When you think of a book, short story, film, or television program, what is the FIRST thing that comes to mind?
The main characters of course!
When I’m getting slapped around Facebook, I notice that a good portion of my writer colleagues often use television characters as examples when illustrating memorable characters for literature. I’m sitting back thinking, whoa! Doods and doodettes! That’s television – it’s NOT literature! GET A LITERARY LIFE!
Okay, so we can use them too, you know, without getting too snarky. I hate television, but let’s harp on one of the popular shows on right now. The Big Bang Theory. No one I know harps on the jokes or the situation itself, but on – first and foremost – “… did you see what Sheldon and Penny did! OMG!” And what about The Walking Dead? “Doods! I can’t believe that Morgan returned! Oh geez!”
I would hesitate to bring up classical literary characters like Holden Caulfield, Dr. Zhivago, Sherlock Holmes, and Oliver Twist had done to immortalize themselves. And what about modern fiction? Harry Potter and his surreal and magical comrades; Bella Starr and her sparkly vampire love interests; even the psychopathic Anton Chigurh from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.
My point is: characters drive any story. It is through them that we, as readers, live the story. Yet, how can we make them memorable in our own works? And gee, Mikey D, can you give it to us in bullet-point form because Walter White in Breaking Bad starts in a couple of minutes?
Here you are:
- Memorable characters are complex, even if they are in a two-dimensional story. Matter-of-fact, the great elements in the novel Jaws (Peter Benchley) were Sheriff Brody and the crusty shark fisherman Quint. These translated onscreen for the hit film. The team of heroes were different from each other; they had different motivations and different POVs on how to live life. The way Brody, Hooper, and Quint had to work together despite their differences makes that story memorable.
- Your protagonist should have flaws. I’m not one who likes perfect characters because we cannot identify with them. Superman and Mary Poppins. Practically perfect in every way. Usually translates as practically boring in every way. So, the hero/heroine might be sort of villainous … too? Or so riddled with psychological problems and baggage that delivering some heroic act almost escapes them. The only drawback is to make them TOO flawed, as in Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. Covenant is a leper and is so full of angst and bitterness, it’s difficult to root for him.
- Villains! They often feel they are heroes, you know. They often feel that what they do is actually good and right, despite the fact that eating someone’s face is the key to spiritual power. One of my favorite villains is Inspector Javert of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables who truly felt that his persecution of protagonist Jean Valjean was a just service to the people of Paris. And what about the wily and smug but romantic Archibald Cunningham from Walter Scott’s Rob Roy? He hunted our hero all throughout the Scottish Highlands yet often showed compassion and love to those he came across and dealt with. If we drawn on popular film, even Darth Vader of Star Wars was a complex villain who is redeemed at the end of his ordeal and who – despite his transgressions – might have always been good.
- Characters need motivation. This is not to bog down a plot, but to help lend depth to who is doing what and why they are doing it. Just having your killer going around killing people because he’s “just nuts” doesn’t make for a memorable character unless we delve deeply into the reason he’s doing so. Maybe Lizzie Borden had an issue with her family, you know? Your hero, Galahad Amontillado, is a perfect saint because he bears a remarkable and scarring war within himself in an attempt to keep his very real and very terrifying demons at bay.
In my novel, Electric Monkeyland, the protagonist is a jaded rock star named Colin Morales who finds himself among greedy label executives, pimps, thieves, drug-dealers, and crazed fans. He is truly a rock LEGEND, but he is faced with not only the dregs of his business, but his own vices. He’s a married man now, you know? He has children! Yet, when he finds himself back on the road with a new band, will his excesses get the best of him? Lurking in the backdrop as a villain is not so much bitter former bandmates, or vindictive groupies, and drugged-out managers, but a nasty secret from his past concerning his wife and the marriage he struggles to honor.
In James Clavell’s historical novel, Shogun, one of literature’s greatest characters – Toranaga – appears to be both villain and friend to the protagonist, John Blackthorn. It isn’t until later when we realize that Toranaga is playing a perilous gambit to become shogun of Japan – a unifying military leader, and though an honorable man, he is ready to act and commit to some heinous and rascally deeds to make his goal come true.
A complex character in horror literature is the recovering alcoholic Jack Torrence in Stephen King’s The Shining. He is outwardly a man who cares for his family and wants to throw out the demons of his alcoholic past – but the complex arrangement of his son’s psychic gift and the Overlook Hotel’s demonic ghostly residents bring out the beast in him. Throughout the story Jack is constantly at war with himself and his fragile grip on sanity. King actually focuses much on him, despite he’s rather a villainous character, and we almost feel sorry for him.
Horror characters can be fun to create and twist around, whether hero or monster or victim. One such character is the ambitious and angst-ridden Annie Mitchell from my complex seaside horror novel, Dead Reckoning. Annie is a fiery redhead, as she would term herself, with a degree in marine biology and a desire to reopen a mysterious and cursed oceanographic project off the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Little does she and her partner Stew Eddinger know that the “curse” is real and the demonic influence is closing in on them. Annie and Stew – both protagonists – are much like King’s Jack Torrance. Will they succumb to the evil, or will they somehow disentangle themselves of it?
All these characters offer more than surface motivations. They have fears and ambitions; they have courage and cowardliness; they have lusts and love; and often their thoughts can almost mirror the opposite character, whether heroic or villainous.
Spend time on the psychology of your characters, even the minor ones. They will propel your work into something highly memorable!
M Cid D’Angelo’s novels can be found at ~
A few of his short stories are published by various for print and online literary magazines. Here are a few:
“Thumbs Up” (Midway Journal): http://www.midwayjournal.com/Oct10_Fiction-ThumbsUp.html
“Don Quixote de Las Vegas” (Moronic Ox): http://www.moronicox.com/don-quixote-de-las-vegas-dangelo.html
“In the Garden” (decomP magazinE): http://www.decompmagazine.com/inthegarden.htm
“Chad and Willie Break a Leg (March, 2013 – The Legendary): http://www.downdirtyword.com/