Tag Archives: memorable characters

If Your Character Isn’t Memorable, Don’t Despair – Here’s Help!

You’ve read all the books, taken the workshops, and you’ve created your character bibles. You’ve even thought a little about which characters you like and why (see my post Memorable Characters – Who Do You Like?). Still, your character isn’t quite quintessential and therefore not memorable. What to do? Learn from the best. “But!” you say, “I don’t have time to study all those books, see all the movies!” The solution is easy – read April 2016’s blogs on Creating Memorable Characters. I’ve gleaned some tips and have summed them up (or have taken excerpts). Click on the links to each person’s blog to read it in its entirety.

These are the best how-to’s! Seriously, there’s a lot of great take-aways in these.

Sometimes less is more …

For David Carrico (Enter the Villain), Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is an absolute sadist, a pederast, and an incestophile, yet very little of that is shown “on screen” so to speak in the novel. The reader is given glimpses here and there of the raw evil lying beneath the surface of what is otherwise a very forceful, articulate, and urbane man. Herbert made the Baron memorable by understating him

Leigh Galbreath (Chaos For It’s Own Sake) says she doesn’t want to sympathize with a great villain and wants a villain that will make the hero work for every inch. What she loves about the the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, is Nolan’s conscious decision to leave some of the story up to the audience.

Mat Cauthon in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series is a stellar example of how to make a character funny not by what they say, but by who they are. In Gambler, Trickster, Son of Battles, Gregory D. Little notes that the humour of Mat’s character isn’t in what he says, but rather the irony the series continually thrusts upon him: contemptuous of nobility he, of course, marries an empress.

 A Mix of Good, Bad and Ugly or, the Imperfect Character

In Taking Strides in Character Development, Sean Golden points out that Strider’s mysterious past, his wit and wisdom, all factor in to create a reluctant hero in an almost a surly way. Strider struggles with self-doubt. He falters. He worries. He doubts. He takes chances. And in the end, he finds himself.

Characters become more likeable and sympathetic when they suffer or show genuine concern even if it’s at their own expense. In The Roller Coaster that was Tig Trager, Jace Killan explains that Tig wasn’t all good or all bad and it was Tig’s good traits that got him into trouble and sometimes it was his bad traits that got him out. It wasn’t easy and it took time for Tig to recover from what he had done.

Not every memorable character needs fisticuffs

You don’t need fisticuffs to be a hero or memorable. Evan Braun (The Ultimate Philosopher King) writes that Jean Luc Picard is the philosopher who rules as king, the true pilot who observes the stars and the heavens to preside over his ship. In the midst of near-perfect humanity, Picard shines brightly. As Shakespeare might say, he is the paragon of animals.

Inner strength without physical prowess can make for an admirable persona and Dashti in Dashti of a Thousand Days proves that. Colette Black notes that it’s complex characterization, where Dashti learns to temper a character flaw and discovers that her real power lies, not with physical prowess, but in her determination, an inner strength and loyalty.

The everyday man is tested…

In Yippee-ki-yay: The Most Reluctant Hero, Kristin Luna writes about how John McClane is a great example of how a hero doesn’t always have to be willing. He can be the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time and still kick some major butt. Giving your hero a strong personality and a little reluctance can be a recipe for one of the most memorable heroes of all time.

For Frank Morin (When a Gardener Helps Defeat a Dark Lord) Samwise Gamgee is memorable because he accepts that his place in the world is not to be the hero, but to be the hero’s cook, assistant, and bodyguard. And yet, he demonstrates in his simple way that heroes are not always the great warriors, with the flashy armor or dazzling magic. Heroes get the job done. Any one of us could be Sam.

In the life of every evil person there is a series of decisions that lead, inevitably, to damnation. This is the moment where your villain goes wrong. The moment where he or she makes the decision to do the wrong thing for all the right reasons. After that, it’s a slow and gradual slide into hell. That’s Frog Jones’ take on Walter White. To learn more, read Regarding the Humble Blowfish.

