What Makes a Character Memorable?

The creations of a great writer are little more than the moods and passions of his own heart, given surnames and Christian names, and sent to walk the earth.” – William Butler Yeats

W. B. Yeats picture courtesy of Wikipedia

W. B. Yeats picture courtesy of Wikipedia

A novel is only as strong as it characters,  We can have the best plot, but if the characters fall flat, so will the story.

Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby – all examples of people who live in our hearts and minds as surely as if they were family members.

And like family, they all had flaws and/or obstacles to overcome.  If not, why would they have been interesting to us?

Ernest Hemingway wrote about ‘collecting people’.  He found them in cafes, on the street, next to him during war.  He captured their ways of speaking and subtle hints of body language.  He also gave advice on ‘character creation’.

Ernest Hemingway via Wikipedia

Ernest Hemingway via Wikipedia

When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters.  A character is a caricature.” – Ernest Hemingway

That is easier said than done.

Mary Higgins Clark is famous for the extravagant biographies she creates for each of her characters before she begins writing a suspense novel.  She knows everything about them, whether or not these details are revealed to the reader.

Few among us has that kind of discipline or time.

So how do we choose our characters and portray them accurately through actions in a novel? What attributes connect us emotionally with the characters in a novel?

James Chartrand, (don’t let the name fool ya, James is a ‘she’), presents a terrific list at menwithpens.  What makes our readers care about our characters is recognition, personality, humanity, enrichment, and pain, according to the post.  I recommend that you read this for the full description, but the case is made for inner strength and growth along with how well they are portrayed as relatable.

And if the range of characters you are interested in creating are ‘out of this world’ or of total fantasy, I would recommend Maisha Foster-O’Neal’s post on character development at elfwood.

Ms. Foster-O’Neal has a list of exercises there as well, including opening a telephone book, choosing a name, and writing a description of that person based solely on the name.  She also has tips for avoiding cliches, and deciding on the flaws your characters will have.

I once received a critique from a contest that I had entered where one of two judges didn’t like my main female character.  (The other judge LOVED her by the way!)  The reason given was that I had made her sound unattractive to this particular judge – middle-aged and pudgy.

Wow.  To that judge, I say read James Chartrand’s list above.  How the character looks is not on the list.  The reasons the other judge loved her was because of her relatability, spunkiness, work ethic, and how she overcame the enormous obstacles that she faced.  And the love interest – a middle-aged, wealthy, playboy used to dating shallow socialites – also fell in love with her.

I don’t think this would have the same impact if I had made her beautiful on the exterior, twenty-two, independently wealthy, and svelte.  In fact, I believe the readers would hate such a character and fail to see why they should care about the next list of wonderful events to appear in her lovely world of perfection.

The lack of money, social standing, and youth were her flaws among the well-heeled Charlestonians.  That sense of not belonging to the community we have been thrust into is relatable to many women in the world today.

Victoria Holt began most of her gothic romances with the description of the heroine as being plain and unattractive by the standards of the day.  They didn’t have the best families – if any at all – they didn’t have the right clothes or the right physical features.  But boy were they spunky and independent for the time period, always going to places they shouldn’t, looking in forbidden rooms, and narrowly escaping death.

Nora Roberts began her career by making common people the heroes and heroines.  Maybe they grabbed a beer instead of a cocktail, or dressed in boots and jeans and sat out on the porch for evening entertainment, making them completely relatable to the average woman – the most likely reader of her genre.

Perhaps the creative geniuses of character development are those in the genre of fantasy and science fiction.  J. K. Rowling has given us some of the most beloved characters of our day; wizards, witches, trolls, dragons, giants, shape-shifters, and other mythical beasts.  Her main characters may be gifted with powers we can’t imagine, but their struggles of making friends, fitting in at school, their first kisses, heartbreaks, missing their families, being taunted by peers, even name-calling, are all themes that speak to us.

Stephenie Meyer took us through the world of vampires with her Twilight series.  The underlying current seemed to be the inability of young Bella to fit into a world turning upside down – divorced parents, her mother remarrying and moving away, having to go to the rainy Northwest to live with her father.  Finding another group of people who also don’t fit into society – the Collins vampire family – she finally feels at home.

