What Makes a Character Memorable?

Think back—way back—maybe to your childhood or high school days. And think of a person you remember vividly—someone other than your family or personal friends. I did this recently and immediately thought of an unexpected person—Mildred Rowley, one of my mother’s childhood friends.

Mildred and her mother lived next door to my grandparents for years. They ran a doll hospital. People with dolls that had been damaged in some way sent them to the Rowleys, where they were cleaned, repaired, sometimes repainted, and reclothed. I think the doll hospital was the only means of making a living for the two women, and when her mother died, Mildred continued the business for many years. Mildred remained single her whole life, and I admit to being surprised when years later, my mother told me Mildred’s mother had never been married either. One of our family stories involves the day a visiting circuit preacher was going to stay overnight with my grandparents. My grandmother, in her twenties at the time, was extremely nervous, wanting to make a good impression. She confessed her anxiety to old Mrs. Rowley who gave her some “medicine” that would calm her nerves. It turned out to be whiskey, which went directly to my teetotalling grandmother’s head. The preacher and my father had to help her up the stairs to bed. But none of that is why I remember Mildred Rowley. I remember her because when she kissed me, I could feel her whiskers.  

Creating memorable characters seems to me a bit like my memory of Mildred Rowley—one small sensory detail forever embedded in my head. I don’t remember her because of the stories. I remember the stories because of her, and I remember her because of those spikey whiskers. Oh dear. I’m sure she would have been terribly embarrassed to know that, but she’s been gone more than fifty years now so I don’t think she’ll mind. My point is this: authors create memorable characters by using interesting, intriguing, and unusual details to cement them in the reader’s head. That’s important because our characters carry the story. They literally act it out. So how do we create those memorable details?

Have you heard of Neil Gaiman’s funny hats? The term comes from his dark fantasy, Neverwhere, in which an ordinary man, Richard, falls through the cracks and finds himself in “London Below,” a dark, twisted, and mysterious version of “London Above.” Two of the villains in London Below are Mr. Vandemar and Mr. Croup. They are very different characters, and Gaiman cements them in our minds by giving them different funny hats.

“When you have a lot of characters wandering around you need to help your reader,” Gaiman says. “And one of the ways that I’ve always liked to do that is what I call ‘funny hats’…You give your character something that makes that character different from every other character in the book…You’re holding the reader’s hand a little bit, and you’re making sure that they’re never confused.” (Neil Gaiman from his Masterclass “The Art of Storytelling.”)

What defining characteristic could you give each person in your story? It might be a visual clue like a funny hat. Or it could be a particular way of speaking or a memorable character trait. In other words, use short, vivid details to make sure your readers are never confused. And if those vivid details also reveal character, enrich the setting, or drive the plot, so much the better.

In my book The Shadow of Memory, I give historian and archivist Dr. Oswin Underwood a white Van-Dyke-style beard, “giving him the look of someone plucked from a prior century.” The unusual beard isn’t only a visual clue; it also reflects Dr. Underwood’s obsession with the past.

How might you use Gaiman’s “funny hat” technique to create a memorable character?”


  1. Oh, I love this! I tend to do this physically: very short woman who is always having to fight against preconceptions against short women. A man whose attempts to look presentable makes him look like he’s in a boy band. :-). It can be fun!

    1. I agree! This can be really fun–mostly because human beings are actually individuals. Every person is a one-off. Creating characters on the page like this makes them human.

  2. I agree; those clues for readers help cement your character in their minds.

    I’ve made Nora Tierney a list maker. It helps her to organize her thoughts and ideas, a hangover from her journalism days, so she always carries a little notebook to jot things down. Trudy Genova always has her backpack hanging off her shoulder. She dives into that for all sorts of things!

  3. I have a character in my new novel who loves to dress in a provocative way and her brother always wears used clothes from ll bean. I had a lot of fun looking for clothes for her.

  4. Ooh, Connie, this post got me thinking about more/better ways to bring my characters alive by giving them that ONE SPECIAL thing. I have done this mostly, but now I’m inspired to do it with a bit more pizzazz. Thanks.

  5. I thought the doll hospital made Mildred memorable enough but the whiskers seals it! I just took a break from writing a scene where the characters feel too alike. Thanks for the timely post!

  6. What a great article, Connie! I am writing the next manuscript for a series, and you’ve reminded me that every character needs to be reintroduced and defined, for my new readers and those returning. Thanks! Judy

  7. Neil Gaiman is my favorite writer and I started his Master class, got 1/3rd of the way through and then started Ellie Alexander’s Author Academy. I need to go back and finish a job well started! And he is SO right. Thanks so much for the reminder, because I’m in my final edit and I’ve read it so many times that it all seems very tired. And I’m headed to the closet to rummage through my funny hat stash!

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