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Monday, July 14, 2008

Creating Memorable Characters

By Jennifer Hudson Taylor

What is it that makes us cry and laugh when we watch movies? Beyond emotion, it's characterization--personality. We come to know and identify with the characters in the movie. We want them to achieve what they are trying to do. We hate to see them in pain. So when you're moved by a vegetable or a robot that is the main character in a movie, you know that story has done its job.

As authors, its our job to create memorable characters in our stories so that our readers close our books and walk away with those characters still on their minds. At least, that's what I hope to achieve in my writing. But how do you do that?

First Layer in Characterization
Think of characterization as having many layers. If you've been writing long enough, you'll eventually hear authors describe poor characterization as cardboard characters. This means the characters are flat with only one or two dimensions. Writers need to try and create 3-D characters, layering them with physical, spiritual, emotional, and mental traits that create a whole personality.

Choosing Names
Chose the perfect name. This can be harder than it sounds. A character's name has to have the right flavor to match the person's ethnicity, time period, personality, etc. If you don't know some basic things about your character, choosing a name may be a little difficult for you. One of my best resources is "The Character naming Sourcebook" by Sherrilyn Kenyon from Writer's Digest. This book has been invaluable to me.

Names give people an impression of what a character might be like. Some names sound like strong heros, others sound like a nerdy professor, or an old man. Likewise, women names can make a difference between a young, beautiful heroine, or a old spinster who carries lots of bitterness. Names mean things too. Check out the meaning of a name before you use it.

Physical Traits
The first layer of your character will be their phyiscal traits. What does the person look like? Is he bald, long hair, short hair? What color is his hair? Gray indicates middle-aged, white could mean extemely aged. If it's a contemporary, is it dyed? If it's a historical, does he wear a wig?

The color of the eyes is very important, wide eyes hints at innocense, while narrow eyes brings to mind suspicion. Don't forget to describe the face. Is it square, oval, long, chubby, thin? Are there scars, moles, birth marks? These phyiscal flaws make your characters seem more real. Don't make them too perfect.

You can give a person's height away by comparing them to another character's height, or some other fixture in the setting. An overly tall character may have trouble bending under doorways, fitting into small vehicles, hiding in small places. These things can produce conflict in your story and make it more interesting as your character tries to carry out his day. Likewise, a short person will have other issues. Most likely a short woman won't be able to reach things and will need to climb stepping stools, ladders, could be easily missed in a ball room.

The shape of a person gives lots to a reader's imagination. A tall, thin person may have bones pertruding from every joint. A heavy set character will give a very different image. A woman with shapely curves is going to appear to the hero. As you create the body of a character, make sure you remember to give them some realistic flaws. No one is perfect, and neither should your characters be. A character with a limp, a lisp in his or her speech, someone that walks with an airy gate, a heavy step, these are what makes a character memorable. The challenge is how to make them different without making them unappealing, unless its the villian.

Second Layer of Characterization

Mental Traits
You will use your character's mental traits for narrative or introspection. This is your character's thought process. And the things that will determine her thought process is her background. How, when, where she was raised. What experiences has she had that have left a lasting impression on her? Did something happen that makes her afraid of a particular thing or person? What does she dislike? She must have a reason for disliking it. What does she prefer? Motivation will often come from a person's background and their mental traits.

A quiet person will be much different than a loud person who has to be the center of attention all the time. A dishonest person will hurt, deceive, and betray others. A friendly and outgoing person will be able to make lots of friends, probably various social circles, belong to lots of membership clubs. A vain person will forever be concerned about their looks, always buying the latest styles, condemning others who don't dress as nice, will have and collect lots of things just for the purpose of showing them off, will live in the best neighborhoods.

Spiritual Traits
In Christian fiction your characters will always need to show a spiritual trait of some kind, if not at the beginning of the story, then at least by the end of the story. Each main character should have a spiritual strength and a spiritual weakness. Perhaps you have a character who faithfully attends church, volunteers for every church activity, prays for everyone, but lacks faith that God will move in his or her own life. Or maybe you have a character who believes in God, but continues to question why God allows things to happen. Maybe a character believes God has deserted them, and so this person prays harder, works harder, until they are about to have a nervous breakdown.

These spiritual traits will also come from a character's background, experiences, teachings, etc. So be sure to include things in the character's background that will give them a motivation for believing the way they do. Then have a solution or plan in the story that will enable them to overcome this spiritual flaw.

Emotional Traits
This is the stage that invokes emotion in your readers. If you've done a great job of portraying the character's goals, motivation, and conflict or challenges, your character is going to have a reaction to everything that happens. This is showing how he or she feels about what is happening to them. These feelings must be true to the type of person you've created. If a person acts out of character, such as a quiet person throwing a huge tempertantrum in public, then you must have sufficient motivation for this to take place. What drove them over the edge? On the other hand, it isn't out of character for a loud-mouthed bully to throw tempertantrums, but it would be out of character for a bully to sit down, be quiet, and say something nice that's full of wisdom. What huge event changed this person? What opened his eyes?

To create emotion, you must have your character face the one thing they've been afraid to face throughout the book. To do this show them going out of their way to avoid it. Heighten the emotion and tension by showing their anxiety, stress, pain, fear, and desperation. Build the emotion to the climatic moment. This is the turning point in the story. You will want to show emotion throughout the book to keep your readers turning the pages, but save that BIG moment for the climatic chapter so that your readers are drawn into the emotion of the story. They can't wait to find out what happens next. What's the main character going to do? By now your readers know what your character is afraid of, they know why, and they know what he or she wants and it doesn't look like it's possible, so how will this all end?

Third Layer of Characterization
The final layer of chacterization pulls the other two layers together and creates the third dimension, the whole personality of your character.

Personality Traits
Personalities are ususally gender specific, but you can have some traits that overlap each other. The best resource I've found for personality traits is "The Complete Writer's Guide to Heroes & Heroines" by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever and Sue Viders. This book is a must if you write fiction and it doesn't matter what kind of fiction. They layout sixteen master archetypes, eight for each gender. Below I've briefly listed them.

Male Archetypes

  • The Chief

  • The Bad Boy

  • The Best Friend

  • The Charner

  • The Lost Soul

  • The Professor

  • The Swashbuckler

  • The Warrior

  • Female Archetypes

  • The Boss

  • The Seductress

  • The Spunky Kid

  • The Free Spirit

  • The Waif

  • The Librarian

  • The Crusader

  • The Nurturer

  • For each archetype, the book gives examples of behaviors, usual flaws, typical backgrounds, qualities and virtures, and occupations.

    One way I create my characters is to begin by creating a Character Sketch. I've included a basic form for this in another blog I wrote here. Other resources you will want to read is Gail Gaymer Martin's new Writer's Digest book, "Writing the Christian Romance."


    I think it is wonderful that you would take time out from your busy day and share this with your readers. I don't think we writers can ever get enough reminders about the process of creating memorable characters.

    I think creating unique characters that will stand out in a reader's mind is so much harder than it sounds. A write can take one characteristic and portray it in so many different ways. I'm fascinated by that. Thanks for stopping by, Rita.

    I loved this information! Thank you so much for posting it! I'm working on a book now and trying to get my characters just write. The layer concept helps so much:)