Before them, we had the great J. R. R. Tolkien with his world of Kings, Hobbits, Middle Earth and characters so wonderfully developed that they had their own language – one that he created.  Wow!

These authors have given us characters required to face tremendous battles and inner conflicts while having typical emotional journeys that we can identify with.  We may not have to deal with vampire clans, fire-breathing dragons, or armies of Orcs, but we all have conflicts that can seem as monumental at times.

Which characters from novels have lasted in your memory, and why?  What made them special or how did you identify?

Renee Johnson is the author of Acquisition, and The Haunting of William Gray.  She is currently working on a Young Adult novel, while editing a suspense novel which has international flair–an homage to her love of travel and foreign food.  She lives on a farm in North Carolina with her husband, Tony Johnson, and one very spoiled German shepherd named Gretel.   

About reneejohnsonwrites

I have recently returned from University of Iowa's Novel-Writing Intensive during their Summer Writing Festival. Other credits include two stints at The Essoyes School in France, two terms at a writer's residency at Noepe Center for Literary Arts on Martha's Vineyard, and a retreat in Italy. Join me in 'writing the world.' -- Renee Canter Johnson, author of "Herald Angels", "The Haunting of William Gray", and "Acquisition" published by The Wild Rose Press. Coming soon--an international intrigue set in Venice, Italy--where adventure and danger are as masked as the characters.
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81 Responses to What Makes a Character Memorable?

  1. Pingback: What Makes a Character Memorable? | Writingfeemail's Blog

  2. I think WordPress just devoured my comment. If you get two from me, please ignore one.
    And naturally I cannot remember exactly what I said.
    Characters need to retain their congruence for me to accept them. They can and should develop, but should do so either in a way which is consistent with what we have been told about them, or the shift should be satisfactorily explained.

    • Don’t you hate it when you make a great comment and then it disappears – which it must have because I only received one. But your point is a good one. If they start behaving in a different manner suddenly, then I’m wondering if someone is holding a loved one hostage! Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

  3. pattisj says:

    Atticus Finch is the first to come to mind. Honesty, integrity, and doing what is right.

  4. Whether it’s a novel, short story or screenplay, I do seek to fall in love with the character(s). When the read is over I’m left with a twinge of sadness that I have to say good-bye. Skeeter in The Help was my last favorite character — she dared to stand up to reveal the provincial influences around her and bravely and naturally consistent with her spirit faced social suicide.

    • I loved her too Georgette. She had gumption by the tons! Sadly, I must confess to watching the movie instead of reading the book. I usually try to read the book first, but am told by those who did read the book that the movie did it justice.

  5. Patty B says:

    There are so many authors that brought their characters life…Jo from Little Women, Anne of Anne of Green Gables, the women in the books by Jane Kirkpatrick, the heroins of Victoria Holt and all of her other pen names. Their sense of adventure, imagination and pioneer spirit. My desire to be like them!

    • We apparently read the same books and loved the same heroins. Victoria Holt is still a favorite. She inspired that sense of adventure you are talking about.

      • Patty B says:

        I have all of her books – I am pretty sure..picked up most at library yard sales. I first read her when I was 15 and still have the books. She is one author I will never part with.

      • Me too! In fact, ‘On the Night of the Seventh Moon’ is in a baggie, just falling apart I read it so many times. Part with it? Never!

      • Patty B says:

        It is so nice to finally meet someone who knows Victoria Holts books. My favorites are her series she wrote under as Jean Plaidy My all time favorite one and actually the first one I read is My Enemy The Queen.written under her pen name Victoria Holt.

      • She was such a prolific writer. Once I had read all of her books as Victoria Holt, I discovered the Jean Plaidy series – Mary, Queen of Scots – being the one that first comes to mind. Then I found out about another pen name – Phillipa Carr – and read all of those that I could find. Saraband for Two Sisters was under the Carr pseudonym I believe. Of course, this was back in the day when you had to find the actual book in a library or book shop. LOL. You are inspiring me to look through Amazon’s listings and see what I can find that I wasn’t able to get my hands on before.

