A story’s protagonist is the most important person in the whole wide world — at least to the writer. But don’t we all wish that were also true for the readers?
Apart from the fact that it’s our character, and we love her dearly and are ready to defend her against anyone out there in the big bad world outside of her native story, we wouldn’t be doing a very good job if we plopped her into existence bare naked and callow, and unable to defend herself against the tides of time and forgetfullness, now would we?
The biggest enemy of a fictional character isn’t the antagonist, or the murderous plot, or even the baby trolls gnawing at the seams of the book, but unremarkableness–unremarkableability… erm… when readers ignore and forget her. *phew*
Memorability is the best weapon you can ever give your character even if you take everything else from her, like a glorious future, a kick-ass side-kick, or even a perfectly excusable extra piece of oven-warm, thick, juicy chocolate-fudge cake smothered in fresh whipped cream. So in the name of memorability, this post will focus solely on that extra umph added to an already three-dimensional character.
After all, there isn’t a single plot out there that hasn’t been done already in one way or another, but characters are so insanely varied, they’re the single most important component of originality. And we all want that, right? Riiiight?? Hands up who’s still thinking about that fudge cake!
If you’re not certain you’ve made your protagonist special enough, take a step back from the story and put on your reader glasses. Remember your favorite characters from other stories, from books you’ve read or movies you’ve seen. What made them different? What stuck with you against all odds, and through all the other stories you’ve come across in the mean time?
What makes a character interesting?
Sure, we remember them first and foremost for what they do, but their actions don’t mean much without the context of their personalities and their unique circumstances. Hitting a strange man over the head with a baseball bat means one thing if it’s done by a panic-striken housewife startled out of her bed, and quite another if it’s by a back-alley thug who’s short on cash.
Abstracting the core from all those wonderful, unique characters who leap off the page, only a handful of basic traits stand apart due to their quality of making characters unforgettable, no matter the spin you throw on top of them. So, a memorable character should–
1. Be extraordinary in some way
Depending on the story, extraordinary might mean:
- having a super-power (Spiderman),
- having a distinct social or political role (teacher, mayor, president; or a less authoritative one like nurse to newborns in a refugee camp),
- benefiting from a unique geographical position (living on a mountain, in a U-boat, on a space station),
- having a unique history (sole survivor of a cataclysm),
- being in an extraordinary situation at the moment of the inciting incident (chief fire-fighter on 9/11; the farmer on whose field the first aliens land).
2. Be humorous; have a refreshing perspective on things
Cracking a joke now and then doesn’t account for true story humor. A humorous character is marked by his unique, refreshing perspective on life and other characters, that offers the reader a much-appreciated break from their own view on things. This can be achieved in many ways, the best known of them being a generally sarcastic take on things, a character that takes himself much too seriously in circumstances that are increasingly ridiculous, or a character that’s a natural-born trouble and accident magnet but never despairs. I’m sure there’s more, but it must’ve slipped through my mind-holes.
3. Be outrageous, excentric or abnormal
Characters with dark secrets belong in this category, as do dubious family members, characters with conflicting morals or highly questionable motives, and the occasional misfit. You’ll also find pleasantly excentric ones in this category as well, the oddballs with an interesting characteristic or a funny tic, maybe with a preferance for live birds in their top hats, or a varied collection of human bones in their basement.
4. Be in danger, either by fighting injustice or by averting danger from others
We all love heroic characters, but heroism by accident or for the sake of making the front page is not an admirable quality. The characters we truly remember as heroes are the ones who put themselves in mortal danger, who risked their lives to fight for a just cause or to save others. It doesn’t really matter what type of character you push into such a situation, if they don’t miraculously overcome it or slip out of it by the end of chapter five, you’ve got yourself a winner. In terms of memorability, that is.
Oh, oh, here, I gots me one more!
5. Be either one of the following: a very famous real person, a non-human being with a mind of it’s own and a problem to solve, or the guy with the fudge cake.
*mmm, fuuudge* *Homer drool*
Did I miss any ingredients? Add your cherry on top!