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Crafting Memorable Characters

Characters: Great characters resonate with readers - they face the same challenges we all face; they may fight the same fights, or they may be so broken they can't fight anymore. The most interesting characters face challenges that reveal these complexities. Understanding how to create memorable characters begins with comprehending the many ways you can integrate various traditional roles for characterization while adding your own unique style to make each character believable and memorable.

Let's explore the art of crafting memorable characters by unraveling some of the ways we can make them unforgettable.

Crafting Memorable Characters: Strategies and Examples:

Layered Personalities: Include both strengths & weaknesses

  • Memorable characters often possess layered personalities that go beyond stereotypical traits. Take Sherlock Holmes, the brilliant detective in Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Hound of the Baskervilles." Holmes has a keen mind, able to observe what the ordinary Watson (who functions as a "foil" in Doyle's story) is unable to work out. Holmes' insights into the ordinary, his ability to take creative leaps that those around him find confusing, and his weakness in being able to relate to people empathetically make him a character that is both deeply enigmatic and memorable.

Complex Relationships:

  • It isn't just characters who function independently that make them interesting; it's the way they interact with others that provides real depth into who they are and how they respond to challenges. Characters become memorable through their relationships and interactions, especially when characters are crafted carefully to reveal the strengths and weaknesses that expose something curious, something that makes the reader want to know more. Consider Dr. John Watson, Holmes's loyal companion, who is a fastidious scribe documenting every last detail of Holmes's cases without understanding the links in each mystery that Holmes weaves together in moments at the conclusion of each mystery. Watson's unwavering commitment to Holmes, and a friendship that includes confronting Holmes over his self-destructive drug habit, resonates with readers who may have faced brilliant people with genuine flaws. Crafting memorable characters with complex relationships showcases the human condition in meaningful ways.

Internal Struggles and Growth:

  • Some kind of struggle or conflict is essential to make a story both interesting and believable. Characters with fatal flaws annoy us. Characters who learn, improve, and grow give us hope. Characters who have internal struggles that we can't figure out make us curious and help us read on because we like puzzles and we like when all the pieces get put into place at the end of a story. Consider, for example, J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" character Severus Snape, a prime example. Rowling has created a clever backstory that underscores the importance of revealing internal struggles through a name. In the book, Snape's name, "The Half-Blood Prince," makes us wonder about his family background and his destiny. In the beginning of the book series (and the subsequent movies), the reader doesn't know what to make of Snape, or even if he is worth the trust of Dumbledore as headmaster, but as the story continues, the author sees him as increasingly compassionate (for example, when he sings a counter curse over Draco, who functions as an antagonist in much of the series).

Thus, we can see how crafting complex characters requires both choosing the right roles for them while adding unique, memorable, and creative touches that make unforgettable stories.

Recognizing & Utilizing Literary Terms in Character Craft:

Understanding literary terms related to characterization will help you assign roles to outline the basics for your characters. Then you can fill these outlines with your own creative and memorable details:

Protagonist: The main character around whom the story revolves.

  • Example: Jay Gatsby in "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Jay Gatsby in "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Jay Gatsby is the main character in this book. He's known for his longing for Daisy (his unrequited love), his extraordinary parties (and wealth), and his mysterious background.

  • Application: Create a character with unique challenges, compelling goals, and an emotional journey.

Antagonist: The character or force that opposes the protagonist.

  • Example: Captain Ahab in "Moby-Dick" by Herman Melville. Ahab is an angry and obsessed character who is driven by his desire for revenge against the whale, Moby Dick. This obsession makes him a man who alienates others, destroys himself and his own crew.

  • Application: Create an antagonist who is flawed, emotionally damaged, or even repugnant. Create a mysterious, weird, or enigmatic backstory. Give your character strong personal motivations in direct conflict with the protagonist's goals.

Foil: A character who contrasts both strengths and weaknesses of another character (often the protagonist) in order to highlight specific qualities in both characters.

  • Example: Watson, in Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes." Watson is a benevolent doctor, an extraordinary scribe, and a wonderful friend. But he catalogs his own inability to make sense of the mysteries which constantly surround Holmes. Watson functions as both a kindly assistant and a more empathetic counter-balance to Holmes' penetrating intellect and abrasive mannerisms.

  • Application: Pair characters with opposing strengths and weaknesses to explore themes, relationships, and reveal the plot.

Flat Character: A character who is one-dimensional, lacking depth and complexity, with little detail.

  • Example: Mr. Collins in "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen or the "nameless rabble" of orcs in J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." Mr. Collins lacks depths and rigidly adheres to social norms. He functions as a sort of symbol or flat characterization of all societal norms. Likewise, enemies or large groups of enemies are left flat so the reader (instead of mourning their deaths) celebrates overthrowing them.

  • Application: Use flat characters to highlight societal or political issues, or even provide comedic relief during intense plot shifts.

Round Character: A well developed and layered character with lots of details.

  • Example: Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee. Atticus Finch is not just a round character; he has also become an archetype in literature for father figures. Although Atticus is old and unassuming, his strength of moral character, his love for his children and his community, and even his surprising skill at being a crack-shot, make him one of the most memorable and enduring figures in American Literature.

  • Application: Use your own personal experiences to craft characters with depth, nuanced details, and moral and altruistic depth.

