Writing Unforgettable Characters

If you want your reader to follow your lead character, you’ll need to describe that character so that he in effect “comes alive” for the reader. But don’t stop at a physical description. Here’s why.

Writing Tip for Today: One way to sketch a character is to describe her physical appearance, including clothing. But an unforgettable character goes far beyond appearances. Here are three tips on creating a solid character:

The Once Over. 

When you write a character’s appearance, use the same method we use in real life. If you see someone for the first time, you won’t want to stare at their outfit from heads to toe. Instead, your eyes usually focus on one or two details that differentiate this person from others or that make this person stand out. Things such as red suspenders, five-inch stilettos or an abundance (or lack) of jewelry could set apart your character. It’s OK to let your readers imagine some details on their own–in fact it’s probably a good thing. If readers put in some of their imagined characteristics, they create an emotional bond with the character.


If your character was walking in a dark alley, would she know who was following her? If you endow a character with mannerisms that might give away their identity even in the absence of physical descriptions, the reader will feel a closer bond with the story. Does the character shuffle when he walks? How’s his posture? Is there a character tag you can give her (blinking, running hands through her hair or other repeated motions) which will ID her instantly? Use them–but sparingly. If you overload a character with mannerisms, the result will be confusion or apathy.

Psychological Attributes.

Remember the anonymous bigwig in “The X-Files” TV show? All the viewer ever saw was the cigarette. The result? Unforgettable, and not in a good way. Character tags add a three-dimensional feel to any character. But go beyond tics or other tags. Create a mindset for your character. Maybe he’s still wounded by something that happened as a child. Maybe she loathes anyone unlike herself. Explore the psychological underpinnings of your character to add depth and create sufficient emotional baggage for inner conflict. You as the writer need to be able to say, “My character would or would not do that.” Remember that character IS story. We are all made up of a complex web of attributes, physical and internal. Use them to paint a “real” and unforgettable character for your reader.

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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.

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