Memorable Characters: EVERY Man, not ANY Man

When writers create characters in a novel, they try hard not to populate the story with cardboard characters from Casting Central. To leave a lasting effect, a character must be not only unique, but memorable.
Writing Tip for Today: A cardboard character is like an extra in a grade B movie: could be anyone. To propel your fiction’s MC from anyone to every man (or woman), try these things:

  • Fill Your Character with Attributes. Sure, you should know what your Main Character looks like, how she dresses, the occupation, likes and dislikes. But don’t stop there. According to Donald Maass (Writing the Breakout Novel), a MC with a strong moral code which includes honesty, forgiveness generosity, courage and similar virtues will seem larger-than-life to readers, and thus be memorable. Even rule-breaking MCs (such as Dirty Harry) maintain a moral code readers can identify with. A MC who cares only about herself and/or her stakes feels restricted and unsympathetic to readers.
  • Sketch Attributes Quickly. Instead of forcing readers to learn (ad nauseam) how wonderful your MC is, act it out. A MC who is kind to animals, for instance, shows readers the character’s compassion for those least able to defend themselves. Taping a quarter to a broken parking meter displays generosity. By acting out the moral code, you instill confidence in the reader. Your MC is not giving lip service to goodness–she’s living it. But don’t make the character TOO perfect. Superman has Kryptonite to keep his ego in check. Give your MC a weakness–even if it’s only for jelly doughnuts.
  • Make Concern for Others Paramount. A character should have personal goals, but the more the goals involve those around the MC, the more selfless she will appear to readers. Superman isn’t just concerned with impressing Lois Lane, although he does. Superman has to save the world, a role with perks (like Lois!) but incredible burdens. If Earth is taken over by reptilian aliens and S-man can’t stop it, we’re all doomed! The weight of the world is on this character’s shoulders. If you keep the character looking outward, you’ll be on your way toward a larger-than-life character who’s memorable.

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

4 comments on “Memorable Characters: EVERY Man, not ANY Man

  1. Near the beginning of your novel, give your character a secret that is somehow mentioned but not revealed. Keep the reader guessing about it until it is finally unveiled. And make it a memorable secret that has helped to shape the MC’s personality.

    • Kathy,
      Great idea! I agree a good character must have a balance of outer and inner struggle. A secret is an excellent way to drive the character’s inner life and when it leaks into the outer life, pow! Instant conflict. Thanks for weighing in.
      Keep writing! Linda

  2. I teach workshops on creating credible characters at local writer’s conferences, and one of the things I always encourage is to make characters seem realistic to readers. If a MC is someone who doesn’t express real feelings, doesn’t have strengths and weaknesses, doesn’t have a unique way of speaking, etc. then the reader will quickly become bored with him/her. Readers respond best to characters who are like themselves or someone they know. Thanks for sharing your tips!

    • Debbie,
      Another great idea! I’d also add that creating a character who is an amalgam of several people you have met (composite character) is a great way to make your characters more realistic. Thanks so much for commenting. Keep writing! Linda

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