How I Write Memorable Characters

I’ll sound a little cocky for a minute here. Forgive me. But I write great characters. Man, that sounds so arrogant, doesn’t it? Well, I work my ass off on my characters, in fact my entire way of writing is built around them. My stories are character driven.

What does that mean, exactly? I feel like the term is misused quite a bit. Most people think it means the story is about the character. No, that’s a character study. Character driven, as I define it anyway (there are no hard or fast rules here, people), means the characters drive the story. The choices the characters make determine what happens in the story. Since I never plot my novels, I simply let the character’s motivations, their dreams, their desires, their internal needs, even obsessions, tell me how the story will go.

So how to make these characters come to life and tell their stories? I believe the most important thing is to make them unique, distinct from each of the other characters you write. Clearly define who they are. Let’s step back and give an example. I’m a self professed Star Trek nerd, both the Original Series and The Next Generation and spin-offs. While TNG is my favorite show of all time, I wanna talk about two characters from TOS to help define what makes distinctive characters.

Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock are the two most iconic Star Trek characters in existence. Why is that? Because they are so well defined and readily identifiable. Everyone knows who Spock is. Pointy ears, uses logic, bam, you got a character! Now, lucky for us, they spent time to develop him and flesh out his characteristics and Spock has become one of the deepest, most intriguing characters around. What’s great about Spock is that you can always count on him being Spock. Many times in TOS his stubborn, block headed logic is often what saves the day.

Then we have Kirk. Arrogant, wicked smart, womanizing, risk taking Captain James Tiberious Kirk. This dude doesn’t mess around. He takes risks, improvising whatever it takes to protect his crew and his beloved ship. We know we can rely on Kirk do what is necessary to protect The Enterprise, being a cocky bastard along the way. I could go on with these two but you get the idea.

So how do we do this as writers, how do we make our characters well defined and memorable? The first step is making them distinct. Hell, that’s most of it. I know there’s a big desire with many writers to fit a character into an archetype, like Wise Mentor for example. Gandolf is a wise mentor. I’m not a big fan of doing this. At first. If your character turns into this over the course of the story, fine. But trying to fit them into a box before you even know them is a mistake. This leads to clichés.

What kind of person are they? Are they angry? Shy? Cocky? Arrogant? Passive aggressive? Get into their head with their point of view and find out. Then discover their motivations, why they do what they do, and what they want to happen in their life. Are they bitter, disillusioned? Full of hope?

What kind of dialogue they use is another huge step towards defining them as characters and also making them distinct. Character dialogue must be different with each character! This is one of the must frustrating things I ever experience as a writer, to see vastly different characters speaking with the same words and same patterns of speech. Listen to how people talk in real life. There are different dialects, word usage, vocabulary, educational levels with each character written. Display this disparity and your characters have a chance to feel real.

There’s more, much more, and I’ll leave it for another post. Fitting these characters into a story, where each of their individual motivations vie for control of their world, while all the others attempt to do the same? This is where real conflict arises and thus, exciting stories.

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