      • Patty B says:

        And I think I am ready to go back and start reading her books again!

  6. Yes, the movie was well done, but I devoured the book in two days and family knew not to disturb me as I was in la-la land with a very good read. A very good read. At one point, not wanting to let go, I outlined the chapters and created a graphic organizer just to enjoy it’s delicious construction.

    • That is very smart Georgette. When someone crafts such a great read, learning how they did it is just another gift. You are convincing me to take a look at this book. Maybe I could learn a few things too.

  7. Connor Larkin is the one I think of immediately. The hero of Leon Uris’s “Trinity”. He was my hero, strong, brave, honest and true to his heart. My non-existant children were destined to be named for him.

    • I am not familiar with this one. Of course, being the obsessive person that I am, I will shortly be looking it up, especially if it is worthy of being the namesake of your children – existant or not!

  8. I am hard pressed to come up with characters that I think are memorable. I don’t like Hemingway…I do like Fitzgerald, but find Gatsby problematic and Carraway annoying…perhaps all the characters in the Great Gatsby are the most memorable. I have a problem with current fiction…not happy with it nor with the editors “creating” it. Do prefer non fiction.

    • I didn’t like Hemingway’s work when I was younger. In fact, I didn’t give him another chance until I read ‘A Moveable Feast’ – the original version about two years ago. It was raw, emotional, a true inner look at himself and the women in his life. I couldn’t put it down and upon finishing it, went straight to the library and checked out a half dozen of his other works and reread them. He now is a favorite – a true turning around of my impression of his work from reading his last piece. If you haven’t read it, let me encourage you to do so.

  9. winsomebella says:

    I see Patti said Atticus, but Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird is my favorite. She sees and asks and we learn as she does. Glad you started this dialogue and thank you for the referral to other worthwhile posts as well, Renee.

    • Thanks Bella. Whenever I find something on the internet that I find helpful, I keep the link and assume others might find it interesting as well. We can spend hours combing through sites looking for useful information. Maybe I should investigate some Harper Lee websites and see if I can find out the secret to penning this amazing read. It seems to be a recurring favorite.

  10. “The creations of a great writer are little more than the moods and passions of his own heart, given surnames and Christian names, and sent to walk the earth.”

    Superb!

    What makes a great character are her/his FLAWS & Weaknesses!

    My all time fave books are usually about women who overcome their situations.

    I LOOOOOOOOOve Lisbeth from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. She kicks ASS.

    Super post. Xx

  11. I recently finished reading “Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett. Before that I read parts one and two of his Century Trilogy. His stories are rich with fascinating characters. They feel so real and makes you want to know what’s going to happen next and care about them, too. To create such memorable characters is quite a gift.

    • I can actually remember the first line of that book, with the boys in their felt boots going to the hanging. I don’t remember anything from calculus or many of the other classes I had, but first lines – like Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca and her dream of going to Manderley – are right there, tattooed on my brain. Please tell me I am not the only one!

  12. megtraveling says:

    One of my favorite characters is from a story I read many years ago – Anne Shirley. I read the entire Green Gables series and it is interesting to see how she adapts to all the changes in her life (but she is always herself)…

    • Anne of Green Gables is getting a fair share of ‘favorites’ here along with the characters from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. It’s making me want to curl up and reread these classics.

  13. Dana says:

    I must admit I haven’t read too many classics, but I tend to like characters who are relatable to me, be it characters with flaws like mine or in the same socio-economic class dealing with similar issues. It is very easy for me to settle in with the book and enjoy it.

    • Hi Dana. Thank you for stopping in and lending your voice to this conversation. We do like characters like us. Perhaps it shows us what we could do also. And if you are looking for a classic to delve into, there is a nice growing right here. Let me know if you find something interesting enough to pick up.

  14. Too many characters come to mind. One of my favorite authors is John Irving, the master at building up characters and settings. So, of course, Owen Meany and Garp are two unforgettable characters to me.

