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    How To Create Memorable Characters: 8 Little-Known Sleights of Hand

    Do we always have to create memorable characters?

    No.

    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.

    Probably not.

    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].’

    Or indirectly:

    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

      John Yeoman

      Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, was a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He was a successful commercial author for 42 years and was a regular, much-loved contributor to WTD. He died unexpectedly in 2016.

    • Guillaume Foxe says:

      Wonderful lessons in describing people and places. Brilliantly put together and so helpful. Thanks so much.

    • ojas says:

      My current assignment in my screenwriting class was to develop a character profile. This article is right on time and an extraordinary resource for stimulating my imagination for writing stories.

    • Excellent tips. It’s funny, when I came across the term disposable characters, it crossed my mind that there really is a kind of hierarchy to our characters and a whole philosophy to character building. One really should be an expert on human nature or at least a keen observer.
      Thank you for your advice.

    • Arkaan says:

      I want to thank you for this gem of a post! For all my gifts to create diverse and fantastical worlds and the creatures living within them, I severely lack in character development. To make a memorable character is my greatest weakness and as I write my first solo novel I find myself scouring all the resources I can find to better hone my skills as a writer in general. This is an article I have been and will be referring to on a regular basis. If you have any suggestions or direction you could point me in I am all ears! Thank you again for this informative article.

      Cheers,
      Eric

    • Deena says:

      John, this is an outstanding post. I learned so much. Thank you.
      Deena

    • Dan Darkie says:

      I love how you still write and share about your day and experiences! You feel like such a real, nice, and humble person because of this!

    • Livvy Sharan says:

      I love this post!

    • Mandy says:

      i like it. Thank you for sharing.

    • Katharine says:

      I’ve always been in love with the way the dad in the Iliad was a tough, armor-clad soldier, but laughed with his wife and child and took off his helmet when the child was afraid of it, and held his baby one more time. It says so much at once about a soldier, so long ago, who was not the steriotype tough guy, but a real human. Yes, from long ago, and yet so present, so current…

      • Indeed, Katharine. We tend to look at those old Homeric warriors as stereotypes at best or barbarians at worst. Yet human nature has remained the same for millennia, I suspect, cultural influences apart. Love has always been love.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Great article, as always. The nuances make a huge difference; thank you for pointing them out.

    • Mahendra Daxini says:

      Thank you, Very useful article.

    • Mark Tong says:

      Great post – really useful info for writing your own ‘character’ as well:) Bookmarked this one

      • Thanks, Mark. It’s always nice to hear nice things 😉

    • Tayde Rodríguez Gabarrón says:

      Gracias Maria por enviarme esta información tan interesante, definitivamente para escribir los personajes son indispensablemente misteriosos logrando una intriga tal, que el lector no guarde el libro para después, y prefiera enterarse de una vez, ¿que paso?. Mil gracias, la copio, estudio y conserva para consulta. Gracias, estoy pendiente por recibir mas información. Busqué en el diccionario una palabra que agradeciera mas que -Gracias-, no lo encontré, entonces envío mil gracias.

      • Muchas gracias por esas palabras buenas . No hablo español , pero espero que funciona esta traducción …

    • Marlene McPherson says:

      Hi John, it is always a pleasure to read your articles. This is one is no exception. When I read them it is as if I am in a class with my professor. I am not a university English language major but I am gaining the knowledge from you. You are exposing me and I dear-say us to a new level of the language using great technique to write great stories. Thank you very much. With regards to the memorable characters I have used the mental filter (not knowing the name of that technique) , the habitus technique and the numbus tactic (unaware of these technique). I like all of them especially the cameo incident, because it is practical and is a true to life situation. Continue to do this great work by educating us. I endeavor to be a member of your community soon.

      • Many thanks, Marlene. Glad you found my ideas helpful. You can find these techniques buried in many fine stories, of course, but they’re usually designed to be invisible. Great art conceals itself! I look forward to welcoming you in due course to the Writers’ Village Academy.

