Author Richard Gilbert’s blog, Draft No. 4, explores storytelling in creative nonfiction and fiction, with special emphasis on style, structure, and use of self in narrative prose.
Create memorable characters….guest blogg
Do we always have to create memorable characters?
It depends on the genre.
In an all-action thriller focused on pace and plot, everyone but the key players can be wafer-thin. They’re disposable.
The same is often true of detective fiction, even the quality sort. In John Dickson Carr’s famous ‘locked room’ mysteries, the only rounded character is the sleuth, Gideon Fell, and he’s larger than life. All the other players are pawns on a chessboard.
But what if we do want to bring our characters alive–make them colorful?
Here are eight tips that will help you to create memorable characters.
1. Use Character Labels
Do we remember characters who are introduced with a bald description?
‘He was a short man, stubby, with a protruding chin.‘
So why mention those details at all, unless they’re important to the story?
Because we can use them later as labels.
‘His face appeared at my elbow‘; ‘The stubby man entered‘; ‘He poked his long chin at me.’
And so on.
However, characters who are identified by labels alone have no personality. That’s just as well if they quickly vanish from the tale or meet a nasty end.
But what of the others?
A fast way to make characters – minor or not – more memorable is to dress them in a metaphor as soon as they appear.
‘My first impression of Fergus Lafferty was of a furze bush. Tall, prickly and bent by the wind.‘
Then keep playing on that metaphor whenever you refer to the character:
‘The furze bush glowered’; ‘He walked unsteadily, bent by the wind.’
The first visual snapshot usually defines the character, just as first appearances do in life. Of course, first appearances can be deceptive. (Jess, a squint-eyed shrew, really has a heart of gold etc.)
Language then expands the character snapshot.
How often have we read stories where everyone uses the same bland idioms? A great opportunity for characterization is lost.
But we don’t have to push language to the point of quirks and caricature to distinguish a character. A mere change of cadence can do it.
Here’s a puritan vicar, described as ‘lank, shabby, proudly erect:’
“Who was the thief I cannot tell, and it is not for me, a priest, to seek him out.”
His short block-like phrases replicate his rigid mind. They contrast with the breezy speech rhythms of the detective he’s addressing: Reggie Fortune, a whimsical man.
‘Reggie laughed. “My dear chap! Oh, my dear chap!”’ (H. C. Bailey, Mr Fortune Explains)
Character labels can be great fun, especially if we add descriptions of dress, mannerism, occupation, and the like.
Then we’ve created rounded characters, haven’t we?
Not yet. Only flat characters.
They may be memorable, even colorful, but they lack life.
So how do we raise our game?
Here are seven far more subtle tips. All depend on ‘shadow’ characterization, the ability to say important things obliquely.
2. Bring in a Doppelganger
This is guilt by association.
The character reminds the narrator of someone else, quite by chance. Or the character brings to mind an unrelated incident.
We can do it blatantly: ‘S/he was a typical nerd [drop in your term of choice].’
‘He put me in mind of my cousin Joe – all smiles, but the soul of a weasel.’
‘For some reason, she made me feel like a foolish child.’
‘The last time I’d heard someone laugh like that was in high school when the class bully dropped a lizard down my shirt.‘
3. Use the Knock-on Effect
If the reader has already formed a strong opinion – positive or negative – about the narrator or another character, their opinion of a third party will be colored by that person’s opinions.
Suppose the village shopkeeper, an honest man, whispers to the narrator:
“I don’t like that young fellow who’s just moved into the cottage. Stuck-up city type. Thinks he’s too good for the likes of us.”
The reader is inclined to dislike him too.
Or a bigoted old lawyer describes a new woman barrister in his chambers, sniffily, as:
“Our token bit of skirt.”
At once, we feel sympathetic towards that woman.
(Needless to say, the reader’s opinion – in both cases – might be shockingly subverted by events.)
4. Employ the Nimbus Tactic
Here, the character’s ‘nimbus’ – the cloud of reputation that precedes them – suggests their personality even before they appear. You can do it in one line.
“A solid man. Blue chip football scholar. Harvard alumnus. Youngest colonel in the regiment.”
“She was that awful person in the newspapers. Remember?”
“Reliable worker, always cheerful.”
“I wouldn’t trust her an inch.”
5. Use the Habitus Technique
In sociological terms, ‘habitus’ is a ‘pattern of norms or tendencies that guide a person’s behaviour and thinking.’
It’s a useful concept, especially for ad people. They know that if a customer cherishes antique cars and vintage wines, they’re likely to enjoy opera and vote Republican (or, in the UK, Conservative). And vice versa.
We can use it in fiction to characterize a person by their habitual environment and possessions.
Again, a single phrase can reveal someone’s true personality—or, at least, the personality they want to convey.
Perhaps we first meet the character in a characterizing setting: a church vestry, exclusive hotel, biker bar, etc. That association lingers in the reader’s mind.
Or they appear at their place of residence. Rented or owned? Ultra-clean or scruffy? Downtown or in the suburbs?
