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How To Write A Memorable Fictional Character

Updated on April 2, 2016
A great book character can keep a reader hooked all the way to the end - and well after the book is finished!
A great book character can keep a reader hooked all the way to the end - and well after the book is finished! | Source

Begin With A Skeleton

Yes, it sounds strange, but you do need to start with a metaphorical 'skeleton' for your characters. Even the most fleshed out fictional hero or villain started life as a blank slate, so we'll start there, too.

Start by thinking about what kind of character this will be, and make lots of notes along the way. Are they a villain or a hero? We're using these terms in the loosest possible way, because later on, you'll see them become a bit of both. Are they a man or a woman, young or old? Make a list of the defining characteristics of your character, things that you might use to describe someone you had spoken to a few times, but didn't know extremely well. Here's some ideas of what to consider when making your list:

  • Your character's gender
  • Their age
  • What occupation do they have, if any?
  • Are they more of a hero, or a villain?
  • Their physical characteristics (but we'll add to this later)

Use this list to help create a backstory for your character (whether you use it in the book or not), but don't use this as the basis for how you will write about them. Use this list to refer back, to add the odd physical detail here and there, but leave it at that.

Now we're going to add to that list with some further statistics about them (These are the important ones):

  • What is their ambition within the novel, their focus? Is the hero on a quest for vengeance? Does the villain want to see a family who slighted his father fall? Does the heroine want to find true love? It can be simple or complex, but it must be consistent throughout the novel.
  • How are they going to be surprising? A good character is a consistent character, but they also have to be able to surprise the reader - sometimes the writer, too! How is the hero going to be capable of surprising someone if he's too good? This is where you can add some real flaws to make the character feel more human. Make the hero capable of cruelty. Make the villain capable of love. Give them a contradiction.
  • What is their secret? Everyone's got at least one, and your characters should be no different - but it has to fit with their character. A classic one is the hero police detective who's a hardcore gambler/alcoholic, or the villain who mourns the loss of someone they loved. What is the side of that character that no one gets to see? This is how you're going to make readers understand not just your characters, but also the decisions they make within your novel. An example taken from a piece of my own writing at the moment is an ancient queen who is cold and hard towards her half-sister, and is unwilling to allow anyone else near her crown. Her secret? She's miscarried three times and longs for a child, and she's fearful that she will lose the throne before she has a child. Think about what makes them choose a certain path.
  • What will make them appear human? This is where you make your character vulnerable. This can link into the last point on the list - their secret. Perhaps they don't want people to find out, perhaps they have a phobia leading from it, perhaps they have awkward social skills. Following on from how they react to the world around them, give them a link to something small and scared in the depths of their soul.

A spot of people-watching can be a great way to gain insight to how people think, act, and react.
A spot of people-watching can be a great way to gain insight to how people think, act, and react. | Source

Making Them Live

Now we have that all important list of how the character will appear, we need to add their life-story. Not literally, of course, because that would be a long and dull book! But we're going to flesh out those important points we added to our list before. Let's start with their 'secret'.

Think back to all the dramatic events that have happened in your life - everyone has had them, even if you think you haven't! How about:

  • The first time you were told off as a child
  • Your first day at school
  • When you got married
  • If you got divorced
  • A fight with a close friend/relative
  • A car crash
  • Your first kiss
  • Your worst failure
  • Your best achievement
  • Grief of a loved one
  • Birth of a child

You get the idea. Think on these events, and draw on them for inspiration for your character. Think of people you know well, to whom some of these events may have happened. How did you or they react to each one? What were the consequences? This can help you to really flesh out this part of your character, and understand what their motives are going to be throughout the novel, by thinking about the emotional triggers that will set them off. This ties in with the consistency your character needs to have, by making them keep their decisions consistent with what has happened to them in the past (or present). But, this also helps with their 'surprising' moves. What would be very out-of-character for them, now that you know what would be in-character for them?

Make It Difficult For Them

You've got a good base for your character, and now it's time to weave them into your story. A story which you've probably planned out to the finest detail - unfortunately, your character is about to throw a spanner in the works! A great way to keep your character realistic is to work against the grain of the novel, to forcibly track their own path in a different direction.

If you know where the story has to get from A to B, and your character follows that structure to the letter, it's going to be predictable and unrealistic. How about making your character go from A to B to C and D before they arrive at their next destination? Consider what that character would do in a normal situation for their personality, and make them do the exact opposite - more of that unexpected nature we've noted down. If everything in your plot is flowing along smoothly, you need to remember that everyday life just isn't that easy. Real people have their own to-do lists, their own agendas, their own schedules. I'm not suggesting you put a whole calendar in for your character, but maybe the detective has to pick their child up from school in the middle of an investigation - but they shouldn't leave, or their boss will fire them. Maybe the villain is stalking their next victim, but they bump into someone they know, and have to go for a coffee with them.

Remembering the small details that make up people's everyday lives can not only create drama or a good twist, but it can add tension and reality to your character, to really help them leap off the page.

Make Your Character Leap Off The Page

Virginia Woolf once remarked of what readers expected:

“Old women have houses. They have fathers. They have incomes. They have servants. They have water bottles. That is how we know that they are old women.”

But she also said:

'If you say to the public with sufficient conviction: "All women have tails, and all men humps," it will actually learn to see women with tails and men with humps[.]'

Writing with conviction can convince a reader of anything you say is possible for your character. Even if something seems completely out of touch or era for your character (bearing the other points in mind, not discarding them), if you have enough conviction and drive for it, it can be made realistic. This is how you make them complex. Don't let them be stereotypes, don't trap them in the limitations of their own time and place. Think of a historical novel. Is it more enjoyable to read about a woman who behaved as she was expected to at her era in history, or who didn't? Is it more interesting to read about a man who acted as he was expected, or a man who gave his daughters an education? Both of these examples actually existed in many forms, proving that just because there is a general standard to which people (and hence your characters) are expected to behave, doesn't mean they should. People who go against the grain are far more interesting to write about.

Virginia Woolf in her early twenties.
Virginia Woolf in her early twenties. | Source

Becoming Your Character

This is the best part of writing your own character. You've fleshed them, made them real, and now you get to fit them into your novel. But even with all the work you've done so far, if you want readers to empathize or hate your character, then you have to do more.

Put yourself in that character's shoes. What makes them likable or hateful? Find common ground between yourself and the character, in order to understand them. Find something you can relate to, and your readers will do the same thing. Feelings of failure, awkwardness, joy, humour...these are all feelings we can understand, and they help to create a link between even the most villainous of characters (who by now, of course, is not quite so villainous).

Use these tips to craft your character, and you'll create someone memorable, relatable, and realistic. Use real-life as your guide, fill each new fictional being out with flaws, quirks and secrets, and your characters will always be remembered.

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© 2015 Miranda Stork

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    • MirandaStork profile image
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      Miranda Stork 20 months ago from England

      Thanks, B. Leekley! I hope they help.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 20 months ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      Next time I start work on a new story, I expect that I'll use many of these ideas.