This is the final segment in my Creating Memorable Characters series. The topics we’ve covered so far are:
Relatability, Uniqueness, Physical Traits, Tics and Mannerisms, Dialogue, and Backstory, and Choices.
Today, we wrap it up with Part Eight: Character
Ultimately, the thing that makes a character memorable is his or her character. His character is determined by his actions, the choices he makes. What he does throughout the course of the story determines, ultimately, whether he is hero or villain. Whether she is a traitor or a hero. Whether he is flawed or irredeemable. Whether she is selfish or noble.
Your character’s character, for good or bad, is what makes him memorable. The choices that lead to that revelation of the character inside are what your readers will take away when they finish your book.
We may empathize with Scarlett O’Hara because she lost everything she knew and loved, because she was faced with genuine hardships. We may admire her because she is strong and determined. But we remember her because the choices she made were so manipulative and self-serving that they ultimately led to her losing even more. Melanie, Rhett, her sisters and children—all of them were lost to her because she was so selfish. And that’s what we remember about her.
By contrast, consider Ruth from the Bible. She, too, lost everything. Her husband died, she left her home and everything she knew to care for her bitter, broken mother-in-law. She was an outsider in a land where pedigree was of high importance. She was a widow with no money. And yet everything she did was in service to her mother-in-law. And it was because of this self-sacrificing, hard-working character that she ultimately remarried a wealthy man and was part of an enduring legacy.
Two women with similar circumstances, yet who made very different choices and are remembered in very different ways.
A classic example of a character arc that transforms the character from someone utterly detestable to someone redeemed and even likeable is Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.” The abusive, reclusive tightwad who is so miserable he makes everyone around him miserable, too, experiences a series of events that transform him into someone caring and generous. Your character arc need not (and really probably shouldn’t) be so dramatic and completely changed, but the journey she experiences in the pages of your book should change her and teach her new things. She should grow or change in some way. Whether she becomes a better person, like Scrooge, or whether she descends into even more selfishness, her choices become her character, and her character is what will keep your readers intrigued and stay with them after they’ve finished the last page.
When writing your story, think about what you want to accomplish through your character. What do you want people to remember about him? What would be the things you would write in his obituary?
Is he a Walter White, a good person who took a bad situation and degenerated into lawlessness and evil? Or is he a Scrooge, who saw his life for what it was and made a choice to change?
Is there a moral truth or quality you want to express? Your character experiencing the consequences of her actions or the actions of others, for good or bad, can convey universal truths as well as personal worldviews without being too preachy.
Consider carefully what your character will do throughout the course of your story, how his choices will define who he is. His physical and mental characteristics will help him come alive on the page, but his character will make him someone worth remembering.