#12 Dissecting What Makes Fictional Character Unforgettable
Writing Unforgettable Fiction Characters
It is a must to create a compelling story, but what makes fictional characters unforgettable? This post does not teach you how to write memorable characters because there are plenty of exceptional articles on the web to help you do that. Instead, this article aims to dissect exactly which fundamental elements make up unforgettable characters so that you can incorporate them into your writing. I have carved these elements out of worthy articles referenced at the end of this post.
The aim is to have you writing more substantial narrative fiction, so here’s what you need:
- Special/Redeeming Quality
“A character is what he does, yes ? but even more, a character is what he means to do.” ? Orson Scott Card
Your characters need to be authentic. They can’t be derivatives of you or people like you so a great rule of thumb is to test your characters. This ensures that they don’t have any of your own traits, desires, flaws and motivations. If they do, tread lightly and get someone to review your work and point these out.
Authenticity extends to the way the character speaks. The dialogue should be so distinctive we can tell who is speaking. Furthermore, characters should make decisions and act in ways consistent with their unique and authentic self. If you write about the mischievous rebel, make sure she rebels.
No one ever remembers stories about bored housewives waiting for prince charming to come to steal her away in a whirlwind romance. Nor do we remember the shrivelling coward who is thrust forward through the plot passively. Memorable characters take action, good or bad, consequences be damned.
Use your plot to present challenges and make your characters decisively act even if you are writing about an indecisive weasel.
A character’s motivations are what rally us behind them. Think of a to-be-crowned princess usurped by her evil stepmother. She wants to claim her throne back, but why? Simon Sinek got it right when he said it is all about the why. We, as readers, want to believe in something bigger than ourselves. Give us a reason, and we will follow your character to the ends of the earth and back, and we will never forget them.
Perfection is a beautiful thing to a perfectionist like me, but this lofty ideal does not make for good writing and leaves no room for your character to transform. All writing is transformational by nature so give your character some severe flaws and ensure that those flaws complicate things. Shakespeare understood this well, and that is why we remember his characters like Romeo, Juliet, Orthello, Hamlet, and that unfortunate sonnamabitch Hamlet who was too ambitious for his own good.
Your character’s flaws must be substantial. Think of Dr X from the X-Men, paralysed, old and frail, and yet one of the most powerful mutants alive. Not to mention the old professor is a hopeless idealist, and those ideals and good intentions get a lot of his people harmed or killed. But boy is he burned to the back of your eyelids.
“The one common thread in all of the books that are falling apart on my shelf? Characters?flawed ones with desires and needs who spend most of the story tripping over their weaknesses in an effort to get what they want.” ? Becca Puglisi
For the love of all that is good, I implore you not to pull a Hollywood move and create characters with no redeeming qualities or anything special about them. Don’t make the hunk or babe falls madly in love with them, or make them become the chosen one. This is not cute, its just lame.
Some terrible examples are Bella from Twilight or Rey from the new Star Wars or Harry Potter, yeah I said it so sue me. Take shy, brooding Bella, useless as a plastic fork and yet handsome werewolves and vampire pretty boys fight over her like she is Helen of Troy. Many of us didn’t buy it, but thank goodness the story was novel enough to carry the entire franchise.
Like Sherlock Holmes, give your character an unusual ability, something that makes them unique that they can put to use. Make this ability unique and exciting, and you have yourself a recipe for success that will make your character genuinely unforgettable.
“Redeemability involves more than just actions. We’ve seen lots and lots of characters in novels and movies who do utterly horrible things, and yet we love them anyway. But if characters are going to consistently do bad things and retain the reader’s sympathy: make them likable. They have to be brave or brilliant or hilarious or charismatic or strong or all of the above.” ? Nathan Bransford
Don’t create deeply flawed special people with no internal or external struggles because this is like calling in the Navy Seals to rescue a kitten from a tree ? a complete and utter waste. Pit your character against insurmountable odds. Make them lug around unwieldy baggage from their past that has them doubting their every move.
Character conflict can come from external sources such as other people or the situation in which characters find themselves. Alternatively, conflict can come from those pesky past traumas we all accumulate trying to navigate the shit show we call life. When your character encounters conflict, make it personal and then up the ante at every turn so that it hurts. We won’t forget your character any time soon.
I can’t remember those people in my life to whom I didn’t relate. Your readers will be the same. Unfortunately, writing unforgettable characters is a popularity contest, and you need your readers to like your characters. The rule is especially applicable to the villain, who needs some redeeming quality that makes us secretly, guiltily root for them.
Darth Vader for example, is a terror to the galaxy and kills without impunity and yet he is a father and cares deeply for his child. He adopted a scorched earth policy only because he thought his children and wife were killed brutally, and when he finds evidence to the contrary, the inner conflict ensues. Now, who can’t relate to that? The effect ? fans will tattoo your character’s to the innermost place of their hearts.
Invincible, god-like character sits at the opposite spectrum to the boring housewife passively drifting through life, but they are equally dull. There is no conflict and are entirely unrelatable. Impose devastating restrictions on them, and all of a sudden, we feel for them.
Would you read a book or watch a movie where you knew no matter what happens, the character could not get hurt or die? The stakes are not real. If you mess up in life, you get a shit storm raining down from on high. This is no more evident than in old Hollywood action movies, where the henchmen are the shoddiest aims despite years of training and cant hit the hero for shit even with automatic machine guns. Still, the hero kills 50 henchmen with five bullets.
We need to see your character suffer, get wounded severely, have their heart broken into a million pieces, and be damn sure; Let them lose ? a lot. Game of Thrones has iconic characters like Jon Snow, who lose continuously and get cut off at every turn so their plans generally failed miserably, and we all love Jon Snow. If you don’t, you are just a hater. There is no hope for you.
The painting is only as good as the frame. Dr Watson, a great character himself, makes Sherlock Holmes shine bright in our mind. Obi-Wan Kenobi makes us love the cheeky Anakin Skywalker all the more. Create a set of dynamic and very different characters that contrast to your character and make them collide. Your character and his/her supporting staff will live on in our memories forever.
You need a healthy amount of contradictions to add a rich depth to your character because we all have them. Great examples of this are the feminist activist who is also a sex worker, the slave owner who is religiously fighting for the abolishment of slavery, or the righteous family man having an illicit affair. If your character is relatable, vulnerable, has unique abilities, flaws, we love them, and we will love them all the more when you show us their contrasting natures.
The Big Takeaway: Writing Unforgettable Characters
To write unforgettable characters, you want to ensure they have all the items in the above checklist. The more you have, the richer and more three dimensional your characters will be. As mentioned before, this is not a how-to guide but rather a checklist of the things that engrave characters in our memories. With more dimensions, we will love or hate them, and in turn, the more unforgettable they will be.
“Think of your character as a jewel that has about a thousand different facets. If you keep turning them over and exploring new sides, you’ll keep discovering new information about their personality and motivations. Find other ways to turn things. There’s always another side to explore.” ? Lauren Sapala
Here are some fantastic articles that explore the topic further:
- 6 Ways to Create Unforgettable Characters
- Creating Unforgettable Characters
- Unforgettable Characters
- Writing Unforgettable Characters
- The 3 Keys to Writing Unforgettable Characters
- How to Create a Relatable, Three Dimensional, Unforgettable Character
- Writing Tips: Creating Memorable Characters
For more content on this topic, check out my podcast episode #13, where I share my top ten fictional characters and what makes them so remarkable and memorable. Also, check out my other blog posts on similar topics to help you become the best writer you can be.
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