How to Write Memorable Characters

12/09/2016 13:36
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Clever plots are fine, but it's the characters that bring a story to life. It's the characters that we get emotionally involved with, and which we are likely to remember most when the story's over.

So how do you create characters that are memorable, feel like real people, and who stand out not just from those in similar stories but from their fellow cast members in the world they inhabit?

A good name is the first step to making characters leap off the page. A printed story isn't like television, where we constantly see an actor's face. Instead, we constantly see their name, so choose a name that makes us think of that person's personality, age and physical presence every time we read the name.

When I wrote my romantic comedy Polka Dot Dreams under the pen name Julia Douglas, I started out with a heroine called Chrissie - a name that said nothing about her quirky nature and obsession with vintage clothes. It was only when I renamed her Natty Smalls that she started to feel alive - for me as a writer, as much as the readers.

When I penned a magazine serial about a young (female) dancer, my first choice of name - and brace yourself for my bone-headedness - was Charlie. I was thinking of the Charlie Girl from the perfume ads, and if we'd have been able to see her portrayed by a glamorous actress on screen, that might have worked. But seeing Charlie on the page, made me think of a blokey kind of girl, which wasn't the type of character I was aiming for. Changing her name to the more passionate and romantic-sounding Pasha, altered the way she came across completely.

Another tip is make sure your characters have very different names from each other. Give us a story starring Martin, Michael and Mickey and we're going to start mixing them up, whereas Cole, Andrew and Marshall sound like three very different guys.

The next way to start delineating your characters is to give them a 'tag' that you display every time they appear. The idea is that just as we forget names but remember faces in real life, we see the tag and think, "Oh yes, the one with the ruby red hair, I remember her."

Tags can be physical, such as a character who's unusually tall, or short, or has a distinctive way of dressing.

They can be verbal, such as a regional accent, catch phrase or unusually high or low voice. It could be a personality trait that comes out in every conversation - i.e. they're always the pessimist or the first to crack a joke.

Finally, consider an ever present prop, such as Sherlock's pipe or Dr Who's jelly babies.

As with names, make sure your characters have very different tags. If there are two men in your heroine's life, make them polar opposites, so one is a blond joker who favours bright t-shirts and the other is a dark-haired brooder always dressed in black.

It may sound like a broad brush approach, but it takes bold strokes to make a character jump vividly off the page the first time we meet them, especially in a short story where you have few words to spare on description. You can bring out their subtleties through their dialogue and actions as you go along, but the important thing is that we get a vivid mental image of them established from the beginning.