Creating Unforgettable Characters In Fiction

Creating unforgettable characters in your novel is important. If you can get a character to live on in a reader's imagination long after they have turned the final page, you could go far as a writer.

The trouble is that, even if you follow all of the other advice in this section, there is still the danger that you could create a fictional character who is - well, a little on the boring side.

Just because you take the trouble to get to know your story people by writing profiles, or mini-biographies, for them, it doesn't mean that they will shine brightly on the page. (They will be believable, yes, but not necessarily memorable.)

Just because you create characters that the readers are sure to care about, it doesn't mean that they will continue to care about them - or even remember them - after they have finished the novel.

Just because you make the major characters fully rounded by furnishing them with a complexity of traits and motives, it won't stop them from being three-dimensionally dull!

Now, you don't want to make all of the characters in your novel unforgettable. Do that and reading the book would be like going to a party in which every single person is the "life and soul" type.

What I am talking about is providing a select few (both minor and major characters) with a kind of "X Factor," or an indefinable quality which makes them shine like stars from their very first appearance until long after the reader has turned the novel's final page.

I happen to have the perfect recipe for creating unforgettable characters that the readers won't forget.

  • First, you must make them memorable by starting with a vivid, larger-than-life stereotype - the kind of person who would certainly stick in your mind if you passed them on the street. For minor characters, the recipe ends here.
  • For the more important players in the story, the second step involves making them believable by adding dimension to their personalities.

1. Creating a Memorable Character

When you create one of these "stand out" characters for your novel, don't be afraid to let them start out as a stereotype. In fact, doing this is crucial.

Let's say that one of your characters is a supermarket checkout girl called Mary. You haven't started the writing yet, but you have done lots of planning and you now know Mary as well as you know yourself.

So far, so good.

It is now time to make Mary come alive on the page and, like I say, you must not be afraid to use broad brush strokes when you introduce her. You must paint her as a two-dimensional stereotype.

You see, when you get to know a fictional character in your imagination, you create a fully-rounded human being - and the natural temptation is to try to get across all of the different aspects to their personality in the very first chapter.

You must resist this.

Not only will it mean that there is too much going on in the chapter. But the characterization will be "busy" and unfocused.

Back to Mary. You know in the first chapter that you are not going to attempt to paint a true portrait of her, but merely describe one aspect of her personality.

Whatever aspect you choose, this will be her initial stereotype. So the question is, which of her dominant traits will you choose to focus on...

  • Her looks?
  • Her physique?
  • Her booming laugh?
  • Her hopeless lack of dress sense?
  • Her rudeness to customers?
  • Her loyalty to her work mates?

Now here is the key to this: choose just one or two traits, then exaggerate it/them tenfold...

Suppose you choose to concentrate on her physique, which is on the large size. Well, don't just make her large - make her 6'6", half as wide, and stronger than most men.

And suppose you choose to focus on her rudeness to customers in the opening chapter, too. Don't just have her mumble under her breath at them - have her be spectacularly offensive (at least to the customers who ask for it!)

Why choose only one or two traits to exaggerate? Because if you make a character larger than life in every single respect, they simply won't come across as believable - not even a believable stereotype.

With Mary, then, you are going to take her formidable physique and her rudeness to customers and play them for all they are worth in the opening chapter...

  • Show her answering back to an obnoxious, complaining customer - not in a mild way but with all guns blazing.
  • When the customer complains some more, Mary extends herself to her full height and death-stares him, daring him to say something else.
  • The customer leaves without another word and Mary shouts "Next!" to the next person in the line, who quickly jumps to attention, afraid that they will receive a similar treatment if they don't behave.

If you write the scene vividly enough - and be careful to make the customer the figure of hate, not Mary - the readers aren't going to forget her in a hurry. Why? Because you have created a great stereotype: a big checkout girl with attitude.

If you had muddied the picture by trying to portray her gentle side, too, and her great sense of humor, the readers would have been left with a far less vivid snapshot to imprint on their minds.

But that is only half the story of how to create unforgettable characters. You might have made them memorable, but the next step is to make them believable.

2. Making the Character Believable

Contrary to what you might read, there is nothing wrong with stereotypes in novels. All books and movies have them, and they are all much richer for it. Just make sure that the characters being stereotyped are minors. Major characters demand many more layers to their personality.

If Mary's role in the novel was limited to two or three brief appearances, for example, no further characterization would be required - she would simply be the big, scary checkout girl.

She wouldn't be any less memorable being left as a stereotype - readers, in fact, would probably find themselves looking forward to her next appearance. But she would be a two-dimensional flat character, and therefore hopeless for the purposes of the female lead, or even the female lead's best friend.

Major characters need to be complex, rounded human beings. Start them off as a stereotype, by all means, but don't waste much time in making them far more complex (just like you and I are).

The way you would achieve this with Mary, from the second chapter onwards, would be to introduce all those aspects of her personality which work against the initial stereotype you created. For example...

  • Her sweet nature with the nice customers.
  • How she plays cello in a string quartet on Friday evenings.
  • Her insecurity.
  • How she visits her grandmother every day after work.

And so on. These traits, and others like them, would serve to round-out her personality, thus making her a far more believable character. But be sure to provide plenty more instances along the way of her acting "true to type" - because these will ensure that she remains an unforgettable character.