    • David says:

      Taking a shower can be a sensuous act. A walk in the rain is not so pleasant…. Then again I once dated a girl who had a rain fetish. She loved licking raindrops off my face so a walk in the rain with her became a sensuous act. As for characters I always thought creating a memorable character meant coming up with something that is, well memorable and off-beat. Like my girlfriend above.

      • That’s a great Character Signature, David. It would also cue a poignant closing line. ‘”It’s stopped raining,” she said, and turned away her face.’ Your copyright or mine?

    • Laszlo A. Voros says:

      A great article. However just one thing. Kim Kardasian does not float my boat. And the fact that she married a bozo like Kanye West proves that she has the IQ of a doorknob.

      • Dare I comment, Laszlo? Suffice to say that sex appeal is often inversely correlated with IQ. But sexy people are survivors. Nature likes survivors. How else can we explain the fortunes of the Kardashian sisters, all their names beginning with K? If they’d had Einstein’s brains, they’d probably be working at McDonalds. Instead, they branded themselves Special K and became a breakfast item. Not stupid at all.

      • Chris Graham says:

        Laszlo… you echoed my own thoughts perfectly. If as a writer, one of us wrote characters like those two, we’d be accused of writing caricatures.

        Memorable characters should always have both flaws, and redeeming traits. The best bad guys are the ones our readers (and ourselves as writers) secretly admire and would love to emulate if we could get away with it… even if only for a moment before we take stock of our morality.

        Likewise, a protagonist whose lifestyle or beliefs are at best slightly dodgy, and at worst vicious, cruel, unbending and single minded almost to a fault, can still be the ‘good guy’. – As a good example, try Frank Westworth’s ‘JJ Stoner’ short e-books, or his full length ‘Killing Sisters’ novels that the character also appears in.
        Stoner might be the hero, but he’s a killer with the sexual habits of a tomcat mainlining on pheromones, and a taste for the bizarre.
        Even my own protagonist, the ever lovely Lena Fox, has a lifestyle as a high class ‘escort’ that many would question the morality of… as does her sidekick, partner Tony, whose hobby is meaningless recreational sex in cheap massage parlours. Yet these two are most definitely the good guys in my novels. (Sorry to sound like I’m plugging, but I know these characters… I live with them inside my head).

        • An excellent point, Chris. Was it Raymond Chandler who pioneered, in detective fiction, the ‘hero with flaws’? Maybe, but the idea that a hero or villain must be multi-dimensional to be plausible goes way back. Guy Boothby’s Dr Nikola (1895) was evil incarnate and – with his menacing cat – a prototype of Fleming’s Blofeld. But he was chivalrous to his victims, never sadistic and – in one poignant passage – reveals that all he ever wanted to achieve, by world domination, was to be loved. Cue violins…

          BTW: I know what it’s like to have characters live in your head. The point of no return is when you start to act like those characters 😉

    • Annamarie says:

      I enjoyed this I tire mail and am happy to have left it till I had enough time to do so.
      Thank you Mr.John

    • Ohita Afeisume says:

      Good we don’t have to remember the fancy names of these various techniques but simply to use them to create memorable characters.Thanks for the explanations backed up with illustrations that make them so helpful to employ .

    • Your blog, Writers Village, has become a favorite of mine. Like so many of your articles this one hits the spot. This is an article I will refer to when creating new characters. Thanks for your inspiration.

    • Meiji says:

      I loved every bit of advice! Especially the 1st and the last one. I always knew that voice could flesh out characters, but thanks to your brilliant idea of comparing a character’s view to another’s, now that made it so much clearer! Thank you so much!

      • It works, Meiji. Why be content to characterize just one person when you can characterize two (or more) at the same time?

