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Writing

4 Tips for Writing a Memorable Fiction Character

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 5 min read

Think of the best books you’ve read, the best movies you’ve watched and the best plays you’ve attended. What made these works particularly great? Chances are their excellence came from a combination of three key components:

  • Language
  • Story
  • Character

Language refers to the mastery and manipulation of a particular lexicon. Think of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or James Joyce’s Ulysses. Story, meanwhile, refers to the plot that seizes the reader’s interest and keeps them engaged. Think of Richard Wright’s Native Son or Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods.

The third component, character, can be the most elusive to some writers. Every author wants to create deep, dynamic figures who resonate with readers in both familiar and unfamiliar ways, but creating memorable characters can be challenging.

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What Is Characterization?

Characterization is the description of:

  • A character’s physical traits (how a character looks)
  • A character’s personality
  • A character’s thoughts
  • A character’s actions

What Is the Difference Between Direct Characterization and Indirect Characterization?

There are two types of characterization in fiction writing:

  • Direct characterization, or explicit characterization, is a method of describing the character in a straightforward manner: through their physical description (i.e. blue eyes), their line of work (i.e. lawyer), and their passions and outside pursuits (i.e. voracious reader).
  • Indirect characterization describes a character through their thoughts, actions, speech, and dialogue. A healthy mix of direct and indirect characterization helps authors present memorable characters.

What Are the Characteristics of Memorable Characters?

Certain characters have transcended the the span of literary history, from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby to Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart to Toni Morrison’s Sethe. So what makes these characters so memorable?

  • They represent a clear point of view. A memorable character’s personality tends to be clearly rooted in a strong point of view. When we think of Jay Gatsby, we immediately think of his fetishization of high society. His point of view is well defined and keeps him memorable.
  • They remind readers and viewers of real people. Fictional characters can run the gamut from measured to outlandish, but the most believable characters tend to be the ones who are most memorable. (This is particularly true for a main character. Supporting characters can have more eccentric quirks and mannerisms, yet still delight an audience.) Salinger’s Holden Caulfield resonates in readers’ minds because he feels like a real person in real life New York City. Many a teenager has read Holden’s first-person narration in Catcher in the Rye and felt they could be hearing the words of their own best friend—or even themselves. The most memorable literary characters are, at their core, human beings.
  • They have a backstory that goes deeper than what’s on the page. An author knows they’ve created a good character when they can tell you more about that character than could ever fit into a single work of fiction. In William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, the titular character is consumed by her unspoken backstory. It informs every aspect of her character’s personality throughout the events of the book. While Sophie ultimately reveals key episodes from her past toward the end of the novel, there is no doubt that Styron knew more about his densely layered character than he ultimately typed onto the pages.
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Why Is Writing Memorable Characters Important?

A truly memorable character will stick with the reader or viewer long after they forget they key plot points of a movie or novel. How many people can recall the exact story arc of the 1983 film The King of Comedy? Perhaps not many.

But nearly everyone who saw the film can recall the character profile of Rupert Pupkin, played by Robert DeNiro. Nor can readers recall most plot points of Ulysses—story was certainly far less important to Joyce than language or character. But everyone who read that novel remembers Leopold Bloom, his personality traits, his tics, and his mesmerizing inner monologue.

4 Tips for Writing Memorable Characters

If you want to create more memorable characters in your own work, there are a number of essential things you should keep in mind.

  1. Base your characters on people you know. The old adage says “write what you know” and truthfully that tip can be too broadly applied. (For instance, how many people who have written about outer space have actually been to space?) However it really is important to created characters you personally understand. Consider crafting a fictional character in the image of someone in your own life. Perhaps your character will share a physical appearance with a real person—from hair color to eye color to small vocal tics and physical mannerisms. Or perhaps they will share personality traits with people you know. Grounding characters in the traits of actual people will help keep them memorable.
  2. Use indirect characterization. Another classic adage of writing is to “show, don’t tell.” In practical terms, this means favoring indirect characterization over direct characterization. Resist the urge to spend a lot of time describing a character when you could demonstrate their character profile via their actions, dialogue, and inner monologues. All of these are examples of indirect characterization and they tend to be a more effective means for developing characters than stopping the action to directly describe every new character who crosses your page.
  3. Make you characters change over the course of your novel, movie, or TV series. Main characters need to change in order to stay in a reader’s or viewer’s memory. While secondary characters might be able to subsist in an unchanging state, your protagonists must undergo a character arc that takes them through a range of emotions and perspectives. Shakespeare fans don’t remember Romeo and Juliet for their first scene alone. Their character development and tragic arcs are what sear them into our memories.
  4. Make sure your main characters are at least as interesting as your minor characters. Some authors, screenwriters, and playwrights have great ideas for two-dimensional sidekicks—think of Sir Andrew and Sir Toby in Twelfth Night or Donnie in The Big Lebowski, all of whom are indisputably great characters. Memorable minor characters offer valuable texture, but they cannot carry a story. If you want readers and viewers to truly invest in your vision, you must make sure they care about your main characters. Therefore, don’t waste your most complex traits and textured backstories and vibrant language on secondary characters. The best fiction writing reserves its best moments for the protagonists. Service those characters first, and your readers will remember your work long after they’ve consumed it.

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Want to Become a Better Writer?

Whether you’re creating a story as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, writing memorable characters requires patience and perseverance. No one knows this better than the award-winning author of The Sandman series Neil Gaiman. In Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass on the art of storytelling, he shares all he’s learned on how to make a comic book, including finding inspiration, drawing panels, and collaborating with other creatives.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass Annual Membership provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, David Baldacci, and more.

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