What we remember best about the books we’ve read is usually not the plot or the setting, as wonderful as these can be. We remember characters. Some of them walk into our hearts and never leave us.
I recently finished reading the New York Times Bestseller We Must Be Brave by Frances Liardet for my book club. The novel is set in the south of England (a favorite setting), during and after World War 2 (a favorite time frame). The story begins when a young woman, Ellen Parr, finds an abandoned child, little Pamela, asleep on a bus. The theme is courage and love—the fierce love of a woman’s heart for a child. The plot, spanning decades, is beautifully laid out, but what will stick with me forever is Ellen herself—a believable, relatable, flawed, lovable human being.
Some fictional characters achieve immortality—Miss Havisham (Great Expectations), Elizabeth Bennet (Pride & Prejudice), Atticus Finch (To Kill A Mockingbird), Sherlock Holmes (The Complete Sherlock Holmes), Gandalf (Lord of the Rings), Lisbeth Salander (The Millennium Trilogy), Celie (The Color Purple), Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing), Peter Pan (Peter Pan), Scarlett O’Hara (Gone With The Wind), Mole (The Wind In The Willows), Armand Gamache (The Inspector Gamache Series). My list could be longer—much longer—and it tells you something about my taste in literature. Your list would be different. But the point is: readers take certain characters to their hearts and never let them go.
One of the joys of writing fiction is creating characters your readers will never forget. That means giving them a life of their own, a life that extends beyond the pages of the novel. Here is my list of seven things I try to incorporate into my main characters:
1. A Past
Some writers call this “the rich, full life.” Obviously, most of it never makes it on the page. The author knows more than she tells. But a character’s past life is what motivates his or her present actions and responses. My protagonist, Kate Hamilton, has suffered a series of unexpected losses. As a result, she is self-protective and slow to trust.
2. A Family
Everyone has a family, even if they’re all dead. Parents have a powerful effect on their children. So do spouses or significant others. Birth order counts. And children. No one exists is a vacuum. Even if family members don’t figure in the plot, they have helped to shape your character, and you as the author need to know something about them.
3. A Skill Set
What does your character do well? What qualifies him or her to take on the challenge of the novel? Kate Hamilton’s knowledge of history and antiques, her innate curiosity, and her ability to see patterns and connections help her solve mysteries in the world of fine art and antiquities. Skills can be professional—a degree in criminal profiling, for example—or personal, like the ability to recall a past event in minute detail (The Cate Morgan Mysteries by Cathy Ace).
4. A Fear
Fears can exist on several levels. On the surface, a character might be afraid of heights, or spiders, or public speaking. On a deeper level, she might fear loss and abandonment. If surface fears connect with underlying, psychological fears, they add depth and complexity.
5. A Flaw
Nobody’s perfect. Flaws can be as disturbing as Lisbeth’s Salander’s inability to connect with people or as quirky as Arthur Bryant’s fascination with the arcane (Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May series). Sometimes flaws are physical, like birthmarks or unusual eye color, or Cormoran Strike’s missing lower leg. Flaws and quirks draw us to characters and help us remember them, especially when they add something to the plot.
6. A Confidant
Who does your character confide in? Who does she trust? The answer makes a difference in how you write your story. Some characters process information and experiences alone. In that case we need to know their inner thoughts. Other characters reveal what they’re thinking and feeling in dialogue. The person a character confides in can be reliable or unreliable. Kate Hamilton’s mother is a source of wisdom and perspective. Hercule Poirot’s loyal sidekick, Hastings, is upright, honorable, endearing, and a bit thick—always a step or two behind the reader.
7. A Saving Grace
Like flaws, we all have a saving grace—even our bad guys. I remember my Scottish grandmother talking about a neighbor who was arrested for grand larceny. “He was never a nice man,” she said, “but he loved his mother.” Can you give every character a saving grace—even if it’s only a soft spot for kittens?
What makes a character memorable for you? Who are some of your all-time favorites? Please share!
Excellent post. Susan Elizabeth Phillips creates characters that stay with me, and I can recall them vividly years after reading her books. More importantly, her characters come to recognize their flaws, deal with them, and grow as individuals.
Thanks, Grace. If I ever make it through my TBR pile (which grows higher, not shorter), I’ll have to read Susan Elizabeth Phillips. I admire writers who create characters that stay with us.