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Writing Memorable Characters

One of the most common issues facing a writer is producing characters that are readable, interesting, worthwhile — characters that capture a reader’s interest and hold it through the duration of the tale.

Many new writers seem to believe that plot is king, that a story cannot be compelling or worth reading if lots of interesting predicaments aren’t happening all the time. This is not a case where the opposite is true, but it’s certainly valid to say that a story that’s all plot, no character development is not as likely to be memorable.

For short pieces, yes, a quick and interesting plot with only sketched characters will tend to stick with the reader, but particularly in longer works the characters really need focus. If they’re so weak that almost any characters can perform the actions you describe, your story won’t stand out.

As an example of a SF story that makes people remember it due to plot action rather than characterization, look at the teleplay for the original Twilight Zone’s The Eye of the Beholder. This was a brilliant piece of writing that completely lacked any character development, but instead brought to the fore a powerful enough social allegory that it’s still pertinent, some forty years after first being written.

Such a story couldn’t have worked as anything but a teleplay, and couldn’t have sustained anyone’s interest more than the thirty minutes it aired. It lacked the character depth required for a longer piece. That’s not to say it was a bad story; quite the opposite is true.

Don’t try to write a novel like that. Relying on a “twist” ending is extremely dangerous under ideal conditions, and for a work of 60,000 or more words, almost certainly will fail.

A novel that highlights good character development (again in the SF genre), the kind of development we’re discussing here, would be Frank Herbert’s Dune, which begins with a teenaged protagonist who is forced to grow and enrich himself in unexpected ways. The maturation of Paul Atreides is a riveting account, and one not likely to be forgotten by any reader.

In writing, as in life, actions often speak louder than words

It’s easy as a writer to be influenced by motion pictures. The trend in the last decade particularly has been away from character and toward eye candy — spacecraft, energy weapons and special effects. This is not good storytelling. It might be attention-getting filmmaking, but it’s not particularly deep or meaningful.

You may similarly be seduced by description of action. So and so did this, then that, then the other. But this doesn’t give the characters inner lives. In order for the reader to really care about a character, you have to give a window into his or her mind, heart and feelings. To do that you have to be willing to put yourself into that character’s place. Imagine yourself in the situation, then ask yourself what feelings you have, and why. Articulating those responses in yourself can give you tremendous — and honest — insight into what your characters are experiencing. Writing it out is how you let readers experience the same emotions.

Here’s a pair of passages to illustrate what I mean.

Jim paused. “Do you need any help?” he said.

The man glared at him. “What do you think? Damn car won’t start.”

“I can give you a jump,” he said. “I’ve got the cables…”

“Nah,” the man said, his tone a little less gruff. “It’s flooded again.”

“Well, I can give you a lift, if you need it,” Jim went on. I glanced at my watch. It looked like we might be late to the movie. I was used to this; Jim was always this way.

“No, that’s all right,” the man said. “It’ll clear up after the carb’s had a chance to breathe a little. Thanks anyway.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Thanks again.”

Jim was a good person, and everyone who knew him agreed. He was always willing to help, always happy, always friendly, even to people who weren’t very friendly to him. So I wasn’t too surprised when he offered to help a stranger with a broken-down car. It meant we’d be late to the movie but he didn’t seem to care.

As you can see we’ve got a little vignette in the first passage, and a description in the second. While both tell us the same thing about Jim, the first one lets us learn what kind of person he is by watching his actions, not by being told. We see he’s patient when spoken to gruffly, that he’s willing to help another even if it’s inconvenient for him, and that our narrator has clearly seen this kind of behavior many times before from his friend. This brings Jim’s nature into the spotlight much more effectively than a simple description can.

Keep it clear and make the reader part of the storytelling process

It can be tempting to introduce a large number of characters in a story. This is not necessarily the best idea. Quantity is no substitute for quality. I’ve found I work best when handling two or three major characters at most, individuals whose emotions I can probe deeply and express for readers, rather than a dozen different characters running around and doing different things.

And remember readers might not always be able to keep characters straight in their minds; it’s hard to care about what Fred Muffernocker is experiencing internally if you can’t even remember who he is. Initially try to keep your stories to just a few characters, then expand when you’ve got the skills (and space) to take on larger circles.

