What Makes a Character Memorable?

In my reviews, I often critique an author’s characterization, but I haven’t really touched on what separates a good character from a memorable character.  Here I hope to tell you some things I’ve noticed as a reader and as a reviewer.

1.  Their names.

Isherwood Williams.  Lestat.  Katniss Everdeen.  Harry Potter.  Do any of these ring a bell for you?  If they don’t—particularly the last one—you’ve obviously been living under a rock for the past decade or so.  What makes these names so memorable is the fact that they’re simple, easy to pronounce and yet they’re unique.  In my opinion, many of them are just about the right length to roll off the tongue with ease, no matter what your reading level.  Truly, most first graders can sound out these names and get something close to what they really are.  Names are so important for characters that on BabyNames.com there is an article about how to choose character names for writers.

2.  Their flaws.

Ask yourself this: What truly makes a character three dimensional?  If your answer is their flaws, you’re absolutely correct.  No one is perfect in real life, so shouldn’t it be the same in fiction?  Isherwood Williams (from Earth Abides by George R. Stewart) is a very logical man, sometimes at the expense of what many consider is ethical.  His logical thinking and presence of mind keep him and his band of survivors alive and well, but they are also his flaw and cause him quite a bit of grief.  A character’s greatest strength doubling as their greatest weakness is something I’m a sucker for and Ish is a perfect example of this.

3.  Their deeds.

Of course characters must have flaws, but they also must have the strength to do memorable things.  Good characters are able to do brave things for others despite immense danger and they can’t do that without having at least a few good traits.  Memorable characters aren’t always ‘good guys’ and this applies to villains as well.  All of my favourite villains have at least some redeeming qualities, which is the way I think it should be.  No one is purely good and no one is purely evil, therefore it should be no different in fiction.  But generally speaking, heroes should have more good qualities and do more good deeds than the villains.

4.  Their backstory.

We humans are nothing but the sum of our memories.  Memorable characters have unique, intriguing backstories that explain why they are the person they are when the story starts.  For example, Katniss Everdeen has had to take care of her family from a young age because of her father’s death, so of course she’s going to have more trouble expressing her emotions than someone who has lived a happy life.  Characters have to have reasons for their actions and the best authors are the ones who create very consistent, yet very human characters readers can sympathize, or at the very least, understand.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of what makes a good character, but I hope I’ve helped clarify why certain characters are more memorable than others.

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