Static Character: A character who doesn't change throughout the story.

  • Example: Miss Havisham in "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens. Dickens' character, Miss Havisham, an eccentric and wealthy woman who lives in a decaying mansion wearing a yellowing wedding dress remains bitter and destructive throughout this novel. Her influence on a beautiful young orphan named Estella, and her influence over the protagonist serve as a powerful commentary on social class, identity, unrequited love, and the tragic nature of revenge. Sadly, Miss Havisham remains as bitter and heartbroken at the end of this story as she is in the beginning.

  • Application: Incorporating a static character into a story is a good strategy to show the dangers or consequences of a given theme because the character won't or can't change.

Dynamic Character: A character who undergoes significant internal or external changes throughout the story.

  • Example: Edmond Dantès in "The Count of Monte Cristo" by Alexandre Dumas. In "The Count of Monte Cristo," the protagonist (The Count of Monte Cristo) undergoes many character changes throughout this story—beginning with confusion and suffering, to a journey including up-skilling and enlightenment, then to a complete identity transformation, and concluding with the realization that revenge takes a toll and love and forgiveness are better.

  • Application: Employing dynamic characters in main roles that highlight the need for transformation or the consequences of life decisions makes stories both memorable and meaningful.

Stock Character: A stereotypical character with conventional traits.

  • Example: The mad scientist in "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley. Shelley's mad scientist figure is a stock character who is brilliant, exhibits a relentless pursuit of knowledge, and makes questionable ethical decisions.

  • Application: Writing stock characters requires a solid knowledge of types and typical behaviors for each stock character type. This is a great strategy to use if you want to engage a reader's prior knowledge to drive forward plot details.

Antihero: A Protagonist who lacks traditional heroic qualities and may exhibit "fatal flaws" that result in tragic consequences or death.

  • Example: Raskolnikov in "Crime and Punishment" by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky's troubling protagonist believes in "the extraordinary man" who is above moral and legal boundaries, which leads him into crime, paranoia, and ongoing emotional distress. Eventually, Raskolnikov experiences a spiritual awakening during which he confesses his crime and begins a life of exile.

  • Application: Creating an antihero is a wonderful way to showcase moral dilemmas, explore difficult themes, and reveal essential plot details.

Tragic Hero: Character of noble stature whose tragic flaw leads to downfall.

  • Example: Oedipus in "Oedipus Rex" by Sophocles. Oedipus is a tragic hero, a character of noble stature who falls due to one tragic flaw—he mistakenly believes he can outwit fate. Oedipus hears a prophesy that he will kill his father and marry his mother, and despite running away, he still kills his father, King Laius, in an altercation, and after saving the city from the Sphinx by solving riddles, he is awarded the throne and marries his mother. He is exiled from Thebes when his people learn the truth, and the audience is saddened by the inevitability of consequences (pointing to a theme in this work).

  • Application: Creating a fatal flaw to illuminate an important theme or idea in writing is a clever way to draw the audiences attention to both the human condition and important cultural or moral ideas and ideals.

Catalyst: A character who heralds or triggers significant change or event in the story.

  • Example: Mr. Rochester in "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Brontë. Mr. Rochester serves as a catalyst in Jane Eyre because Jane's experiences up until her employment and meeting with Mr. Rochester are categorized by loneliness and needing to find her own way in the world. Mr. Rochester's presence changes not just Jane's life, but it sets in motion a series of events that drive the plot forward, reveal dark mysteries, and provide opportunities for many of the characters to change.

  • Application: When incorporating catalyst characters in the narrative, focus on their role in heralding or instigating conflict and change. Creating pivotal moments and opportunities for critical decision-making will illustrate believable and intriguing characters.

Point of View (POV) or Perspective of Character: The character through whose perspective the story is told.

  • Example: Nick Carraway in "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald Nick Carraway, a character crafted as a narrator in The Great Gatsby, is Daisy's cousin, and Gatsby's neighbor and friend. Nick becomes an intermediary between the alluring but superficial Daisy, and Gatsby's unhealthy pursuit of the American dream and growing feelings for Daisy. Writing from an observer and narrator point of view contributes to the novel's exploration of themes including the American dream, wealth, unrequited love, and the moral decay of society during the Roaring Twenties.

  • Application: When shaping the point of view, consider narrative voice, perspective, and role to create an effective plot line and ways to align the themes of the narrative with the unique lens of whoever is narrating. Weaving thoughts, emotions, and dialogue into your writing will help establish the point of view, and you can also choose features like creating a reliable (or unreliable) narrator to shape story details and influence audience perceptions of the theme.

Character types: Foil, Flat Character, Round Character, Protagonist, Antagonist, Static, Dynamic, Stock Character, Antihero Tragic Hero, Catalyst, Perspective
Crafting Memorable Characters Image Table

Final Thoughts on Crafting Memorable Characters

Crafting memorable characters is an art that involves choosing how to integrate characters into the plot, theme, point of view, theme, and style. Creating characters who are full of personality, face relatable challenges, and ultimately grow and overcome or stagnate and fail requires careful thought. Remembering these three handy suggestions, and shaping your characters to the outlines or shadows listed above will help you learn, improve, and grow!


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