Again look at Dune. This is a huge story about events of galactic significance, but its characters are all very clearly delineated, well-drawn and distinctive. No one confuses Paul with Rabban, Stilgar with Gurney. We have time to get to know each of them, to discover the kinds of people they are. Herbert gave us a lavish quantity of words in that novel in which all his characters could be realized, not just as sketches, but as fully-drawn individuals.

He did this partly by soliloquy. We learn about Baron Harkonnen’s twisted psyche not because Herbert says something like “Harkonnen, a fat bloated psychopath…” but because he lets us listen to the Baron’s policy decisions, lets us see how he behaves, and lets us draw our own conclusions about him.

Thus a laundry list for character development is not particularly effective. Yes, a physical description of the character is sometimes necessary (usually necessary), but cataloguing a character’s physical traits over a paragraph or two won’t be as effective as insinuating, through the narrative, particular details.

For instance we don’t learn how fat Baron Harkonnen actually is by being told he’s grossly fat. What we learn is that he has to wear suspensors on his body that have the effect of nullifying gravity about him, because he’s simply too massive to be able to walk without them. This is a powerful image, the more so because it lets us as readers visualize how fat the man really has to be in order for the suspensors to be necessary. That draws us into collaboration with the author. Instead of being told, we’re engaged and encouraged to imagine.

As a more concrete example consider these two paragraphs. Both describe the same character, but in different ways.

Eric tossed his head to the side, clearing the raven bangs of his hair from his pale eyes, nearly the shade of the horizon. “That’s not the right way to do it,” he said, his tone grating on me. Every time he spoke that way I thought of some spoiled little boy insisting that if I didn’t play the game by his rules, he would leave. I decided it was best to ignore the tone and simply nodded; experience had taught me this wasn’t a fight worth having.

Eric was blue-eyed and black-haired. He always had to have his way. “That’s not the right way to do it,” he said. I wanted to fight with him about it but just gave in.

Both passages describe the same individual, but the second doesn’t have the punch. For one thing we don’t really know why the narrator would give up on an argument so easily; he seems wishy-washy. The first passage shows a history and, rather than providing us with a punch-list of descriptions, allows us to see not just the character’s physical appearance but reaches out and grabs us, as we’ve all had the experience of dealing with spoiled children and know how they can be imperious and sullen when thwarted. This brings us into an immediate understanding both of Eric’s behavior and of the narrator’s reactions to it, both internally (Oh, he’s being that way again) and externally (acquiescing as the fight isn’t worth having).

Furthermore in the first passage we even get a sense for Eric’s gestural communication, a haughty little toss of his head that is probably a distinctive enough mannerism of his it can come back later as a mood indicator. The next time Eric is being a controlling nitwit we can be sure the little head-toss will be there again.

Development is important

In a lot of my fiction I deal with teenage protagonists. That’s because it’s very easy to develop those characters. They tend to start out moody, self-centered and shallow, and over time grow, develop and change into more or less self-actualized individuals who are more concerned about those around them. Their sense of compassion and concern for welfare extends beyond themselves. We see Ethan go through this development in Kalathim; Barris does the same in The Beasts of Delphos. In Allasnu Nomu, Massoud undergoes a similar path of growth and development.

Characters do not move through a universe of situations and remain blissfully unaffected by them — unless they are somehow dysfunctional. Imagine yourself as you were just ten years ago, compared to now. Your thoughts and feelings about the world and the people around you have certainly changed because of that decade of experience. (If they haven’t, perhaps writing isn’t for you, since it requires at least some degree of introspection and awareness of your own feelings.)

If a character is faced with an important or significant event, particularly if it’s potentially mortal, he simply must be affected by it. Either the event itself will change him deeply, or he will have changed before that event in such a way that he’s ready to face it. These changes are crucial and they absolutely should be explored. A Basically Good Hero just doesn’t have the depth necessary to be compelling to a reader. Let the character be conflicted. Let him wonder about his own sanity from time to time. Let him ask himself if it’s all really worth it and, if he decides it is, by all means let us see why.

