December’s Round Robin topic is: What makes a character memorable?
To be honest, some of what makes a character memorable is how they happen to resonate with each individual reader. What is memorable to me might not be so memorable to someone else. But there are some things memorable characters all have in common. They are deeply drawn, complex characters with clear and relatable goals and motivations for which they will sacrifice just about anything. They are also flawed, sometimes physically, but more often emotionally or mentally. Currently one of the big draws in romance is billionaires and Navy SEALS. But if that’s all they are, the reader isn’t going to remember them a week later. A billionaire who can have anything he or she wants, commands their empire without conflict and never has to make a sacrifice is a flat, un-endearing character. Admittedly, to become a Navy SEAL a man (or someday a woman) has to sacrifice a lot, but once there, what makes them memorable? Do they have a chest full of medals, but have lost the only person they loved because of the drive to get to the top? Or did they become one of America’s elite, but now they have been injured or are suffering PTSD? How they handle that challenge might make them a memorable character. And that billionaire – what could have happened to him along the way to make him someone you care about? The same is true for action/adventure with larger-than-life operatives who live life on the edge, saving the world, but after you’ve read several authors, the characters begin to blend together. Only characters like Jack Reacher or Mitch Rapp stand out in your mind in the months and years after the book has been read. And again, it’s because they carry wounds they do everything to bury, or have personalities you can’t forget. (Don’t judge Jack Reacher by the movie staring Tom Cruise because much of his character is left out of the movie. In the books he is a very different man.)
I think conflict is the number one thing that makes any character memorable. If life comes too easy, there’s not a lot to celebrate, but if what they desire most requires sacrifice, loss, delayed gratification, and a ton of hard work to overcome the hurdles in the way, then the character begins to come to life for readers. Another thing that brings a character into vivid color for a reader is his or her flaws, fears, and failures. Peering into their hearts and seeing and feeling the things that crush their souls, or their determination to overcome despite the hurts and fears draws the reader into their lives and makes them care almost as passionately as the character themselves. That’s what makes a character memorable.
I’ve read literally thousands of books in my lifetime and as much as I enjoyed them while I was reading them, few of the characters have remained with me years later. Those exceptions were not all good guys either. Back when my son was still living at home (longer than I’d like to admit) we were both reading the book, As the Crow Flies by Jeffrey Archer and both of us wanted to strangle Mrs. Trentham who always seemed to be at the bottom of every set-back for our hero. Archer did not make her a two dimensional villain – she had her motivations, love of her son being the strongest. In spite of the fact that we wanted her to fail, you couldn’t help but understand why she did the things she did. Another character I love to hate so many years later that I have trouble recalling the title of the book, was Amber St. Clare from Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber. Amber was not a villain, but like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, she made a lot of bad choices along the way and blew one good chance after another in her single-minded pursuit of an unattainable and unhealthy goal. I spent the entire book waiting for her to make a good decision and nearly threw the book out the window when I got to the last page and she was still the same old Amber. But I never forgot her either.
One of the heroes I will never forget is Jessie Best from Pamela Morsi’s Simple Jess. Jessie was not blessed with great intelligence. He was not wealthy or particularly talented, but he loved one woman against all odds and was always there for her. He battled doubters and detractors and never wavered in his devotion. He knew what he knew and had confidence in his abilities even though he knew he wasn’t very smart. He was an imperfect hero, but a memorable character that has remained in my heart and mind long after all the more perfect heroes have faded into obscurity.
Long before Starz and Sam Heughan put a face on James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser, this hero was the most memorable character in all the books I’ve ever read and still is. In Outlander Jamie starts out young, inexperienced, an outlaw and a man already beaten viciously by his personal nemesis just for trying to defend his sister’s honor, yet he has his guiding principles, courage, determination and honesty, and once he meets Claire Beauchamp, his heart is given irrevocably to her, even when it costs him everything.
One other character that has always appealed to me wasn’t even a major character. In W.E.B. Griffin’s Brotherhood of War series, Craig W. Lowell starts out as a freshly minted lieutenant at the close of WWII. As the series continues he becomes a captain, then a major and a colonel. He’s handsome, wealthy, charming and can fly anything with wings, but he’s also always making poor choices in his personal life and getting in trouble with the brass. Women have always been his downfall, but when he finally falls in love, it’s with the one woman who could ruin his career forever, yet here he stands fast and manages to end up keeping both. He has his nemesis, an officer who would like to see him cashiered out of the Army, but Lowell is good at his job, and as he gains experience, does some things better than anyone else. In each new book, I eagerly looked for Craig Lowell, because he became my favorite character in spite of everything.
So why not hop on over to check out what these other authors find most memorable in a character?
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-18Y
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Anne Stenhouse http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com