Just because that’s the way it is…

Kim May (Marty Stus by Moonlight) writes about Chiba Mamoru being an ideal of a man: strong, silent, and enigmatic. The perfect gentleman whose sole purpose is to be Sailor Moon’s love interest, to rescue her from peril when her klutziness and fears get the best of her. You have to admit. There are times when we really really need that kind of rescuing. Marty Stus were never meant to be the ideal we should hold out for. They’re the ideal that we have little escapist fantasies about on a moonlit night when reality is too much…and there’s no shame in that.

Which brings me back to Leigh Galbreath’s post about the Joker because sometimes you want Chaos For It’s Own Sake.

Villains come in all shades

The reluctant villain and one who you can’t resist! In A Character You Can’t Refuse, Marta Sprout talks about how Michael Corleone does some terrible things and yet we still like him. We’re drawn to him as he is slowly pulled away from his own honorable world and into his family’s mob dealings. When a character changes so profoundly it’s engrossing and it was done one reasonable step at a time. At each moment Michael is held tightly into his role where he can’t back out.

The loveable antagonist. Instead of hating Gollum, David Heyman, reveals in A Preciously Complex Character that he liked Gollum, felt sorry for him, and hoped Frodo would find a solution to his problem that didn’t force Gollum (and Smeagol) to lose. Gollum’s love of the Ring is heartbreakingly pure: even as it destroys and corrupts him, he wants nothing from life other than to possess it.

That’s me! Sometimes the villain is us pushed to the wall. In Walter White, you monster, E. Godhand says that a villain protagonist whose methods may not be right, can win your sympathy and support because after doing everything right and getting nothing in return, he has nothing left to lose. We feel the adage, “But for the Grace of God, goes I.”

Pure Evil. And, as David Carrico said in Enter the Villain, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is an absolute sadist, a pederast, and an incestophile. Pure evil works too!

A Personal Truth We Can Relate To – and it comes in all shapes, sizes and tropes!

Character Arc – In Summoning Character Development, Sarah Golden found that Yuna’s response to adversity (not the sword but endurance and wisdom) made her an admirable character with emotional and spiritual strength. But, she didn’t start out that way. She develops from doing what other people want to having her own thoughts, and making her own decisions.

Someone different yet real – When you bring in a character who is so different from the others, she not only illuminates the cast, but her character is more profound. But, as Peter Clampton explains in The Girl Who Changed EVERYTHING!, Asuka Langley Soryu is no cheap trope, used to simply spice things up for she brings her own history, strengths and weaknesses. She’s a protagonist with real and profound problems who deals by self-medicating in isolation.

I love doing this! Jacqui Talbot’s admiration of Flavia de Luce (You Had Me at Nitrogen Pentoxide) comes from her own love of chemistry and solving mysteries. As she says, Flacia is a beguiling cross between Pippi Longstocking and Sherlock Holmes. Flavia is an eleven-year-old sleuth with a passion for chemistry (specifically poisons) and a penchant for crime solving.

The hero within rises! D.H. Aire (A Lesson in Character from Superman) tells us that Superman was created during the cusp of Worlds War II to illuminate Americans about the Nazi threat. Thus a superhero who fights for truth and justice was more than a mere story for Siegel and Shuster. Superman is memorable because he had a secret identity (a hero deep inside), and that’s a feeling we all have, that inside, we too are heroes.

Do what must be done! For Joshua David Bennett (The Power of Pain) Kaladin Stormblessed’s ability to overcome pain and hardship, not wallow in it, made him memorable. He’s an inspiration to rise to the occasion, to do what must be done.

The devil is in the detail so find one!

As Josh Vogt explains of his own writing in When All Else Fails, Bring in a Lizard, the protagonist, Dani wasn’t memorable until he gave her a quirk. A pet lizard! The lizard seems at odds with her original self. That presented a mystery (even a minor one) to unravel, which created personality paradoxes which were entertaining.

