other, has a specific position on the team, likes one professional team over the other, etc. There’s probably a hierarchy in the position you play, and you can get a lot of tension out of that.

    • Great insights, AZ. Tony Stark’s wealth adds to his godlike power that can have challenges. Lots of fodder for fiction with him. Good one.

  4. A current on NETFLIX that just finished it’s final season (3 seasons) is THE TUNNEL. It featured two homicide detectives who were complete opposites with inherent conflicts, people who were forced to work together on murder cases & represent their countries. He’s British. She’s French. He’s charming & affable with years of experience & self-deprecating humor. She’s aloof and on the spectrum of autism, completely focused on her cases at the expense of interpersonal relationships (refreshingly honest/blunt).

    If you haven’t seen this superb series, do yourself a favor & try it. Episode 1 will hook you. A clever set up.

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