  15. TBM says:

    I didn’t know Ms. Clarke did that with all of her characters. I heard her speak once and she said she hardly ever read books since she was too busy. Now I see why

    • I suppose that is why her books are so well received among her readers. She is very thorough! I have heard her interviewed along with her daughter – writer Carol Higgins Clark – and found her to be very personable. What was your impression?

  16. E.C. says:

    There’s so many books and so many characters that I recall and cherish the journey’s they took me on that I really don’t have an absolute favorite… well except for ‘Anne of Green Gables’ she’ll always be at the top of my list.
    I always enjoy the trivia you have on the famous authors. They’re sometimes such an odd lot that it makes me chuckle. 🙂

    • Here’s another one for you. Ernest Hemingway always wrote (typed) standing up. He may have leaned against a desk, but didn’t sit down at it. Isn’t that – odd? And the thing is, once we get used to writing a certain way, or with a certain pen, or in a particular chair, we grow to think that is the only way. I try to vary my routine so that I don’t get into strange habits. Maybe that’s an idea for another blog – the strange habits of writers.

      • E.C. says:

        That is odd. I never knew that about Hemingway. I thought his affinity for felines was rather strange. No telling what other odd quirks the famous and infamous writers/authors had/have.

        I think it would be an interesting post to discuss the different ways folks write. Good idea. I’ll enjoy reading it, if you’ll write it. 🙂

      • Isn’t it fun when one blog post spawns ideas for another!

  17. aFrankAngle says:

    Interestingly, I tend to connect more with stories than characters.

  18. Bella says:

    Renee, this post is AMAZING! If ever a writer needed direction on how to get started on character development, then this post is a must! I agree wholeheartedly with you–making your character “pudgy and middle aged” was a smart move. Like you mentioned, more women are able to relate to less than perfect characters than those who wear Prada and reek of Channel 5. Seriously. As a reader, I love rooting for the underdog. Somehow it makes the story more likeable and easier for me to “turn into” one of the characters! 🙂

  19. rangewriter says:

    This is a great topic, Renee. I’m horrible at character development. I will be exploring some of the sites your recommended.

    My all time favorite character is Atticus Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He is a tad on the too perfect side to be truly real, but he does have a few minor flaws, Perhaps Scout would be my next favorite, simply because she does have more flaws and we see her develop through the novel.

  20. hotlyspiced says:

    I’ve just finished reading ‘The Pursuit of Love’ and ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ by Nancy Mitford. Great characters there! xx

  21. Astra says:

    Hadley Hemingway haunted me for a couple of years. I feel I put that ghost to rest after reading The Paris Wife. Maybe author Paula McLain felt the same way. Character development…. a vast topic indeed.

  22. ““When writing a novel a writer should create living people.” A priceless, timeless quote from a very gifted man. He knew the secret to creating a book that will be celebrated and cherish always.

  23. bronxboy55 says:

    Jane Eyre is another one of those characters who is repeatedly described as plain, yet she thinks, feels, speaks, and acts in distinctive and memorable ways. I finally read Of Mice and Men last year (I was supposed to read it in the tenth grade), and was struck by how different each character sounds. Steinbeck does such a great job of helping us know these people that you can tell who’s speaking just by what they say.

    This is an excellent post, Renee. I think I need to read it again.

    • The comments have been brilliant on this post. I’ve loved them all. I think it’s fun to read books again that I read in high school or college. My impression of many of them is totally different. “Of Mice and Men” probably isn’t something a dreamy teenager enjoys reading, but an adult can fully appreciate.

  24. Hi Renee,

    This is a great post. You really have brought in great insights.Indeed character development remains at the core of great fiction. But of late I have come across several novels in which the author essentially develops only one character and the story unravels through the eyes and mind of this character. What would you say of this style?

    Shakti

    • If that character is as fully developed as you say, I think it can be brilliant. Often we are born into a place and time that thinks and acts a certain way and as we develop our minds and hearts we change how we feel about that. I’m thinking of the character Skeeter in “The Help”, for example.
      How do you feel about it?

