Updated: Sep 26, 2020
Characters are the heart of a good story.
Think back to your favorite movie or book series. What moments impacted you the deepest? Which parts of the story created the strongest reaction or emotion in you?
Most likely, the moments you have in mind are moments where something major happened in the life of a character you cared about. The deaths of Cedric, Sirius, Dumbledore, and Snape – all are majorly impacting moments from the Harry Potter series. Why? Because we cared about those characters, or we cared about how their death impacted the main character. The world of Harry Potter was amazingly intricate, but the series simply wouldn’t have been the same without strong, interesting characters.
Memorable stories are built from memorable characters. So then, as a writer, how do you achieve that? How can you create characters who come alive on the page, whose victories have your readers cheering and whose deaths bring your readers to tears?
Characters are complex creations, but the most memorable characters have at least these 5 things in common:
1. They are multi-dimensional
They have complex goals and complicated personalities. They are not entirely good and perfect, but also not entirely evil or bad. They may hold conflicting beliefs that occasionally cause them turmoil, or they may present one persona to the world while being something different in private or with certain people in their lives. These contradictions can surprise both the readers and the characters themselves.
2. They are believable
They do not arbitrarily act and respond simply because it’s convenient for the plot. Their reactions make sense for who they are as characters. Their patterns of behavior emanate out of their past experiences and their worldviews, and readers are able to follow their thought processes, even if the readers may not personally agree with the characters’ decisions. These characters may not always respond rationally, but when they overreact, their reasons for doing so are understandable.
3. They are interesting
They have quirks, birthmarks, bizarre pasts, or unusual viewpoints. Memorable characters have at least something that is specific to them and which makes them immediately identifiable. (Think Harry Potter’s scar, or hobbits’ large feet and obsession with food.)
4. They are relatable
They make mistakes. They get confused. They struggle, they doubt, and at times they stumble over their own weaknesses. They are notably imperfect, and that makes them feel all the more human.
5. They are consistent but not unchanging
They remain the same people throughout the story, but they do not stagnate. They learn and grow out of some of their flaws, while still retaining (or even deepening) who they are. Their character personas have enough solidity that even as the events of the story change them, this growth feels as though they are maturing into who they are – or stubbornly refusing to change into who they could be, depending on the type of story. Either way, they are recognizable as distinct characters, rather than feeling like blank slates that change and shift every few chapters.
Characters with all 5 of these qualities will captivate readers, because they inspire empathy and connection. Readers can identify with these characters, while also noting the ways in which each character is distinct and unique.
If you would like some tips for building a memorable character – how to actually make these 5 things happen on the page – check out my Creating Believable Characters video from last week. I also highly recommend Lindsey Summers’ Skillshare video, and KM Weiland’s character interview blog post.
I would love to read your reactions and/or any specific questions you have about characters in fiction. Please post them below!
Thanks for reading!