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How to Make Your Story Characters Memorable

Updated on July 18, 2011

The ‘character signature’ is a little trick for making a minor character in a story instantly memorable. Dickens used this trick brilliantly well to remind his readers who the characters were between each monthly instalment of his novels. Indeed, many of his characters were caricatures. You don’t need to go to that extreme to give your characters colour and personality.

Here are five simple ways:

A foible of behaviour

You might introduce a frisky person with the phrase: s/he ‘skipped into the room’. (Thereafter, your character will always memorably ‘trot’, ‘leap’, ‘dance’, even ‘waltz’, etc, into an episode.)

An agitated character might blink ceaselessly eg: 'He blinked, and blinked again. "What did you say?" he asked.’. Or an inscrutable person might appear not to blink at all. The reader, suitably intrigued, will then shiver whenever you refer to her ‘calm, unblinking gaze’ (and variants of this phrase).

A smell.

Any distinctive smell - agreeable or not - can summarise a personality, whether the person intends it or not eg: ‘A cloud of Chanel 5 floated before her.’ When the character re-appears, her presence might be foreshadowed: ‘I could smell Chanel 5’.

A working man might wear ‘three days of beard and a breath you could pickle herrings with’. Thereafter, you could refer to his ‘pickle-herring breath’ as a shorthand description of the man himself.

A setting.

In Jacobethan dramas, the villain would always step out from ‘stage left’. Could your villainous (or mysterious) character always appear ‘out of the shadows [gloom, darkness, shade, etc]? Or your upbeat one have happy beams of sunlight dancing on his/her hair, wedding ring, beer glass, etc?

Caution:

In some sorts of fiction, usually comic or satiric, the characters can even become their signatures. ‘Chanel 5 segued into the room followed by Guerlain’. But unless you are writing farce, where characters are little more than stereotypes, beware of assigning character signatures too emphatically to your major characters. After all, no real person is a stereotype (or, for that matter, a ‘character’).

Let your major characters - if not all your characters - develop as complex and differentiated individuals.

Avoid 'character signatures' in names.

Likewise, beware of naming your characters tooaptly to their personality types. It doesn't work with complex major characters (who are not 'types') and is no longer fashionable even for minor ones.

You can do it subtly, of course. 'Victor' might be apt for an overbearing man and 'Virginia' for a lady too much borne upon. The names do not register, except in the subconscious of the reader. But only the likes of Dickens could get away with Pecksniff and Rosa Bud, even in the 19th century.

I'm sure that Thomas Harris was wrong to stereotype his cannibal sadist, in The Silence of the Lambs, with the name of 'Hannibal Lecter'. The touch of farce is out of place.

When a name is too close to reality.

How do you avoid defamation actions from readers whose real names and circumstances you have (in all innocence) ascribed to your villains? As I am not a lawyer, I cannot counsel you. But two precautions might help you in court:

#1: Portray your most odious characters as Suffering, Complex and Misunderstood victims of circumstance. Not only might this take the edge off any imputation of malice in your alleged defamation, it is also - in these post-Freudian days - good novelistic practice.

Even Hannibal Lecter was a decent fellow in his youth, the author tells us. He went mad only after witnessing an unspeakable atrocity. Without that explanation - and saddled with the name of Hannibal - he might not have been either believable or terrifying.

#2: If your conscience demands that you vilify a real celebrity eg. Bill Gates (oh, but must you, really?), make it clear in the story that your villain can not possibly be Mr Gates. How? Have the villain appear on a conference platform alongside the real Mr Gates, who is agreed by everyone to be a very nice fellow. Obviously, they cannot be one and the same person.

Do note: that is not legal advice. Instead, it is a devilishly clever trick of parody. It will certainly win you the applause of literary critics if not of prosecuting counsels...

For a 'little university' in story writing ideas, with complimentary enrolment, please go to: http://www.writers-village.org/free-writing-ideas.php

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    • drmiddlebrook profile image

      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 4 years ago from Texas, USA

      Hi John, great stuff. I'm learning and growing as a writer of fiction, and posts like these are very helpful. Thanks so much.

    • profile image

      Linda Myshrall 7 years ago

      Tee he he, Why, yes I have! It could not possibly have *anything* to do with me... could it?

    • John Yeoman profile image
      Author

      John Yeoman 7 years ago from Story writing land in the centre of England

      Sorry, Linda, I am a frustrated pedagogue. BTW: have you noticed how HubPages introduces literals and misspellings into one's immaculate post, all by itself? :)

    • profile image

      Linda Myshrall 7 years ago

      Hi John,

      I just love these articles of yours! The problem is that everytime I read one I'm propelled back to my novel-in-progress (don't we all have one!) to re-work it.

      Must you force us to learn something every time? Thumbs up and thanks for these gems.

    • SwiftlyClean profile image

      SwiftlyClean 7 years ago from Texas

      Great info!

      Thanks for sharing.

      Blessings!

      Sharon Smith