But how do you go about creating memorable characters? In my last blog, I talked about the importance of endowing them with extreme qualities.
Because your reader will remember them perhaps even into the next century. The jilted bride, Miss Havisham, still wearing her wedding dress decades later, still sitting at the banquet table with the spoiled wedding cake, lusts for revenge. Charles Dickens wrote his novel, Great Expectations, in 1861 but his extraordinary, sometimes freakish characters, including Miss Havisham, survive today.
The same could be said of the people in William Shakespeare's King Lear, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Literature harbors countless characters like these. They linger in our memories precisely because of their peculiarities, sometimes physical, sometime psychological.
Here's how to create a unique, unforgettable fictional person of your own:
1. Have your story person do things an ordinary person won’t do.
Ask yourself, “Does my character do something I wouldn’t have the passion, courage, craziness or determination to do?” Would you risk your life chasing a white whale? Would you fake your own death?
2. Give your character a clearly defined goal.
Ask what your protagonist wants. Does she want to save her family home? Revenge her father's death? Build a human out of spare body parts?
3. Give your character strong emotions that trigger his goals and actions.
The emotion might be anger over an injustice, a desire for power or a love stronger than your character has ever experienced before.
4. An extreme character has a history that drives her and motivation for her actions in the present.
She may have been abandoned or abused as a child. She may have lost a beloved parent or suffered a disfigurement. She must have good reason to behave the way she does. Ask why your character doesn’t just quit when she encounters adversity? How can you plot your story so your protagonist is trapped in her circumstances.
5. An extreme character will stand alone or break the rules if he has to.
He believes so strongly in his goal that he will do whatever is necessary to achieve it, even if it makes him an outcast. Remember the sheriff in High Noon.
6. An extreme character takes action and won’t give up until she reaches her goal or is completely defeated.
Well-crafted story people are not passive. They take action and struggle to their last breath to achieve their goals. We admire Ernest Hemingway's Santiago (The Old Man and the Sea) because he endures sharks, exhaustion and injury to save his pride.
7. An extreme character is flawed.
Don’t make the mistake of creating perfect characters. They should possess a tragic flaw (hubris or stubbornness, for example) that makes them vulnerable to their enemies.
8. An extreme character does not have to be extraordinary in every way.
Despite the ultra-extreme qualities of Dickens and Shakespeare characters, they become real to us. We remember Falstaff, Hamlet, Uriah Heep, and Fagen because they have enough truth in them to be believable and because they are vivid and alive and unique. With the exception of a character's one special trait, he might be as normal as your next-door neighbor (assuming your next-door neighbor is normal).
9. An abnormal trait should be significant to your story.
If you want your readers to believe in your protagonist, his deformity, affliction or peculiarity must be the driving force in your story. Remember Tiny Tim, the crippled boy in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? His handicap is important to the story because, at the end, Ebenezer Scrooge, the miser (also an extreme character) who has learned his lesson about the perils of parsimony, generously provides the money for corrective surgery. Not all extreme traits show up physically. Some are on the inside. Remember Raymond, the idiot savant in Rainman, and McMurphy, the mentally ill rebel in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest? Their afflictions were internal and definitely extreme.
10. Your protagonist's struggle toward her goal should change her.
Whether she gets what she wants or not, she will be a different person at the end of the story. Life changes us all, fictional people included.
Still not sure how to build your own memorable character? Here's a tip. Make your protagonist and your villain obsessed. Make them so consumed with achieving their goals they will choose death rather than defeat. They may not always be likable but they’ll be fascinating. Those are the kind of story people who will last a hundred years from now.