Saturday, February 25, 2012

Creating Memorable Characters

Last month, I went to the movies to see Sherlock Holmes twice in three days. I love Holmes and the gorgeousness of Downey and Law didn't hurt but it did get me to thinking about what makes a memorable character. Holmes and Watson have been loved by readers for almost 130 years while other characters are hardly memorable at all. What's the difference?

It's the balance of Everyman and HeroAnti-Hero. Not to get too lit class on it, but I feel these are two basic types of characters that are easily identifiable to readers. This person can be any age and gender (Holmes, Watson, Harry Potter, Miss Marple, Percy Jackson) as long as the balance is there. The reader needs to be able to both identify with the character (being a child, wanting to solve a mystery, having a secret) AND be able to be amazed at the character's abilities, choices, or morales (he figured out the puzzle, he knows magic, he was merciful). The goal is to allow the reader to see both himself as is and the self he wishes he could be all in one. It's a way of creating "just like you, only better."

How does one achieve this balance?

First, make the character approachable. Harry knows magic, but he's still just a scared boy who gets bullied and makes mistakes. Holmes is a genius, but he also has addiction problems and a great need to be needed. Percy is the son of a Greek god, but he also has a bad home life and difficulties in school.

Secondly, make the goal big enough. Saving the world works nicely, but can't be the only thing characters have to do. Saving themselves, protecting family, bringing a criminal to justice, writing a wrong, solving a mystery all also work nicely. I recently read "All the Lovely Bad Ones," by Mary Downing Hahn. Her protagonists wanted to right a 100 year old wrong and bring peace to the dead. That works too. Anything the reader would love to do if he/she had the same awesome chances that book characters get.

Thirdly, despite his/her approachability, make the character special. Smart is just fine (Holmes), but outspoken also works well (Elizabeth Bennett of "Pride and Predjudice" fame). Magic and special powers are perfect (Harry, Percy) and so is deduction and common sense (Marple, Poirot, Katniss from "The Hunger Games").

Lastly, never let your character be too pompous. The students at Hogwarts learn lessons from their teachers, Elizabeth Bennett found via Mr. Darcy that she didn't know everything, Katniss misjudged people, and even my beloved Holmes was sometimes wrong. He once asked Watson to remind him of his error whenever he got too pompous about his own abilities. Good idea. A reader wants the "just like you, only better" characters to be role models, not lecturers or bullies. You want to leave the reader saying, "I wish I was that character" and not, "I never want to read more about that jerk."

Now it's my time to return to my own writing and follow my own directions.

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