Today’s guest, author Kathy Stewart, discusses the elements of creating a memorable character.
Welcome to RU, Kathy!
Have you ever wondered what it is that makes a reader want to follow a character on a long journey into the unknown?
Think about it. If a stranger approached you and said, “Come with me. I’ll show you a good time”, how would you react? Your response would either be “Not a chance” or “Maybe”. A lot would depend on what the character looks like, how they speak, and how they act. If your initial impression is favorable you might be prepared to take that next step on the journey together, and if your first impression is confirmed and reinforced by events that happen along the way then you’re likely to follow that character to the end and even embark on another trip together at a later stage.
So what is it that makes a character interesting and appealing?
Imagine a scenario where two people walk into a room. One is a middle-aged lady of normal weight and height and she is wearing conventional clothes. The other is also a woman, but she is six foot five inches tall, she has orange hair, is immensely stout and is wearing a clown suit. Which one would your eye be drawn to? The woman in the clown suit, right? Of course. So a reader’s first encounter with your character is like that first sighting of the woman in the clown suit: it should make a memorable impression.
That means, if you’re writing romance, your female character’s first sighting of the love of her life should make him stand out from the crowd. He should be so drop-dead gorgeous that it sets her heart a-flutter. Your adventure hero should be strong, a person that most people will admire.
Make your characters exceptional rather than ordinary, someone whose very physical presence screams “Look at me!”
Action and Dialogue
Of course, while a commanding physical presence goes a long way towards making a character memorable, it isn’t the only way in which we can do this. If we go back to our middle-aged lady in the conventional clothes – we’ll call her CL for convenience – she could still steal the show through what she does or says.
While our attention is on the woman in the clown suit, what if CL suddenly puts up her hand, flashing a badge, and announces “I’m agent O’Connor from the FBI. We have reason to believe you are all in danger. We need to evacuate this building now. Follow me. I’ll lead you to safety”? That would certainly get your attention, wouldn’t it? You might not believe her, your might doubt her credentials, but you’d probably follow her for a while at least, until you were able to establish whether she was bona fide or leading you into a trap. You’d forget about the woman in the clown suit for the time being and follow CL instead.
Continuing with our analogy, it turns out that the clown is actually a man, a sidekick of CL’s. Together they start to lead you from the building, but on the way you encounter all kinds of challenges which must be overcome. The man in the clown suit is killed by a gunman, who is in turn shot by CL. Eventually you arrive outside and find a huge truck waiting to load up all the people who have been evacuated from the building. CL peels off a wig, a mask, her jacket and skirt to reveal a much younger woman with a trim taut figure clad in combat gear. Then she climbs up into the driver’s seat and carries you off to an airport, where she tells you to board a jet, which she will pilot. Aren’t you intrigued? You might be scared and it might not be a trip you would volunteer for, but don’t you want to know more about this woman who defies all conventions? What made her that way? Why did she decide to embark on a career with the FBI? Where did she learn to drive a truck? Where did she learn to fly a jet?
As with all people, there will be some logical progression that led her to the life she is leading. Perhaps her parents were murdered when she was young and so law enforcement is her way of righting the wrongs in the world. Perhaps her father was in the army or air force and she is trying to be like him. Whatever her motivation, it must be logical, even if it leads to behavior and a lifestyle that might seem bizarre to others.
We’re about to board the jet with CL at the controls. We have a moment to catch our breath and reflect on our situation. Where is she intending to take us? Can we trust her? Well, there must have been something about her so far, about the way she behaved and the things that she said that must have convinced us that we could put our trust in her, even if it was only until the immediate danger was past. How did she convince us? There must have been clues that led us to believe the way we do.
As a writer, how do we sow those clues? Well, an obvious one is the way she dispatched her colleague’s killer. It shows she is resourceful and brave. Or it could have been the way she calmly took charge, or the way she was able to circumvent the complicated security system, or the fact that she risked her own life to help someone who was disabled.
In other words, she demonstrated likeable qualities. She showed us, via her actions, that she is brave, clever, strong, compassionate, and prepared to be self-sacrificing. She may have expressed her compassion via her words too, or used her words to reveal her ability to take charge. All of these are likeable characteristics and we instinctively pick up on them.
By the time we are asked to board the jet we have already decided that this is a good, strong, brave woman who has our best interests at heart, and we’re prepared to continue the journey with her for as long as we need to.
However, while CL might be likeable and interesting and have some intriguing quirks to her nature, she would be less than human is she had no flaws. Nobody is perfect. So what flaws does CL have that make her more normal? Her parents’ murder when she was young and vulnerable might make it hard for her to form lasting relationships. She is afraid of getting hurt. When one of the men she has rescued falls in love with her and offers to help her, is she able to let go of the control she is used to exercising and accept his help, and is she able to let herself go and fall in love with him, or will she continue on her path of loneliness?
By making our characters larger than life, by using action and dialogue, and incorporating quirks, flaws, and likeable traits, we can indeed create memorable and compelling characters that our readers will want to follow.
What’s your secret for making your characters memorable?
From the author of Chameleon comes this historical fiction novel, Mark of the Leopard, the second in the African history series, a story of romance, mystery, danger and betrayal set against a backdrop of wild lands and raging seas.
In 1703 Sabrina Barrington and her children are shipwrecked and presumed drowned off the Cape of Good Hope, the site of the present-day city of Cape Town. Fourteen years later, an investigator tells Sabrina’s brother, Lucien Castle, that one of his sister’s children has been seen on the island of Madagascar, off Africa’s east coast. It is imperative to return the youngster to England before his twenty-fifth birthday, otherwise his grandfather, the corrupt and detested Robert Barrington, will usurp his rightful inheritance. Castle is the only one who can confirm the young man is not an impostor. In order to do this he must leave the comfort of Amsterdam in Holland and embark on a journey into the unknown.
Will Castle be able to overcome his demons and find his nephew in time? Or will he succumb to the perils that beset his epic expedition every step of the way?
In a voyage that takes them from the untamed island of Madagascar to the storm-tossed Dutch outpost at the Cape of Good Hope, Castle and his companion must face innumerable dangers and battle not only rival investigators but also each other.
Bio: Kathy Stewart was born in South Africa, and she and her husband now live on the Gold Coast, Australia. She has published a number of books as well as numerous articles and short stories in magazines and anthologies. Her manuscripts, The Chameleon Factor and Race Against Time, were shortlisted and longlisted respectively for the 2010 Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger Award in the UK.
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