Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Creating Memorable Characters

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog post, and even longer since I’ve written a writing craft post, so I figured it was about time! Today I was reflecting on what is involved in creating memorable characters, and I have a few thoughts on the subject.
First, I asked myself which characters I’ve read over the years are most memorable to me, and on thinking about why these characters are memorable, I noticed some interesting things.
1. Characters whose names I could easily remember automatically felt closer to my heart than characters I know I had loved but whose names I struggled for.
2. All my most memorable characters were quite extreme in nature, or larger than life in some way, or, if they were more average, they felt like friends.
3. Many characters who I thought would be memorable while reading them, are actually completely gone from my memory now. (I read over book descriptions to jog my memory).
4. To be honest, I struggled to come up with many characters that were memorable. In most cases, it was only the plots that were memorable.
So, starting at the top of the list, I spent a while considering character names. Why does remembering a character’s name make them automatically more memorable in every way to me? I decided it’s because they become more personal (and like in number 2, they often felt almost like friends – as though I had been on their journey with them). I never thought remembering a character’s name would be such a big deal. I read about a hundred books a year, and most of them I couldn’t tell you the first name of the main character after about a week. I’ve never considered it a problem, but now that I think about it, even though I enjoyed many of those books, I can’t tell you much about the characters or the plot (except in the case of very unusual plots).
So how do you make your characters’ names memorable was the next question I asked myself. Well...I went back and looked at a few of my favorites. Stephanie Perkins’s “Anna” was an easy one – her name is in the title Anna and the French Kiss. But if having Anna’s name in the title wasn’t enough, Anna’s best friend was constantly sending her bananas (while she sent her friend Bridget bridges), and if THAT wasn’t enough, her name was secured, at least for me, when the hot British boy with fantastic hair pronounced her name in a very special way.
But is a memorable name enough to make a character memorable? Well, Anna was also witty and had a fantastic voice, but I honestly don’t know if that would be enough to bring her, specifically, to mind, and not just the romance of the book in general if I didn’t know her name and feel like I’d been on her journey alongside her. And that, for me, came from knowing and remembering her name.
There are other ways of making character names memorable, of course, and I’ve always unthinkingly employed at least one small device to help readers remember each of my main characters. With Brie in Losing Faith, she talks about how her parents named her after a cheese because she’s the cheesy daughter. Loann in Never Enough breaks her name down into lo and ann – the low man on the totem pole, and Ann – the plain-jane name that she thinks suits her perfectly. In Foreign Exchange, the hot neighbor boy calls Jamie “James” which makes her think she’ll always be like a brother to him. And in A Christmas Kerril, of course Kerril is the title character.
Right now I’m reading a book called All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. While I don’t know that I’ll remember the female lead, I’m quite certain I will remember the male one – Theodore Finch – mainly because he often goes by his full name, or his last name, which is unusual, but also because he is larger than life with his struggles. But I guess only time will tell if he is a truly memorable character.
I considered why Katniss Everdeeen is so memorable. First, her sacrificial nature made her memorable to me. In a world where we are all out to look out for ourselves, it’s automatically noteworthy to see someone so selfless. And as for her name, I think the cute “Catnip” nickname definitely helped.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about character names here, and a few extreme qualities, but I’d love to hear your thoughts as well. Who are some of your favorite characters, and what makes them memorable for you? Did you automatically remember their name when you thought of them? What triggered that memory for you?