Is their living room filled with books or motorcycle parts? Bare-walled or hung with sports regalia, political cartoons, abstract art, family photos?
A person’s home defines the person. It’s the simplest, most authentic way to give a character depth.
Above all, how does our narrator or point-of-view (pov) character feel about that environment? Are they relaxed and reassured, or uneasy and repulsed? Show their responses and you’ve helped to characterize them too.
For example, a newly famous actress visits her parents’ squalid trailer house, sidesteps the garbage, tosses off her Jimmy Choo shoes and sighs, “Home, at last!”
6. Describe a Mental Filter
A variant on the habitus technique is the mental filter that the narrator or pov character applies, perhaps unconsciously, when they assess a person or their environment.
Try it yourself.
Suppose you meet an interesting woman. What’s the first thing that impresses you? Her $500 pashmina shawl, elegantly contoured hair or impeccable manicure? Or her resemblance to Kim Kardashian?
No prizes for discovering that you are, respectively, a couturier, hair stylist or manicurist. (Or a randy young man.)
What we first notice in a stranger reveals our own personality or profession.
Likewise, if you were invited to wander around a stranger’s house at will, what would you check first? Instinctively.
The book shelves, if any? The kitchen appliances and fridge contents? The cleanliness of the bathroom? The state of the garden, if any? The market value of the property?
If you pay special attention to any one of these things, chances are you are – respectively – a book lover, keen chef, house-proud person, hobby gardener or realtor.
If you’re the pov character in a story, that little survey will have told the reader more about you than about the householder.
Let the main characters in your story make similar assessments of the people they meet. You’ve done two jobs at once!
7. Introduce a Cameo Incident
One way to introduce a major character and make them instantly unforgettable is to involve them in a revealing cameo.
In one of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, the priest is sitting on the carpet cross-legged, trying to pin a hat onto the head of a naked doll. No explanation is given. The sole purpose of the scene is to illustrate Brown’s child-like simplicity.
In just one incident, Chesterton has summed up Father Brown.
Some critics have found a deeper explanation. Brown’s hapless job as a priest is to impose Christian morals (the hat) on recalcitrant humanity (the naked doll). The incident is symbolic.
Symbolism can add great depth to a characterizing incident. Want to suggest a character’s tacit nobility? Introduce them with a bright light shining behind their head. If they’re villains, have them step out of the shadows. A cliché, but it works.
8. Use Narrative Voice
This is a trick of characterization that the reader doesn’t see coming.
Entire scenes are written in a voice or style peculiar to the main character in that scene. Not just the dialogue, but every word of exposition (description or explanation) too.
The pov can be that of the narrator, author, or any character you wish. But the chosen idioms, vocabulary and sentence rhythms indicate, subliminally, whose scene it is.
For example, both these passages are written by the omniscient author but each has the distinctive voice of their principal characters:
‘The lab was precisely cuboid, 20 meters on each side, with titanium-reinforced concrete walls that were tested to stop an 81mm mortar. But they weren’t as tough as its Chief Clinician, Jane Mandrake – 6ft 1in, 210 lbs – whose wiry fingers could rip apart a one-inch phone book.’
‘The lab was a womb of light, fragrant with chlorine. She was scared to speak lest her breath contaminate its purity. Jane gripped her arm with a hand as big as a catcher’s mitt. But it was surprisingly soft. As she would soon discover, Jane was a lady of paradox.’
It’s not hard to tell by their narrative voices alone, which scene applies to each character. The mature scientist uses precise clinical descriptions; the impressionable young girl – newly enlisted as a lab assistant – thinks in sensual terms and metaphors.
Their characters have depth before their persons have even been described.
In a complex novel, the major characters will acquire several layers of depth as the story proceeds. The plot events will round the characters.
But our first task is to bond the reader with the narrator or protagonist(s). Their viewpoint – the ‘I/eye’ in the story – is the place where the reader will sit throughout a long journey.
Unless we’re writing pulp, we’d better furnish that place quickly, and as richly as we can. One of the most successful ways to do so is to create memorable characters.
What quirks of character have you found memorable in the stories you’ve read? How did the author do it? Share your experiences in a comment below. Every comment gets a fast, thoughtful reply.
And if you enjoyed this post, please share it on social media.
About the author:
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, is a top-rated Amazon novelist. He judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. You can find a wealth of ideas for writing stories that succeed and gain a big 10,000 word ebook – 15 Wily Ways to Write Better Stories – in his free 14-part course at Writers’ Village.
Today life rushed at me. Shocked me. Waking me into reality. Reminding me of what I already know, but forget easily.
I am reminded – Life is like a flickering candle.
One moment brightly shining, keeping our dreams and schemes alive;
– our lives full of hope.
The next moment, an unexpected wind disturbs the brightness and strength of the flame. It flickers, causing uncertainty about its’ future. Life’s future. Our future.
Will the flame return to shine brightly? Or will the circumstances snuff it out?