    • Zarayna says:

      Hello John,
      I posted earlier in the day but for some reason it has not appeared. Perhaps I can try again.
      I did want to thank you for this treasure chest of a resource. Thank you.
      I only wish I had had this when churning out my tomes – some of your ideas I used instinctively but I must try and convey my thanks for presenting this most useful variety of approaches in one list.
      BTW, the matter you referred to in answer to Jenny’s post about inspiration in the shower as opposed to a walk in the rain, might I suggest that one explanation is that one has to remove one’s clothing to shower i.e. one’s inhibitions are abandoned, if only temporarily. I know about these things!
      Thank you John.

      • It’s appeared, Zara! The comments thread suffers from protracted cerebration, like a character in a Henry James novel. You wait all day for a cogent thought to appear then three arrive at once.

    • Thanks for another useful and inspiring piece. I generally don’t use labels for my characters, but I love the idea of the metaphor as label. I’ll use that as I’m editing the current WIP.

      • Thanks, Stuart. That’s very welcome praise, especially as it comes from a writer who is himself an expert novelist.

    • Zarayna says:

      Once again, thank you, John.
      Wish I had had access to this treasure chest of a resource before stumbling through my tomes. I sort of instinctively used some of these but it is invaluable to see a variety of examples in an easily referable list.
      You are, indeed, a learned man.
      I always look forward to hearing from you because I know I will benefit – thank you.
      BTW, may I suggest that one answer to the conundrum which began with Jenny’s comments – one is more inspired in the shower than walking in the rain – is that one usually has to take off one’s clothing in a shower i.e. one’s inhibitions or disguise. Just a thought.

      • An interesting thought, Zara. Saunas should also be a great source of inspiration, by that logic. Every one should be equipped with plasticated paper and waterproof pens. Bathtubs, too. Why can’t we get them on eBay?

    • Great article, John. In support of your points, I can’t resist quoting Heinlein’s description of Dak Broadbent by the main character, Lorenzo, at the beginning of Double Star:

      I could see that this big-boned fellow had been dressed by Omar the Tentmaker – padded shoulders that were too big to start with, shorts cut so that they crawled up his hairy thighs as he sat down, a ruffled chemise that might have looked well on a cow.

      {grin}.

      This book also starts with my favorite first line:

      If a man walks into a bar dressed like a hick and acting as if he owned the place, he’s a spaceman.

      • That’s telling ’em, Margaret! Heinlein also had some great lines in Stranger In A Strange Land. The irascible Jubal coins an epigram with every breath, most of them rude. He’s a five dimensional character 😉

    • Great and inspiring advice – thank you. I found the information about the Knock-on Effect particularly helpful.

      • Yes, it’s the oblique devices that work best. Anybody can pen a caricature but to make it real takes skill!

      • Thanks, Denise.

    • Thank you so much, John, for this insightful look at bringing characters to life. It is very timely advice. This morning’s shower inspired me to re-write the opening scene for my neglected first novel. The main reason to change it was to give a better feel for the characters. Thanks to your words of wisdom, the task will be much easier.
      Regards
      Jenny S

      • Showers are great inspirations, aren’t they, Jenny? Why is that a walk in the rain rarely has the same effect? 🙁

    • Viktor says:

      This, again, is really helpful, on-the-nose advice. Thanks, John

    • This post very informative, i have past the link
      To my grand daughter, who recently won first place in a high school poetry contest.
      This post is great for her, i guess she wants to follow my foot steps.
      I found the post very informative.
      Thank you.

      • Glad to hear it, Telleroftales. (That’s a nice handle 😉 )

    • Each point could be an entire assignment. I imagine that the fourteen part course is well worth the time. Excellent resource as I write my first novels.

      • I look forward to welcoming you to the course, Marsha.

    • Akiba says:

      My current assignment in my screenwriting class was to develop a character profile. This article is right on time and an extraordinary resource for stimulating my imagination for writing stories.

      • Thanks, Akiba. A clever way to create a character profile – that you can build on creatively – is to write their cv, as if they were applying for a job. Obvious? Yes. But then scribble some candid notes on it, as if written by their interviewer after the interview. Then your character will acquire a wicked depth!


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