August 24, 2012

What Makes a Memorable Character?

This week I am tickled to be able to play host to new authoress Elizabeth Rose, whose novel Violets are Blue was published in May 2012 and can be found on Amazon.  Elizabeth has been conducting a blog tour, and I'm very pleased that she chose to make Scribbles and Ink Stains one of her stops - especially since her guest post is on creating memorable characters.  Read, enjoy, and remember to check out her lovely blog at Living on Literary Lane!

read and enjoy

When I read a book, the first aspect of it that makes me fall in love are the characters. In my mind, the setting, plot, and dialogue are all various forms of polish that enhance the people around whom the story revolves.

That is every writer's intent, is it not? We want to write characters who are memorable. When you read Anne of Green Gables, did you love the plot of an orphan girl sent to live with a middle-aged brother and sister, or did you fall in love with the scrape-proned title character herself? She is the one we remember the best, and she is the one that keeps us reading the various sequels in the series by L.M. Montgomery. If we hadn't liked Anne, we would have never wanted to read Anne of Avonlea. 

C.S. Lewis' unforgettable opening lines — "There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it" — are a perfect example of how much a book's readability depends on the characters that inhabit it. When I first read those words as a child, I knew very little about where the plot would carry me, and yet I had already decided that I was going to like this book. Why? Because Lewis opened his book with a character that demanded your attention from the start. Already I was wondering why Eustace almost deserved his horrid name. If you don't care about the characters, it doesn't matter what fantastic plot twists the author puts in his story. You may be surprised that a man who seemed trustworthy is really the villain in disguise, but you'll only yawn in boredom when he wounds the protagonist in a duel. After all, what does it matter that the main character may die in the next three pages? You never cared about him in the first place. Frankly, you're more curious about what you'll be eating for lunch.

Obviously we don't want our readers considering the everyday occurence of a midday meal more exciting than the riveting plots we took months, even years to craft just right. We hope they'll be turning pages feverishly, laughing at certain characters' dialogue, smiling sweetly at the end of a chapter, weeping at an unexpected death. In essence, we want the people we create to become as real as life itself to whomever meets them on the page. We want to write memorable characters.

Which begs the question, what is it exactly that makes a memorable character?

Recipe for Memorable Characters
One dosage per chapter should suffice.

Both faults and virtues. Except for those who swear by the Elsie Dinsmore books, most readers find perfect characters stuffy, unnatural, and discouraging. Why? Because we can't relate to them. It's admirable to have a character who does everything right, but it's not very honest. We're all sinners, whether some wish to accept that fact or not, and we all are going to make mistakes in turn. That's not saying your characters have to be unnaturally immoral just for the sake of "being realistic", though — find a good balance between the two. If you're struggling, just observe the people around you.

Secrets. When was the last time you met a person who told you their life's backstory and everything about them in the first five minutes of conversation? If all that information is put out in the open from the start, not only does it make for some rather dull reading, it also gives the reader little incentive to continue. After all, he or she knows everything there is to know about these characters, and they've barely finished the fifth page. Keep some things secret. Show your characters' personalities through gradual dialogue and actions, rather than a never-ending paragraph of description.

Villains with hearts. Villains who simply go around slaughtering people for absolutely no reason are not very conceivable. Even your antagonists must have some small features that endear them to your readers, or a bit of background on why he or she became this way. Somehow this makes them more deadly, because it temporarily unarms you and can make the good and evil in the story seem less clear-cut (so long as you're not portraying them as good, loving, and just misunderstood, because that ploy has been used one too many times). I can assure you that there are very few people who were born wielding an uninhibited tomahawk with designs on conquering the world. If you've ever met one, I'd love to be introduced . . . from a distance, and in full-body armor, of course.

Natural dialogue. This can be a tricky one for some — myself included — but it's a very crucial part in making your characters seem real. Stiff, queer dialogue is a dead giveaway that the author doesn't know much about how real people speak in daily life. Again, if you are having trouble with this factor, just observe your family and other people around you: how they interact with each other, and how their conversations fit together. It doesn't take too long to get the hang of it.

At the heart of it, writing unforgettable characters is all about portraying real life and different aspects of human nature. Every point in the list above can be boiled down to this simple truth. Seek to portray human nature realistically, and you'll have a cast of fantastic characters before you know it.

* * *

Elizabeth    RoseElizabeth Rose is a follower of the Most High who seeks to live every day of her life in accordance with 1 Corinthians 10:31. She loves all sorts of books (the thicker the better), is convinced that Irish Breakfast tea is the closest thing this world will get to heaven, dances until her feet ache, stays up until all hours writing, wears pearls at every opportunity, and obsesses over Les Misérables and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Her debut novel, Violets Are Blue, was published in May 2012. You can find her on Literary Lane, most likely with The Count of Monte Cristo in hand, and ink on her fingers. 


  1. Excellent post! I was actually just thinking about this the other day. I'd read a book with an intriguing plot and plenty of action (both things that I love) but I just couldn't connect with the main character. I didn't find anything likable about her and it ruined the story for me. Plot and characters are both important, but characters supersede plot. If the characters don't win your heart, then who cares what happens in the plot anyway! :)

  2. Good post! I love reading stuff about character developing(that seems to be my hard side, but I'm getting better).
    By the way, I posted my review on Amazon just now for the Soldier's Cross. :)

  3. Isn't this a good post? Elizabeth made me laugh: "If you've ever met one, I'd love to be introduced . . . from a distance, and in full-body armor." And her recipe is tip-top. My characters came out a little burnt around the edges, though...

    Thank you, Writer! Again, I'm glad you enjoyed the book, and your review is lovely.

  4. Yes, this is a charming post! Elizabeth Rose continues to amaze me with her writing, and I always come away with a gold chunk of inspiration. I laughed my way through this post; a lovely recipe indeed!

    "Burnt around the edges" - I'm so sorry, Abigail! But allow me to disagree; your writing and characters amazes me as well! Of course though, authors always get so critical over their work. Perhaps writing is like cooking and baking - the food always seems to taste better when SOMEONE else makes it!



  5. How long did it take you to write your books?

    ~Kate @ in pursuit

  6. Lovely post! I love the way Elizbath Rose wrote this post and her "recipe advice" is excellent... I really would like to read her book, Violets are Blue, sometime.

    Abigail, I second Patience's remark about your characters; they are wonderful! "Burnt around the edges" indeed!!

  7. Actually, my comment about burnt cookies was largely a joke. But I'm glad you guys disagree so strongly, all the same!

    Kate - Are you curious about Elizabeth Rose's novels, are mine? For my own, the time varies quite a bit. I wrote The Soldier's Cross in about six or eight months, Wordcrafter in a year, and the two books of The White Sail's Shaking in a little more than a year and a half. I seem to take longer with each one; who knows how long Tempus Regina will take me?

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  9. All — Thank you for your kind words! I'm glad the post was so helpful, since the topic happens to be one of my favorites.

    Kate — I wrote and edited Violets Are Blue over the course of eleven months. Publishing took another year or so.


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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