There are so many books on the market regarding character development that I can not, will not, impart brand new information in this post. But, I can condense the information found in many of those books into a bite-sized piece of knowledge you can read in less than five minutes and save you the Saturday afternoon it would take you to read the long version.
For this post, I am going to use myself as the example. Those who know me will smile inwardly and nod their head as they read. Those who don’t, well, I’m sure you’ve met stranger people.
Characters. They make or break our stories. You can put together a killer plot, but if the characters are flat, boring, unlikeable, it won’t be well-received no matter how much action, conflict, and tension you create.
What makes one character memorable and another forgettable? It isn’t the obvious in most cases. It isn’t eye or hair color, where they grew up, financial status, or even who they know. It’s their something special. Their X factor. Their je ne se quoi. Sure, if you see a man with a third arm growing out of his back, you’ll remember it and probably talk about it for some time to come. But it’s the third arm you’ll be remembering and talking about. Not the man. You may not even know his name or a single detail about him other than he can scratch his own ass while he claps.
One thing that will leave a longer-lasting impression on us is when a person/character is able to make us feel. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a good feeling, but a feeling. Suppose you’re a man riding a subway to work. You’re reading, not paying attention to who is getting on and off at the frequent stops. All of a sudden another man, younger and bigger than you, points a finger in your face and begins screaming at you for being an ass. You’re sitting while a heavily pregnant woman stands next to you holding her belly and obviously struggling to remain upright. He goes on and on spewing words of disgust while everyone’s attention turns to you. He won’t let you get a word in, she’s practically falling on your shoulder, and he’s screaming at you for something you weren’t even aware you had done.
You’re going to remember that guy. Even though you don’t know his name or a single fact about him, you’ll remember him and not just for the words. You’ll remember him for the way he made you feel: embarrassed, belittled, angry toward him, sympathetic toward the pregnant woman. You may remember the spittle that sprayed from his mouth as he verbally assaulted you, or the fear you felt in the moments you thought he was going to clock you. You’ll wonder why he just didn’t tap you on the shoulder and ask you to give up your seat. It would be an encounter and a face you would never forget, although I’d be willing to bet you wouldn’t remember even one of the onlookers past departing the subway.
Another reason we remember certain characters is because they are different, or do something we never forget. Not necessarily so different they belong in a Sci-Fi novel, but different enough that they are unlike us yet we can still relate. And here is where I am going to bear my quirky soul.
Let me indulge in a quick story from my childhood. At one point, my parents owned an older two-story house. One day, we were outside and my mother brought out a snack. Grapes. My brother and I were throwing them in the air while trying to catch them in our mouth – failing miserably. My father said, “I’ll bet I can throw a grape over the house and catch it in my mouth on the other side.” Seeing how much trouble we were having catching them from 12 inches over our head, we took his bet. If we won, double dessert that night. If he won, he got our dessert.
He spent several seconds staring at the roof as if measuring in his mind, then took a grape and threw it with all his might. He immediately took off running while we watched the grape clear the roof. Once it had, we followed. We got to the other side of the house just in time to see him close his mouth around the grape. He pulled it out of his mouth and showed it to us leaving us in total awe. Now that was a feat. I later went to school and told all of my friends what he had done, (about 4th grade) They laughed at me and told me I was stupid for believing something so lame. But I defended him and my belief that he had done it. He only did it the one time although we asked on several occasions for him to repeat the act. When I was about 15, the subject came up while talking with my mother. I told her how cool I thought it was that he could do something like that and I still remembered it like it was yesterday. She laughed and said, “He never threw a grape over the house and caught it in his mouth.” I told her she was wrong because I saw him do it. She gave me the ‘you poor, pitiful soul’ look, and said, “Yes you saw him throw a grape over the house, and yes, you saw him pull a grape out of his mouth on the other side. What you didn’t see was him pop a grape into his mouth as he ran around the house.” At first I was in denial, and then I was mad. I believed in him so strongly that I went up against my entire class in his defense. But here I am, almost 50 years later, and I still remember that day – in great fondness. And I remember him. I remember him doing something silly to either impress us, make us laugh, or just do what he thought fathers did. Embarrassment aside, and for a time, my father could do something no one else I’d ever known could do. He had a unique and unforgettable quality that caused him to stand apart from everyone else. Something so simple, and not even true, but it made him memorable.