Taken to another medium, some characters sometimes become more memorable and others we wish we could forget.

Watching Sidney Poitier play Kimani Wa Karanja was profoundly moving for W.J. Cherf (Something of Value: Of Boyhood Friendships and Harsh Realities). Kimani (Poitier) became his favorite character (actor) because of his immense depth, passion, pride of place, and desire to succeed. Even with his dying breaths, after bitterly fighting his boyhood friend Peter, Kimani died hoping, yearning, for “something of value.” Poitier absolutely nailed the character and the role.

Good characters usually have clear motives with stakes involved Matt Beckett states in Lex Talk About Lex, Baby. Reintroduced characters shouldn’t rely too much on a savvy audience already familiar with the brand. Lex Luthor wasn’t given a good platform this round. His motive didn’t hit home and wobbled.

When Kevin Ikenberry (The Most Successful Bankrobber Ever) saw Jack Foley played by Clooney it was the perfect match! Kevin wrote: as I read Road Dogs, I could not stop seeing and hearing Clooney in the role. That’s where Foley transcended being a likable sympathetic character into something different. Clooney’s effortless performance as Foley indelibly attaches his “aura” to the character. But is it the actor or the character that is memorable? I vote character. No matter the actor’s talent, commitment to the role, or appearance, the character is developed on paper and is the vision of the writer/screenwriter that the actor is to bring to life. When it’s done perfectly in a book, it resonates with us. When we see that on camera, it’s more than memorable. It’s legendary.

Readers must care about a character!

Memorable characters, Mary Pletsch wrote in More than Meets the Eye, must be seen as people we come to know, then we become invested in them and their stories. When we see that their actions not only affect the plot but drive it forward, we care about what they do. And when we wonder and worry about what will happen to our favourites, we keep coming back–issue after issue, year after year. It’s the character work that makes the story shine

Marta Sprout sums it all up best when she said: When we write characters, we balance two seemingly oppositional things: the character must have qualities that resonate with the reader and he or she must venture into areas the reader would never go and take actions that the reader could not do. Therein lies the grounds for spellbinding characters.

There you have it – great lessons for making memorable characters. Pick your angle, work with it and you’ll have readers asking for more!

The Ultimate Philosopher King

Picard3Jean-Luc Picard is the ultimate philosopher king (but this guy is a close second). The term “philosopher king” is thrown around quite a bit, but let me take you back to its origins. Plato wrote, in Republic:

Until philosophers rule as kings… that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide… cities will have no rest from evils… there can be no happiness, either public or private. (Encylopaedia Britannica)

And then, later:

…[the] true pilot must of necessity pay attention to… the heavens, the stars, the winds, and everything proper to the craft if he is really to rule a ship. (Wikipedia)

In other words, Plato was saying that a community—or entire civilization—could not flourish or eliminate human vice, until those in power embraced wisdom, science, philosophy… and I think diplomacy probably fits well into that same category.

Well, I’m not sure it’s possible to read that and not think immediately of Gene Roddenberry’s revised Star Trek premise. When he developed The Next Generation in the mid-1980s, he conceived of a future a hundred years further along than Kirk and company, one in which no human vice existed in any form. It’s much more utopian in perspective than the original series, which contained, along with its high-minded notions of equality and diversity and peaceful coexistence, its fair share of fisticuffs. In The Next Generation, there were almost no fisticuffs to be glimpsed. Instead, problems were solved almost universally around a conference table, in long meetings presided over by a true philosopher king, with a crack team of scientists (and even a psychologist advisor) at his right hand.

(The ubiquity of The Next Generation’s endless meetings has been soundly mocked over the years, but I confess that I actually like them. I’ll take a serious philosophical discussion over thrown punches any day—both in real life and in my fiction.)

