Memorable Characters

The characters we create are a reflection of the world we live in, regardless of the fantastical or mundane setting.

One dimensional characterizations have always made me want to scream.  Too butch, too feminine, too effeminate, too brawny, too brainy, too sexy, the list could go on. By not giving the character room change, you are not being fair to your readers. A memorable character has a little bit of everything, making them interesting. I take a lot of my character building lessons from Joss Whedon.  He is known for his strong, ‘badass’ female and strong male characters in television and film.  They have codes of honor they live by no matter which side they fall on.

Amy Rose Davis, a regular contributor to Fantasy-Fiction.com,  wrote a list of traits every character should have whether they are male or female. The original post was specifically talking about feminism in fantasy, parts one and two are well worth the read.

In order to answer that question thoroughly, we have to look first at what we mean by a “strong” character. To me, these are the hallmarks of a strong character of either gender:

Makes choices in response to internal motivations. It’s okay to react and respond to external forces, but I want to see the character occasionally act on his/her own motivations.

Pursues different interests. A character who only ever talks about any one thing becomes boring very quickly. While it might be fine to have sidekicks and minor characters who are more one-dimensional, main characters should be more than just one thing and have more than just one interest.

Uses a clear, distinct voice when compared to other characters in the story. When a strong character talks, I often don’t even need a dialogue tag to know who’s speaking. I like characters whose voices stand out on the page.

Drives the plot. Fantasy often easily falls into plot-driven traps. If you want your plots to be more compelling, let the characters drive them. Plots that arise from character decisions, actions, and choices are far more compelling than plots that just feel like a long string of Events That Must Take Place.

A strong character doesn’t have to be a warrior, and a warrior isn’t automatically a strong character.

I can have a myriad of plot devices or amazing locations, but none of it is worth the effort if I don’t have characters that will carry the story.

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13 comments

  • “Plots that arise from character decisions, actions, and choices are far more compelling than plots that just feel like a long string of Events That Must Take Place.”

    I completely agree but I have a question. I am working on a fantasy novel, where the character can’t accomplish his goals simply because he does not have the means to do so. He tries hard but is driven by the plot of the story. How can I still make him look like a strong character when he is clearly helpless at the hands of his circumstances?

    • The beautiful thing about writing is we create the beginning, middle and end. You have the end in sight, now you have to connect the dots and make your character ‘find a way’. Everyone, once they’ve hit true rock bottom, either rises or stays defeated. ‘Without means’ doesn’t mean without options. Look at the options that fit the character and let your character work it out.

      I’d also make sure that you allow a fluidity in the plot. Let it wander a little, while keeping the end goal in mind. Sometimes the story rewrites itself. Don’t be afraid to let it happen.

      I’m glad you stopped by.

    • When you say your character doesn’t “have the means” to accomplish his goals, what are those? Are they external, physical things (a sword, a magic book, etc.) or are they character traits that he can develop through the story and what happens to him?

  • I so hate one dimensional or stereotypical characters. Blech. ;p I do also love characters with distinct voices and try to give each of mine something that sets them apart.

  • I write fantasy – so also struggle with the plot leading the characters sometimes. A way I’ve dealt with it is to write ‘out of context backstory’. One of my key characters was feeling one dimensional – so I wrote a few ‘fluff’ backstory pieces set when he was young and courting his wife. They won’t go into the WIP itself, but it helped me look at him in a different context. I also find I care more about his eventual decline, which I hope will lead to a more compelling story.

    • That’s a great way to bring the passion back into and pump up a character. I’m looking forward to seeing your work out in the world. 🙂

  • Bookmarking this for future edits. 😉

    • Cheering you on!

      • Thanks. 🙂

  • This was an excellent blog entry. Character development is one of the things I enjoy most about writing. I’ve even had moments where I stop and scribble something onto a piece of paper or a character idea, that pops into my head while pushing a shopping cart at Wal-Mart or while I’m watching the news. If you can imagine the character and attempt to think like the character, what you mention above as far as development should almost come organically. Does for me anyway.

    • It’s true. Characters come to us in all different fashions. Our job is to capture them and tell their stories.

  • I have a problem with always creating one dimensional characters. I tried “interviewing” my main character like I’ve seen people suggest but she threatened to kill me because I bored her. I’ve been told she’s inconsistent, and I just try to rewrite as much as I can. I know what she’s supposed to seem like, but I’m still working on presenting her to the world in a way that doesn’t make them want to scream: “KILL THE MAIN CHARACTER OFF AND SHE MIGHT BECOME 3D!”

    • Thanks for stopping by. Stop stressing out about your character. If its that opinionated it will write the story. Get the story out first, then help the character grow. Trust me, there will be a lot of rewrites in your future. For me? Each rewrite and edit helps my characters.

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