An exciting concept, an authentic and fresh voice, a unique setting, beautiful writing—there are a number of reasons to give manuscripts a second look. Personally, one of my favorites is character. I adore characters whose story touches us, thrills us, connects with us in some way. Characters who we remember after we’ve long turned the page.
I believe memorable characters make a story memorable.
But how do we create them? To answer that, I think we need to understand what makes anyone memorable in the first place. There’s an exercise I like to do when I give talks about this.
The Exercise You Will Do Awesomely
Create two columns on your piece of paper. In one column, write down 1-3 real people in your life who you vividly remember. In the other, write 1-3 fictional people you vividly remember. This exercise will work best if you write people down you’ve been thinking about (even if it’s just now and then) for years.
In each column, write a couple of sentences describing 1-3 specific memories you have of each person.
The Exercise You Did Do Awesomely
Think about the people you chose. Think about the specific and clearest memories you wrote down. What characteristics, words, beliefs or actions do you remember them for? What stands out in your memories?
Her friendliness? Her unwavering hope for the future? His decision to sacrifice himself? His smile as he dared a friend to jump in the lake with him? Her witty retort to the teacher? Her silent tears falling on her leather jacket?
When we look back on the characters from our life and characters familiar to the public, we begin to see the markers of a memorable person:
Strength, conviction, desire and need, inner conflict, and self regard. They are larger than life, saying or doing the things we didn’t or wished we did.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these markers.
Strength: What gives your hero or antagonist the power to face their fear?
Ultimately, I think it’s a person’s strength that draws us in—whether they are real or fictional. What is “strength?” Harry Potter’s bravery. Hermione Granger’s intelligence. Katniss’s perseverance. Voldemort’s charmisma.
Cunning, courage, compassion, discipline, self-denial, pride, intuition, leadership, reverence, humor, hope, loyalty, trust—these are just a few of many strengths your character can have.
Strength is that thing that gives your hero or antagonist the power to face their fear. Memorable characters have their strength tested over and over again.
Conviction and Values: What belief would your hero or antagonist die for? How can you challenge that belief? What are their values?
I purposely used the word conviction instead of belief here. I’m going to use The Hunger Games to show you why. Suzanne Collins does a great job showing a lot of things with her first paragraph, one of which is Katniss’s conviction.
She writes, “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.”
Do you see what her conviction is? It’s that she is Prim’s protector and provider. Katniss firmly believes in her role so much that she volunteers in place of her sister. That’s why I like the word conviction better than belief. You can have more than one belief. But, there are few you would risk your life for.
But a strong conviction isn’t enough to make your character memorable. To make your character stand out, to let your reader begin emotionally investing him or herself, challenge your character’s conviction.
One of the most powerful moments of The Hunger Games is when Katniss’s sister, Prim, is chosen and thus her conviction threatened. A short paragraph from it:
“There must have been some mistake. This can’t be happening. Prim was one slip of paper in thousands! Her chances of being chosen so remote that I’d not even bothered to worry about her. Hadn’t I done everything? Taken the tessarae, refused to let her do the same? One slip. One slip in thousands. The odds had been entirely in her favor. But it hadn’t mattered.”
In addition to conviction, a memorable character has values—even the monster in the story. Showing your character’s values allows your reader to connect with him or her in a personal level.
Desire/Need: How can you pit your character’s deep desire against her root need?
Like conviction, I like the word desire more than “want” or goal because it’s stronger and deeper. It’s raw. And when that desire opposes your character’s root need—that’s a conflict that will stay with your reader for a long, long time.
What do I mean by root need? I’m going to quote author Veronica Rossi here because I learned that term from her.
“A root need is the fundamental force that gets us up in the morning, and off to work, and back at night. Everything we do and say and wear and eat stems from that root.”
Let’s look at Katniss again, but this time in the second Hunger Games book, Catching Fire. (Spoiler alert – Katniss and Peeta are thrown into the arena again.) Her root need is the same from the first book: protection for her family. But that directly opposes her desire to save Peeta—a desire that not only stems from some sort of romantic feeling but also from her belief that Peeta is a much better person than she is. It’s her desperate desire to see him, a good and loving person, survive through this battle.
To be continued…
In Part 2, we’ll take a look at the last three markers of a memorable character. Before you go the next part though, want to share some of your answers? What strengths, convictions, values, desires and needs did you notice in the people you remember?