11 Tips for Creating Memorable Characters

In my opinion, aside from writing style, the best books consist of two components: a great plot coupled with memorable characters. The two elements are intertwined. Only those particular characters will fit the story, and the story would be incomplete without those unique and fresh new characters. This blog entry provides tips for creating memorable characters.

  1. Incorporate Flaws: No one enjoys characters with perfect looks, perfect bodies, or perfect personalities. Give them little flaws the reader can relate to.
  2. Make Your Protagonist(s) Heroic: Making your characters likeable isn’t enough. Protagonists should be heroic. Determine which characteristics, in your opinion, make a hero/heroine heroic (may be based on a real-life personal hero), and find ways for the protagonist to actively demonstrate those qualities in little ways throughout the book. Perhaps he loves children. Perhaps she is kind to the elderly.
  3. Make Your Characters Larger-than-Life: A larger-than-life character inspires a strong response (positive or negative) in all the people around him. Make a character say or do something a “normal” person wouldn’t do. To help create a larger-than-life character, figure out the one thing your character would never do, say, and think, not in a million years (e.g. “I will never, ever break a promise.”) Find ways to make her say, do, and think those things.
  4. Adjust the Volume: Pick anything your protagonist thinks, says, or does and heighten it. Make it bigger, funnier, more shocking, more vulgar, more out of bounds, more over the top, more violent, more wildly romantic, more active, more anything. Take other actions, thoughts, or dialogue and tone it down, understate it. Make it quieter, more internal, more personal, more ironic, more offhand, barely noticeable.
  5. Make Characters Multidimensional: Identify each character’s defining quality (e.g. renegade); identify the opposite of that quality (e.g. follows the rules) and find a way to force your protagonist to demonstrate the opposite.
  6. Give your Protagonists a Fatal Flaw (e.g. always leaps before looking; is too timid to stand up for herself). Have the fatal flaw trip them up (part of the character arc). Have your character overcome the fatal flaw to complete the character growth.
  7. Make your Protagonists’ Greatest Fears Come True: If, for example, your hero’s greatest fear is being trapped in a small space, trap him in, say, a coffin. If your heroine’s greatest fear is helplessness, find a way to place her at someone else’s mercy. This will make a character bold in a way he couldn’t imagine being when the story opened.
  8. Keep your Characters Off-Balance: Put characters into unfamiliar situations or take away their support systems. This will test their mettle and give them an opportunity to demonstrate heroic (or less-than-heroic) traits.
  9. External and Internal Goals: A character should have both an internal and external goal. An external goal is plot-related (e.g. catch the serial killer; find the lost city). The external goal is concrete, physical, and achievable. You can see it, touch it, taste it, hear it, or smell it. An internal goal deals with emotional healing, spiritual growth, or learning life’s lessons (e.g. learn to trust a woman; forgive a parent). The character’s progression towards an internal goal represents the ‘Character Arc’.
  10. Torture your Characters: It can be fun! Don’t let a character take the easy way out. For the writer, easy is lazy. For the reader, easy is boring. Make life as difficult for your character as possible. Limit any choices your character must make to two, and make both abhorrent to your protagonist, and that costs your protagonist dearly. Force your protagonist to take impossible risks. Have her make horrible mistakes. Heap on obstacles and roadblocks, increase the tension, increase the stakes throughout the book, but don’t forget to give some reflective scenes to let the reader recuperate.
  11. Antagonist as a Foil: Create an antagonist who is a true threat to your protagonist. This should not be someone who merely irks him, but a character who challenges the protagonist’s convictions or morals. A true challenger who shakes your protagonist’s very foundations, those personal beliefs and standards that make her who she is.

Some of the ideas presented in this blog entry were culled from Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass.

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