I’m continuing my series on Creating Memorable Characters.
This segment is where it all comes together.
All of the elements of creating a character, from physical attributes to social interactions to backstory, contribute to the choices your character makes.
As with real people, a character’s choices define him. Will he help the old lady across the street, or will he hurry by, too busy to bother? Will she stop and listen to the homeless woman begging for money in the parking lot, or will she rush past, pretending she didn’t hear? Will he cheat on the test? Will she engage in office politics to get the position she wants at the expense of someone else?
These choices are what make your character memorable. These choices are what stick in the mind of the reader. These choices are how your character lives on.
Samwise Gamgee chose to follow Frodo, and to be his strength when Frodo couldn’t do it alone. So, while there are many characters who do many good things throughout The Lord of the Rings, we remember Sam because of his choices.
Scarlett O’Hara made every wrong choice she could make. In every situation she was faced with, she was petty and manipulative and selfish. Her choices were always aimed at achieving her goal in the easiest way possible. She probably could’ve achieved the same results in many cases by doing things in an honorable, straightforward way, but given any choice, she always chose the self-centered, easy way, regardless of who she hurt in the process. She’s a memorable character because of her bad choices.
One of the most compelling elements of a really memorable story is the character arc. What the character goes through and how it changes him. The choices a character makes at the beginning of a story will be different than the choices she makes at the end because of what she has experienced throughout the story. A profound character arc doesn’t have to be part of every story, but the growth of a character—or the lack thereof—can really make a story.
Darth Vader accepts the love and forgiveness of Luke Skywalker and turns on his evil master to help Luke. He who was once all darkness and pain found the glimpse of goodness and light offered to him by his son and embraces it.
Scarlett O’Hara doesn’t learn from her mistakes until it’s too late. She loses the one thing she realizes she truly wants because she’s spent so much time being selfish and manipulative that she couldn’t see what was at stake.
Your character’s choices and the way those change—or don’t—your character inside are what make your character memorable. She may spend the book pushing people away because she’s been hurt so much, but when she lets that one person in, her life changes. He may prefer to hide in the shadows because of his physical deformity, but when he pushes past his fear to do something he loves, he discovers a whole new world.
Your character’s choices need to flow logically from her experiences and her personality. Her physical attributes, her family life, her education and mental capacity, her ethnicity, and so on, all play a part in what she will choose to do in any given situation. If a confirmed introvert gets up onstage and sings a karaoke love song to the guy she’s been pining for with no explanation as to how she got to that point, it’s going to feel contrived and unrealistic. If a boy who has grown up on the streets and whose sole purpose in life has been survival suddenly has a crisis of conscience and is willing to give up his life of crime and work in a homeless shelter with no story showing how he arrived at that choice, it’s not going to make sense or be true to the character you’ve created.
At the same time, if the character never learns or grows, or, on the other end, if he never experiences any consequences from his refusal to change, the story is going to be less profound and the character less memorable than if he has a compelling character arc.
As you write your story, consider all the elements you have put into place creating your character, and use those to determine her choices. As we’ll discuss next time, in the final segment of this series, the choices your character makes determine her character, and that, in the end, is what will make her memorable.