There are many elements involved in great works of fiction, however, the characters are arguably one of the most important.
If the audience doesn’t have a well-crafted connection point, often the story will fade from memory far faster than when the book features a memorable character. The tools of characterization are even used in setting to draw a reader further into the story.
Taking it back to F. Scott Fitzgerald, the most iconic character in the book The Great Gatsby is the titular character. However, while the veneer of Gatsby—a wealthy man known for throwing lavish parties—might be enough to spark interest, what makes the character ultimately memorable is how flawed he is. Gatsby’s optimism seems in direct contrast to the illicit way he made his fortune, and the loneliness of the man bleeds on the page, offering a very human, realistic character.
Another more recent character who embodies that ‘greatness’ is Richard Gansey the Third from Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Boys. Gansey is also a mess of contradictions, hopelessly obsessed with finding Glendower, noble in an anachronistic way, and yet ultimately naïve given his sheltered, rich upbringing. What really deepens the character throughout the book is the way he learns and how he handles the disappointments and lessons along the way. I think one of the elements easiest to empathize is his constant war of loneliness and feeling truly understood—he’s well-liked and can navigate socially anywhere, yet oftentimes he feels very alone. In a way, both Gansey and Gatsby share that in common—surrounded by people yet still lonely, with a naïve optimism to keep dreaming.
Heading back to the classics again, another iconic character is Jane Eyre in Charlotte Bronte’s timeless book. She starts out an orphan, which already tugs at a reader’s heartstrings, especially with the cruel way her aunt and cousins treat her, making her feel alien and other. However, her initial plight might make an excellent backbone, but it isn’t what makes her stand out. Jane Eyre has stood the test of time, because the character was rebellious, hard-working, and willing to challenge the norms that most refused to. Jane Eyre’s tendency towards passion tempered by practicality made her a complex character that holds up today.
Speaking of mistreated orphans, Harry Potter has a lot in common with Jane Eyre.
The titular character of the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling also grew up an orphan, in the care of his terrible Aunt, Uncle, and cousin, which establishes his plight early on. Similarly to Jane Eyre, while his origin helps the audience care about him, what makes him a lasting character is the bravery he shows throughout the series. Harry Potter became such an iconic character, because he was always willing to challenge injustices as they came up, whether it was minor ones at the school, or the broad ones affecting the Wizarding community as a whole.
One of the best examples of character growth throughout a series is Taran in Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles.
When the series begins in The Book of Three, Taran is young, foolish, and full of all these crazy dreams of being a fierce and renowned warrior. As the series continues, we watch Taran make mistakes and learn from them, we watch him grow. One of the things I appreciated the most is the transition of childhood dreams into more mature adult ones and how experience can shade them. The universal transition from child to adult makes Taran’s journey all the more memorable.
Another character that stood out with maturation is Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. While Frodo Baggins might have been the lead of this book, I think Samwise had a far better character arc and his presence in the book holds a lot more lasting impact and weight. Samwise is that classic reluctant hero, like all of the hobbits in the series, however, his unwavering loyalty as they face all manner of adversity is probably the trait that stands out the most. Samwise isn’t the dashing hero or the fighter, but he exhibits a stability that’s so admirable in contrast with all of the larger than life characters in the books.
One of the timeless character arcs for a romantic hero is Darcy in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
Gauging his personality from the beginning, he doesn’t come across particularly likeable, but the juxtaposition of Elizabeth and her fiery temperament coaxes other aspects of his character to the fore. As the book progresses, his character is revealed in drips throughout, steady strokes to create a fully realized painting by the end. What’s also memorable in this book is how much Darcy changes and challenges his own negative behaviors to transform into a better person by the end of the book.
A similar arc takes place in the more recent book Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. Prince Henry’s character comes across as stuffy and bland, especially through the lens of the other lead, Alex. Like Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, it’s Alex’s fiery temperament that draws out Henry’s true character, revealing a soft, sweet person beneath who’s been hiding behind a mask of responsibility for a long time. Henry’s personality unfolds in a similar way to Darcy’s with how the personality is peeled back layer by layer, page by page. However, in Red, White, and Royal Blue, both Alex and Henry have a lot to learn about themselves, and that exploration is what makes the book so memorable.
However, what creates a complex, lasting character?
Several aspects are at play here. One dimensional characters tend to disintegrate from the memory fast, sometimes not even offering the reader a compelling enough reason to continue the book, while complex, rich ones keep people turning the page. If you look at the examples listed, most of them have sufficient fleshed out backstories so as not to feel hollow. Everyone has a past however wild or mundane, and that past shapes their present.
Another important aspect involved is complex characteristics rather than clichés. Human beings are a mess of contradictions most times, and if you look at the aforementioned examples, most of them have contrasting traits. Jane Eyre is practical yet passionate, Gansey is sociable yet lonely. If a character is one dimensional, they’ll cling to a singular trait, or all similar ones, however, the more complex ones buck the mold, offering challenging and changing perspectives.
A third important aspect in creating an iconic character is growth. To fully capitalize on growth, there needs to be a varied and well-developed character to work with, but as the character progresses along in the story, the resolution of their character arc by the end can be one of the most fulfilling things for readers. After all, beyond the wild dreams and thoughts a character might contain, their actions count, and how they handle hardship is what makes them so unforgettable.
So, whether you’re approaching as a writer or a reader, never forget what an impact those characters make.
The protagonists are your guides through the book, and they need to be more than nice, i.e., boring, to make people want to spend hundreds of pages with them. When all the elements of proper characterization are balanced right, the characters linger in our minds long after we’re finished reading those books.
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