Still don’t see it? Okay, since I’ve already shared how gullible I am, I may as well continue.
I consider myself to be normal. For the most part. My daughter, on the other hand, would strongly disagree. She believes my picture should be next to the words quirky, odd, strange, and Phoebe (as in Friends) in the dictionary. Although she could wax poetic on my odd habits and behaviors, I will share one example that should paint the picture for you.
I’m not a huge fan of chocolate – a statement that probably caused jaws all over the world to drop. That in itself is not my peculiarity. What makes me different is that about once every couple months I get a craving for it. Not just a, “Hmm, I could go for a Hershey bar,” kind of thing. It’s more like, “Chocolate, gimme chocolate, I need chocolate or someone dies,” kind of craving. So what I do is hide Hershey bars all over my office when I’m not craving them. About a dozen of them. I hide them in places I wouldn’t normally think to look, and easily forget about them. I do this because I wouldn’t want to eat chocolate regularly. This way, if my craving is only a passing fancy, I won’t go through the trouble of searching for the bars I’ve hidden. Only once the craving consumes me will I tear the room apart in search of something I don’t normally eat. My daughter thinks I’m just this side of insanity, but she also tells people that that’s what she loves about me.
I hate to be the one to break it to her, but Hershey Bars aside, I see a lot of me in her!
Another thing that will make a reader remember a character with total clarity is the way he/she handles whatever is thrown at them in the story. A character who reacts unlike the vast majority is already memorable. When King Kong threatens a city, the guy who stands up to him is remembered far longer than the hundreds of people who shrieked their way out of town. When Lucy (While You Were Sleeping) jumps onto the tracks in front of an oncoming train to save a man she thinks she loves, but has never actually met, she endears herself to the viewer. She becomes an unlikely heroine and instantly memorable.
The reason for this is that in any given situation, there is an expected reaction. The majority of people will react in a certain (and expected) way while only a handful, for whatever reason, will react differently. They are the ones we remember. Whether their reaction is positive or negative doesn’t matter so much because it is different than the norm.
Among other things, a character’s ability to grow also determines how long they are likely to be remembered. Push them past their limits, challenge them, introduce obstacles, issues, and tragedies they’d never dream of in their everyday life. And then let them loose. Don’t guide them to fit a preconceived ending. Don’t have them react as you might. Let them be themself.
I realize this post doesn’t read like a how-to or writing reference book, but it wasn’t supposed to. Much of what I offer you already know, but you’d be surprised at how some of the most common information is the most easily forgotten or overlooked. Remember, it’s all about the characters.
Make. Them. Memorable.
K.E. Garvey is the author of Cry Like A Girl, Run Like A Girl, The Red Strokes, and several other titles including her latest release, Dead Enemies.
4 thoughts on “The Cliff Notes on Character”
Hmmm, I don’t remember your story about the grape! LOL! It’s funny how sometimes what is so important and memorable to us, isn’t to others though we are sure it should be! But I think you’ve hit the nail on the head because it is the feeling that you had which has made you remember it so well. Though it could just be the fact that my memory cells are fading fast! Good article and good advice! You have such a wonderful way with words, and I enjoy reading what you write. Thanks for sharing!
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Thanks, Edwina. I don’t think your cells are fading at all. I think had it been your dad with the grape you’d still recall it, but I probably wouldn’t. Left out of the story was that Mark C. threatened to beat me up if I didn’t stop “lying”…haha. I think it may have been the first time as a child where my loyalty was put to the test! Thank you for your kind words….
Great advice! When I think back on my favourite books and movies, I often can’t remember the exact details of the plot, but the characters are always clear as day. And I have to agree with your daughter – a woman who stashes chocolate and forgets about it like a human squirrel would be a very interesting character trait!
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Absolutely, I agree. I suppose some genres are more character driven than others, but even genres like action have to have someone to root for. And I’ll tell her what you said. She loves to be right! (Thank you…)
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