Today news came, reminding me about life. And about death. As life’s length is unknown. We all know this. There is nothing we can do to prolong our time, except care for our body, our mind and our soul.
Need I write of the every day decisions we all make, in trying to prolong our lives;
– about eating healthily, keeping fit, – and regarding alcohol, cigarettes and drugs.
– of being gentle on ourselves, forgiving ourselves, and forgiving others.
– removing the sources of stress by addressing the issues that challenge us.
– making better choices about people and situations.
And then there is the unspoken one. Considered to be taboo, private, personal and even offensive!
Causing anger, splitting families, the reason for wars throughout history. Certainly contentious.
It’s the decision of accepting or rejecting that we have a ‘Soul’ – that ‘God Part’ evidenced within all cultures and societies since human life began. For all time, this has been a part of mankind – we either accept it or reject it.
But how do we accept it?
– simply by accepting our soul is real, followed by listenning to the prompting of our soul, such prompting draws all of mankind closer to God.
Today I’ve been reminded of these things. It is a harsh reminder, a sad reminder, and a wake up call. As today news came, reminding me about life. And about death.
As you see, a life-long friend has been diagnosed with leukaemia. Untreated, he has maybe three months. Treated… God only knows the length of his days.
How can this be? As my life-long friend has many goals. In his retirement he has yet to do the things he has planned.
His grand children are babies – so young. He has much to pass on to them. Let alone the shortened time with his wife and recently married children.
The flickering candle must not blow out.
‘Not yet! Please not yet!’ This we pray. Hoping our cry is heard, hoping our tears are seen by the one who knows the exact time – the exact number of days allocated to each of us.
Today I realised again, that a life without hope, without faith, without belief in prayer being answered, must be dreadful.
Without any hope of eternity ones remaining days must be depressing when facing death. Here one day, gone the next and all for what reason?
Without really knowing that; if the flickering flame is extinguished today or in three weeks or some years ahead, it will not mean eternal darkness.
The end! Nothing! Over! All for nothing!
Without knowing of a love greater than we have known and a promise, must be soul destroying. Causing fear and anxiety.
As, believing that the flickering candle will keep eternally burning, brings peace. As a renewed soul believing in Jesus will never be extinguished. That is God’s promise.
For today life rushed at me. Shocked me. Waking me into reality. Reminding me of what I already know, but forget easily as I go about my allocated days.
It’s not instinctive to believe. It’s not something to research and throw questions at. Or to analyse. As those attitudes know nothing about faith or hope. Faith is not logical. If it was, it’s not faith!
It’s from the soul – not the mind. Simply a decision to give in to. And by faith believe in.
As the other option is not an option at all – making everything on earth utterly meaningless. A candle extinguished forever.
Well, here we go… One BIG question,
How does an unknown author with an un heard of title have any opportunity to sell her first book and test it on the market?
* promote to family and friends and hope a few will be interested enough to buy a copy.
* form friends with fellow authors and readers on social media.
* promote novels written by these authors.
*give reviews for these authors on every social media possible – supporting them, -hoping they will do the same.
* invest in promotion – putting some $ towards launching my novel.
A decision has been made tonight. Below is what my small advertising budget has bought me – 30 days of advertising for 3 months.
… Why I must make this happen-
– this is my first chance to launch my novel – and invest in “The Fortune Seekers – Dan and Charlotte”, offering it worldwide.
……The Xlibris Google Display Network marketing plan, can run my book ad on over 2 million Google partner websites plus specific Google websites including Google Finance, Gmail, Blogger, and YouTube that show AdWords ads. This network also includes mobile sites and apps.
This service increases my ad’s chances of being viewed by my target readership by allowing the use of specific targeting parameters such as location, age, language, audience interest, topic, keywords, and even specific websites that are part of Google’s network.
A brow wiping moment –
Now, I don’t have to cast my fishing line all over the map and hope for a bite. With the Xlibris Google Display Network Marketing Services, I can focus and extend my reach and direct my book promotions to where readers are converging.
That decided – now awaiting the cover design.
This morning I learned of the importance of knowing my ‘brand’. Of becoming familiar and identifiable to your readers. And trusted.
Trusted that what you write will contain the essence of what you have always written, – that which attracts them to your words. Which makes using their time to read your words, worthwhile.
The challenge for me is to find the word that is ‘my’ brand.
It isn’t my love of observing people. Or my desire to understand why people do and say what they do do, or say.
It’s not my desire to free people from their inner pain, to see them set free.
Or to convert them to my religious beliefs.
No, none of that. It’s possibly more about making a difference.
Remember the man on the beach who stooped to return star-fish washed up in the high tide, back to the water. There were thousands of starfish dying on the high tideline.
Every few paces the old man leaned forward and with a starfish in his hand he threw it as far into the receded tide as possible.
A boy watching him asked, ‘Mister, why are you bothering, as there are too many. It’s not going to make a difference.’
The old man threw another into the waves, saying,’ it made a difference to that one.’
…in saying this, I realise something.
Hopefully my writing will make a difference to someone.
Have a great week friends.