Here’s another pair of passages to illustrate this.

Thomas hesitated, reflecting. What was happening was, he knew, dangerous — if he went in he couldn’t be sure he would come out alive. He felt his chest constrict, felt the rush of adrenaline, as his heart sped and his hands shook. He did not want to die. But he thought of Megan, of her brother, and of their friends, people like himself who had their own fears and hopes. He thought of how Megan had been shattered by her brother’s death. How many other times had that happened? How many others had lost dear ones? If he could stop that continuing — well, what was one life compared to so much heartbreak?

Thomas hesitated. He knew it was a dangerous situation, but he was also sure he had to do the right thing. He ignored how fast his heart was beating and decided to press ahead.

Both tell us a little about Thomas’s somatic reaction to his natural fear of death, but only the first one tells us why it is he decides to go ahead with whatever it is he has to do. It’s not something he just knows is right; he has to think about it a moment, consider what he’s facing, and decide, for reasons beyond his own interests, to proceed. If this is not how people faced with such situations actually think, there’s probably something wrong with them.

Keep the characters’ motivations understandable

Particularly in casting villains it’s easy to make glosses about the reasons a character does anything. If you have fully formed heroes you really should set them up against equally deep adversaries, unless you’re dealing with forces of nature.

Bad guys are not forces of nature. They’re people or creatures with thoughts, feelings and dreams, fears and hopes. They can’t simply be evil incarnate. Very few of us actually encounter such vast agents of disaster.

If you want a villain to perform a ghastly action, it’s helpful to let the reader understand why he thinks it’s necessary. He can’t decide to just bomb a village because he’s a terrible person; he has to have his reasons, and we have to see what they are if we’re going to understand them.

Again some illustrative passages.

He rubbed his temples and sighed. “I know I’m gonna get hell for this,” he said.

“History is written by the victors,” his aide reminded him.

“Maybe,” he said. “Maybe that was true a hundred years ago, or even fifty. I’m not so sure it’s true now.”

“It’s necessary, sir.”

“I know — if we show our superior power, likely they’ll surrender. But what happens if they don’t?”

“Then they’re insane and we’re better off without them.”

“I don’t see it happening that way either.” He pulled the paper over to himself, the order for the bombing to begin. His hand shook a little as he signed it. “God help them,” he said quietly. “God help us all.”

The bombers flew high overhead and dropped their deadly cargo. Craters blossomed in the earth, fountains of fire and torn limbs flying out from them in all directions. The President had ordered the bombing and the people were paying, with their land, their homes, and their lives.

Both passages, again, describe something important. The first tells us that a leader is conflicted about ordering carpet-bombing; the second shows the event and lets us hate the President that ordered it. In the first passage we might have a set-up for an eventual redemption; the President may grow to regret his decision so profoundly he attempts to make amends later. The second passage tells us instead what happened. (Of course that passage could be added after the first to display the consequences of the decision.)

Conflict is complex. Even bad guys acting mindlessly as cogs in a machine — bureaucrats — might have deeper motivations than what’s shown on the surface.

That’s risky. Many readers (and audiences) like their bad guys to simply be bad, really hateable. One of the reasons Terry Gilliam’s movie Brazil is met with such ambivalence is that Sam’s friend Jack is such a complex villain. He doesn’t want to be bad; he’s just doing his job. He’s been dehumanized but his humanity shows in little ways, and rather than being clearly evil he’s simply pathetic, wretched, ultimately weak. He’s pitiable, pitiful, but evil by omission rather than commission.

Your heroes should be comprehensible to any reader. For your villains to be unforgettable, they should be drawn with a similar depth.

Bring it home

To sum up, characters need to be accessible to readers. Characters are crucial to a good story, at least as important as the plot, and have to have emotions, thoughts and feelings. By describing a character’s reactions to events rather than simply saying a character is such and so an individual, you can create vibrant personalities that leave indelible traces in readers’ minds. Let the readers see into the characters, let them imagine them, let them actually see how they think, act and speak. That pulls readers into the story and keeps them engaged from the first page to the last.