What makes a character memorable?
Why is it, some characters become so alive on the page we stick with them, turning page after page until the end of the story, and why twenty years later we still remember them?
Most of us have heard of the Mary Sue character. She’s pretty, young, and innocent. She’s smart and usually knows what to do, or can figure it out with little trouble. She doesn’t swear and treats everyone fairly. People always like her. She volunteers at the local soup kitchen and rescues stray puppies. She lives in a nice house with a wide front porch and always seems to have money. If she has a job it’s usually as a teacher or nurse.
So why do readers hate her? And if readers hate her why do so many authors create heroines like her? Or heroes with similar qualities?
Before I studied the craft of writing and more specifically, character development, I created characters I liked and wanted my readers to like. I didn’t want my heroes and heroines to say things that might hurt other people. I didn’t want them to make mistakes and choose the wrong man, have a child out of wed-lock, struggle to make ends meet. I wanted them to be happy and not do anything to make my readers not like them.
But those were the very reasons my critique partners warned me that readers wouldn’t like my characters.
After all, who can relate to a perfect character?
All readers have experienced the hard knocks in life. Love and loss, life and death, financial success and failures. And meeting a character in a story who has faced illness or trauma, made mistakes and maybe hates cats, is a character we can all relate to on some level.
Creating a character the reader can relate to is the first order of business when putting together your character sketches. Everyone has positive and negative aspects to their personality. So do your characters. Including your villan. Your bad guy might hate your hero, but love cats.
We also all have flaws and so do your characters. Maybe your hero’s idea of dressing up is to put on a clean Hawaiian print shirt. Maybe your heroine is always late for work and appointments. How do your other characters react to that flaw?
How does your character react when things don’t go their way? Imagine your character is extremely thirsty. They put their last dollar into a soda machine and push the button. Nothing comes out. Do they shrug and say, it wasn’t meant to be and walk away? Do they kick and hit the machine, shake it or break into it in order to slake their thirst? If you character has several dollar bills, how many dollars would they keep wasting before they behaved as one of the previous characters and walk away or break the machine?
I remember watching an episode of Bones, in which the character Seeley Booth, an FBI Special Agent (played by David Boreanaz) was trying to talk to his partner on the sidewalk, while an ice cream truck with a giant clown head on the roof, played a loud, annoying jingle. Seeley’s frustration quickly escalated. He pulled out his gun and shot the clown.
Most viewers found the incident funny. Now it was definitely inappropriate behavior for an FBI agent, even one on TV, and Seeley lost his gun and had to go to counseling. Yet, the incident rooted in the traumas of his back story, endeared him to the fans of the show.
This unacceptable behavior did not turn away fans, they loved the character more. They could relate to his frustration because we’ve all had annoying clown trucks at some point in our lives. They knew his back story and understood on some level the pain of his past trauma.
Dig into your character’s back story.
What traumas, what life events have shaped your character? Did they grow up in a happy home or in foster care? Did their parent divorce or did their mother die of breast cancer? Were they bullied in school or were they overachievers?
How did all these events create that emotional wound which shaped your character into the person they are now? Does that wound push them toward their goal or keep them from it? What do they fear because of it? Failure? Fear that those they love will leave them? Are they like Scarlett O’Hara, so afraid of going hungry she defied the social norms of the day and married men she didn’t love in order to make more and more money?
When your character faces the obstacles you as the author throw in their path, how do they react? Are they a fight or flight character? Do they kick the soda machine, walk away, or keep trying?
How do their reactions affect the other characters in the story?
Do they have lots of friends or a few; many lovers or none?
Through your backstory, you come to really know your characters and that knowledge gives them dimension, keeps them from falling flat on the page.
Your back story will also help you create the character arc you need to create. Your character must grow or change (for good or bad) by the end of the book.
Dig deep when creating your character sketches. Yes, age and eye color are important but don’t be afraid to explore the good and bad of your characters. Give your readers characters who are real. Give your readers characters they can relate to, cry for when they fail and cheer for when they succeed. If you can do this your readers will have found in your character, a new friend, and that is someone they won’t soon forget.
If you would like to learn more about creating memorable characters, I will be presenting a four week long workshop on the subject beginning on July 29th.
A Civil War Romance from Kathy Otten and The Wild Rose Press
A Place In Your Heart
Gracie McBride isn’t looking for love; she’s looking for respect. But in this man’s world of Civil War medicine, Gracie is expected to maintain her place changing beds and writing letters. Her biggest nemesis is the ward surgeon, Doctor Charles Ellard, who seems determined to woo her with arrogant kisses and terrible jokes.
Charles is an excellent surgeon. He assumed he would be well received by an army at war. He was not. Friendless and alone, he struggles to hide the panic attacks that plague him while the only person who understands him is a feisty Irish nurse clearly resolved to keep him at a distance.
But Charles is sent to the battlefield, and Gracie is left with a wounded soldier, a box of toys, and a mystery which can only be solved by the one man she wishes could love her, both as a woman and a nurse.