Writing unforgettable characters is much more than simply giving a character a unique habit or speech tag. To be truly memorable, a character should be unique both inside and out.
Writing Tip for Today: Let’s look at some ways to make characters unforgettable.
Guard Against Stereotypes
In writing sentences, we’re cautioned against using clichés, but our characters must not have too many trite or overused qualities either. The first place to take a character from so-so to superior is to check for stereotypes. In my novel, The Fence My Father Built, an antagonist in the story, Linc Jackson, chewed on toothpicks. Although I’ve known actual rural men who always seem to have a cinnamon toothpick hanging from their bottom lip, an editor felt it was stereotypical.
I argued with the editor until I discovered that without that darned toothpick, it was not as simple for me as a writer to convey Linc’s personality and motivations. The pick was a realistic reflection of my experience, but it allowed readers to jump to a one-dimensional conclusion about Linc.
After I removed it, I looked for ways to make Linc a more complex character, which benefited the story and helped readers understand Linc as fully human. That is, he was neither all bad or all good—like all of us.
Stereotypes aren’t bad in themselves, but they can limit the way readers experience your character. Look for stereotypical character qualities in your work and then challenge yourself to write deeper and with more humanity. A good way to start is by exploring your character’s back story more thoroughly, turning stereotypes on their heads and using composites from various persons you’ve met in life.
Find the Universal
As you assign more particular qualities to your characters, you’ll also want to highlight the character’s universal qualities. These are important attitudes and ideals for your character—the things your character believes in with a passion.
As I’ve mentioned in other posts about characters, literary agent and author Donald Maass argues that if you give a character a trait such as loyalty, honesty or courage, make sure these things matter greatly to the character.
According to Maass, readers most favor characters who can learn to forgive, who are generous and who are willing to sacrifice part of themselves for a larger goal.
A character who is driven by deeply held beliefs helps put fire into fiction. A character who doesn’t care or who is lukewarm is likely to be forgotten—unless he grows or changes. These traits all point to a universal idea that attracts and holds readers: redemption, the idea that we are capable of growth and change, hopefully for the better. In life and literature, those who move toward redemption are considered extraordinary.
We’ve all known people who light up a room, who draw a crowd, who are always the center of attention. Writing an unforgettable character means incorporating this “it” factor into your character. While weird Uncle Al’s bad jokes might be the center of attention at your family reunion, you don’t want this type of “it” factor.
Instead, you want a character others look up to, someone whose take on any subject is sought-after. Start with those universal qualities and build-in strong ideals that reflect your story’s needs, but don’t make your character too perfect. Balance the character’s magnetic qualities with imperfections and vulnerabilities.
Mash-up unlikely traits: a leader who’s secretly afraid of being abandoned, a cleric with major spiritual doubts, a love interest who has vowed never to trust anyone. By rejecting stereotypes, assigning strong universal qualities and contrasting these with a sprinkling of weaknesses, you’ll be closer to writing a character readers won’t forget.