I think I fell in love with Jean-Luc Picard from the first moment I laid eyes on him. I admire his rationalism, his steadfastness, his urgency, his fairness, and his willingness to dialogue. He doesn’t have all the answers, but that’s okay because he doesn’t solve problems by himself; he surrounds himself with smart, qualified professionals who help him understand things. In one episode, literally moments before his ship is about to explode, as the bridge is shaking apart around him, he looks to his crew and barks, “Suggestions!” There is no crisis too great or urgent for a conference.

Picard can often be seen reading works of high literature; in a world of PADDs and digital technology (or should I say isolinear?), he still holds paper books in his hands. He appreciates art and sculpture. Again and again, he is shown to value theatre. He is a musician himself, and he often listens to opera and classical music. He attends concerts and poetry readings. He is also a scientific man, deeply rooted in history and archaeology. He speaks several languages. And perhaps most of all, he is a peacekeeper, a diplomat who brings opposing sides together and negotiates compromises.

Picard is a man of passions, but he is not governed by passion. In his romantic entanglements, few and far between (and always carefully considered), he is never depicted as falling head over heels. He is not subject to whims. Nor does he use sex or romance as a weapon or tactic.

I’m not sure a character like Picard would be so readily loved or admired anymore in the same way he was in the 80s and 90s. Picard is almost too perfect, too boring in our world of antiheroes and villainous protagonists. He is emotionally stable, and he rarely succumbs to errors in judgment, and when he does he acknowledges them and learns from the experience. All the same, when imbued with Patrick Stewart’s gravitas and intellect, Picard is awfully compelling.

He is the respected leader we all want to follow, a powerful figure when compared to the corrupt politicians and corporate executives we see everywhere in the here and now.

Indeed, he is the philosopher who rules as king, the true pilot who observes the stars and the heavens to preside over his ship. In the midst of near-perfect humanity, Picard shines brightly. As Shakespeare might say, he is the paragon of animals.

Plato would have been proud.

Evan BraunEvan Braun is an author and editor who has been writing books for more than ten years. He is the author of The Watchers Chronicle, a completed trilogy. In addition to writing science fiction, he is the managing editor of The Niverville Citizen. He lives in Niverville, Manitoba.

A Character You Can’t Refuse

A guest post by Marta Sprout.

Godfather-Novel-CoverWho could forget the severed horse head in the movie The Godfather? That wasn’t the only memorable punch.

Mike Corleone from Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is one of my all-time favorite characters. The movie, released in 1972, grossed a whopping $134,000,000, over one billion dollars in today’s terms. The book sold over 30 million copies.

This story starts with the depiction of the powerful and mysterious Don Vito Corleone, the Godfather. When asked how he would make the seemingly impossible happen, he said, “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

Al Zuckerman from The Writer’s House has a great section in his book Writing the Blockbuster Novel about this character. I had the opportunity talk with Mr. Zuckerman about his book and what makes characters memorable. His insights and Puzo’s book are both excellent tutorials in top-level character development.

The Don’s son, Michael Corleone, does some terrible things and yet we like him. We are drawn to him as he is slowly pulled away from his own honorable world and into his family’s mob dealings.

Michael enters the film when he returns home as a war hero to attend his sister’s wedding. Even his uniform declares the different path he has taken from that of his Sicilian family. He knows bringing home an American girlfriend, Kay Adams, rubs against the family’s tradition of marrying an Italian girl. He disapproves of his brothers, Sonny and Fredo, and his family’s involvement in organized crime. Michael begins as a good man with a family that embarrasses him. Who of us couldn’t relate to being embarrassed by at least one family member? Michael’s situation is extreme and yet he is loyal, which is something we admire.

As the Don flexes his enormous power, he also demonstrates deep love for his family and we begin to understand this family’s extraordinary bond of loyalty. When the Don is shot and gravely wounded, Michael is the good son. He goes to the hospital to visit his critically injured father only to find him unprotected and helpless. At this pivotal point, Michael recognizes the danger and takes action. He uses a very clever and gutsy strategy to ward off an imminent attack thereby saving his father’s life. We can’t help but admire Michael’s nerve and quick thinking. And who could fault a son for protecting his helpless father?