  25. WordsFallFromMyEyes says:

    A solid, fantastic article, Renee. Love the writer quotes in between. I really, really love ‘choice words’.

    You have me thinking of character more than I realised was necessary. I am not sure I could write fiction. I only can write what I know at the moment…. that’s all for now!

  26. dearrosie says:

    Inspiring post Renee.
    You’ve included so much excellent advice in here that like Charles above I will come back to reread it. Right now I’m chewing on this
    “Ernest Hemingway ‘collected people’.”

    I can’t believe that a judge would criticize you for making your heroine middle-aged and fat. Good lord!

    There are many books where I can’t stop reading and stay up much too late reading yet another chapter and I love the main character so much I feel as if I’ve said “goodbye” to a good friend when I finish the book.

    Have you ever read Kuki Gallman’s memoir “I dreamed of Africa”? She’s Italian and moved to Kenya in 1972 with her husband and son.
    (A few years ago I was walking with a friend in Santa Monica and my friend recognized that Kuki Gallman was walking past us. She’s as charming as her writing.)

  27. Arindam says:

    I love most of the characters Paulo Coehlo create in his books. I do not think those characters identified with their names, but people identify with them with their behavior, nature and thought process. Just as he himself described in the book, “The Alchemist” a good book is a book that does not consist of too many pages, too many characters and I believe his book proves that we can build characters in the most simplistic approach which are going to live beyond ages.

  28. This is an excellent article about character development, Renee. You really outdid yourself. 🙂 I loved all the quotes you found by famous authors! They made me smile. Interesting that you brought up F. Scott Fiztgerald and Ernest Hemingway together. They were drinking and writing buddies. Perhaps that is why both were such excellent writers of interesting characters? Each author learning the craft from the other. 🙂

    • Thank you Wendy. I love that you connected Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I think we are doing the same thing by reading each other’s blogs and inspiring each other to be the best writer we can be.

      • I write many reviews of classic novels on my blog and because of this, I research the authors that wrote them. I’m amazed at how many classic novels were developed by these now famous authors associating with each other in small groups, inspiring each other to greatness. I think it is a great model for us modern writers to follow…not that I’m comparing myself to Hemingway! 🙂 I think we have it a little easier with the internet…and blogs…to help us along. 🙂

      • I enjoy your reviews very much and now I see why. You’re not just reviewing the novels, but giving thought to the authors as well. It is wonderfully inspiring to be in community with other writers, even if that community is through the internet. Thanks Wendy.

  29. Joanna Fay says:

    Lovely post. The first character who left a memorable impression on me was Elizabeth Bennett in ‘Pride and Prejudice’. What held me was the transformation of her ‘view’, her perspective, and I have always loved characters ever since who transform in some way. It may be seemingly small, or monumentally life-changing, subtle or overt, but it is always this sense of inner journey that connects me to a main character. 🙂

  30. Pingback: No Wasted Ink Writer’s Links | No Wasted Ink

  31. Reblogged this on By the Mighty Mumford and commented:
    DO YOU THINK I’M JUST A CHARACTER?????

  32. Thought provoking. I loved Scarlet O’Hara for he spunkiness, her petulance, her persistence in the face of rough times, even though she had selfish and other very undesirable traits as well. I loved Rachel in Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel. Little is revealed about her at the beginning except some physical characteristics, one is held in suspense for so long, as to whether she is good or evil.

  33. Merci for visiting my blog – author of “Solitary Desire-One Woman’s Journey to France” See my book trailer video http://youtu.be/xG_YTa5sDac

  34. Pingback: 31 Character Development Resources for Writers

  35. The characters in Jack Whyte’s Camulod Chronicles series by description, action, thoughts, hopes , dreams and disappointment and revelation of matters of daily routine in the time period really made me feel I had a genuine association with them as their efforts evolved in the story. William Dietrich and Bernard Cornwall also give an attraction by which the characters seem to absorb us into their lives in the story.

  36. Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
    I hope that some of my characters become memorable to some readers. I guess I need to get busy and write them into existence instead of keeping them clogged up in my brain. ~ Connie

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