However, Michael pays a price. He is beaten by a corrupt cop. We see a good man in a crime-infested world, but now the assault makes this a direct affront to him personally.

The story becomes even more riveting when the body count rises and Michael’s efforts to protect his father and his family gradually suck him deeper and deeper into the family business. We can’t fault him for striking back at a dirty cop. The Don returns home to recover under Michael’s watchful eye and we understand when Michael seeks to stop the hits on his family.

Michael becomes bigger than life as his impressive skills change how others view him. At first he is seen by his brothers as a kid and an outsider to the family business. Puzo uses the brothers shortcomings to boost Michael’s stature in our eyes. When Sonny is a hot-headed womanizer, Michael is patient, calculating, and faithful. Where Fredo is weak and foolish, Michael is unyielding and insightful. The Don, who is grief stricken about Michael having to take over in his absence, tells him, “I never wanted this life for you.” We feel the father’s pain and ache for Michael, knowing he is the only one who can save his family.

The critical element here is that Michael is above all competent. He gets the job done, decisively.

In time, he steps in to lead the family business, but he won’t discuss the details with his wife, Kay. In the end Michael is transformed from the law-abiding war hero to filling his father’s shoes as the new Don Corleone. Michael becomes godfather to his sister’s baby. Soon after Michael orders a hit on her abusive husband.

In the final scenes visitors pay their respects to Michael as others had done to his now deceased father. We hear him say, “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

The story doesn’t stop there.

There is a stunning moment when Michael allows his wife to ask him one question about the business. Kay demands to know if he ordered the killing of his sister’s husband. Without flinching he hugs her and says, “No.” It’s a lie and thereby the story has come full cycle. Michael is now the Godfather.

When a character changes so profoundly it’s engrossing and it was done one reasonable step at a time. Once the Don was shot, each step along Michael’s journey pulled him and us in deeper. His actions were understandable under the extreme circumstances. This is paramount: at each moment Michael is held tightly into his role where he can’t back out.

Eventually, he doesn’t want to.

The three things we learn from this: It’s often easier to make a compelling villain than a protagonist because we feel freer to show the villain’s complex dark side. In trying to build a protagonist a common mistake is to create a character who is so nice and thoughtful that he or she is bland and boring.

Another takeaway is that Michael’s desire to protect his frail father and his family is something that resonates with us. The beating he took and losing his first wife in Italy to a car bomb intended for him gives us empathy for him.

And most important: Michael has special skills. He gets the job done.

When we write characters, we balance two seemingly oppositional things: the character must have qualities that resonate with the reader and he or she must venture into areas the reader would never go and take actions that the reader could not do.

Therein lies the grounds for spellbinding characters.

 
MartaMARTA SPROUT is an award-winning author. The Saturday Evening Post published her short story, The Latte Alliance, in their 2014 anthology Best Short Stories from The Great American Fiction Contest. Known for her hands on research with the FBI, CSI, Profilers, and SWAT, Marta is currently working on a major new series. Her hobbies of kiteboarding, scuba diving, and snow skiing are as much of an adrenaline rush as her thrillers.

Taking Strides in Character Development

A guest post by by Sean Golden.

I was probably twelve or thirteen years old when I met him. So many years ago. Yet I remember the moment vividly. Harsh laughter rang through smoke-filled gloom, in a room packed with intimidating strangers. Mugs of beer and tankards of ale banged on the tavern’s rough-hewn tables.

He leaned back into shadow, travel-stained boots crossed at the ankles in the flickering firelight, his head shrouded by a weathered hood. A sudden glimmer of burning tobacco reflected from dark, brooding eyes as he drew on a humble pipe. A palpable aura of danger and strength surrounded him. Even in the crowded, noisy tavern, his mere presence quieted those near him. At that moment I knew I had encountered someone special, someone I would never forget.

And I never have. Strider rapidly became my favorite character in Lord of the Rings. In a book filled with memorable characters, Strider was the one that resonated with me, and still does to this day, over forty years later.

When I first heard that Lord of the Rings was going to be made into a major motion picture, my biggest concern was how any actor would be able to bring the Strider in my head to life. I had low expectations, especially when I saw who was cast. The Strider in my mind was going to be a difficult thing to capture on film. That Strider was no Hollywood hunk. Far from it, his visage was rough and intimidating. He was dangerous, mercurial, and tortured by an ancient legacy of unbearable shame.

In the end I thought Viggo Mortensen did a fine job in the role, and I enjoyed the movies greatly, but the movie Strider was a pale shadow of the Strider in my head. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to come up with an actor today who could remotely portray the man I met that memorable day so long ago. Perhaps the closest would have been Clint Eastwood, at the height of his Spaghetti Western fame.

There are many reasons Strider struck such a chord with me. His ambiguous introduction, his raw, animal presence, his mysterious past, his wit and wisdom, all of that factors in. He is heroic, but in a reluctant, almost surly way. He struggles with self-doubt, a mere mortal man in a world filled with demigods and monsters.

In short, he is a complex and multi-faceted character who is on a personal journey of self-discovery in a dangerous and confusing world. His plans are frequently thwarted by powerful enemies, and even by betrayal. He falters. He worries. He doubts. He takes chances. And in the end, he finds himself.

Having said all of that, what did I learn from Strider that I’ve applied to my own writing? Have I been able to create any character as compelling? Probably not, after all, Lord of the Rings is rarely missed in any list of the greatest stories ever told. But I did learn a few things that I hope have informed my own creation of characters. Here are some of them:

  • Conflicted characters are interesting. Self-doubt is something we can all relate to, and we tend to like characters with whom we can relate.
  • Actions speak louder than words. Strider may be conflicted, but he never wavers in the face of danger. When he does make a decision, he is fully committed to it.
  • Compassion and empathy can be as compelling as combat. In fact, as shown when Strider, Legalos and Gimli relentlessly pursue the orcs who captured Merry and Pippen, compassion and empathy can be downright epic.
  • It can help your story if the most interesting character isn’t the protagonist.
  • Every character deserves a story arc of their own.

There are other memorable characters I could have chosen as the subject of this article. Some of them aren’t heroic. In fact some are the opposite of heroic. Holden Caulfield, for example. Others I could have chosen include: Elizabeth Bennett. Fivver. Katniss. Peter Parker. Ahab. Meg Murry. Atticus Finch. Scarlett O’Hara. Tyrel Sackett.

But I chose Strider for many reasons. One reason is because most people I know, when asked who they thought was the most memorable character in Lord of the Rings, would choose Gandalf. A few might pick Frodo. And both of those are definitely memorable characters. Tolkien had a gift for creating memorable characters.

I’ve given a lot of thought over the years to why Strider stuck with me in such vivid ways. I’m not sure I can identify why even today, forty-plus years later. Since it is my goal to create similar characters, it’s a consequential question. The best I can come up with is that something in my image of Strider resonates with me. I like him. Every time he came on the stage, I was thrilled to see him. And he never let me down.

So that’s what I want to do in my own writing. I want to create characters who evoke such strong emotional responses from my readers that their eyes light up whenever that character is on the page. Maybe they love the character, maybe they love to hate the character. But either way, they love to read about the character. And reading is what it’s all about in the end.

 

SeanGolden-pub-shot-2Sean Golden is many different things. Father, husband, writer, programmer, project manager, gamer, crafter, fisherman, amateur astronomer and too many other things to bore you with. He took a year off from the grind of corporate cubicle farms to write “Warrior” and “Warlock,” both available on Amazon.com. The third book in the series, “Warlord” is in the final stages of writing now. Sean has a BS in physics from Louisiana State University and had the second highest rated rogue on his World of Warcraft server after taking down the Lich King, and then retiring from raiding.