Friday, June 4, 2010

Writing Unforgettable Characters - 3 Secrets

Guest post by L R Saul

Have you ever read a book where the characters were so real, you found yourself thinking about them long after the book was over? What is it that made them so memorable? Why do some characters stick in our brains for years, becoming our close friends, when others barely come to life even as we read?

Creating unforgettable characters is the first and most important step to creating an unforgettable book. And the good news is, achieving a memorable character is actually much easier and much less work than you think.

Here are three steps that will never fail you:

Step One: Before you write a single page of your novel, sit down and fill out questionnaires about your characters that tell you everything about them. Start with the basics, from height, to eye colour, hairstyle, skin type, even clothing. Then move on to their personality. What is their favourite colour? What is their favourite food? Do they have a nervous habit? What do they tend to do when angry: simmer, explode, sulk, stalk off? What is their history? What were their parents like? Even write down their phobias and hang-ups.

You're not going to use all of this information. There simply isn't the space in novels to add in everything, and too much information about your characters has the same effect as not enough. But if you do these questionnaires, you will know so much about your characters, that you will be able to see them in any situation and keep them consistent. Maybe you have a character who hates his vegetables. Well, then he is going to be the character seen picking out the carrots from his stew while everyone else is tucking in. Then, in a scene when he's not eaten for days, have him eating his stew - carrots and all. This will show your character's hunger far more than telling a reader your character is starving.

Step Two: Choose three or four memorable things about your character - whether looks, behaviour, or background. For example, I'll explain a character I created whom I will call for this article's purpose, Big Guy. While there is a lot to this large battle-ready warrior character, I have singled-out the following four facts: he is enormous in height and size; he is usually grim-faced; his words rumble in his chest; and he is often pacing the floor, ready for action.

Now here is where the magic happens - where your characters truly come to life...

Step Three: Repeat these three or four facts as often as you can, in as many different ways as you can. Nearly every time we see these characters in a scene, try to squeeze in a few of your chosen attributes. Do it through tags, beats, character dialogue, or even in the actions and thoughts of other characters - any way you can.

For example, I might have one of the other characters I created, to reach up and pat Big Guy's enormous bicep. Or I could have one of the characters say, "Sit down, Big Guy, and stop pacing." Or perhaps I might have all the characters laughing at something, except for Big Guy who refused to smile.

Can you see how it's working? You're already starting to imagine Big Guy, aren't you? And he's just one of the minor characters.

That doesn't mean you only mention those three to four things. The reader is going to want to know a lot more than that. However, less is always more in novels, especially when it comes to characters. And the more memorable your characters, the more memorable your novel - and the greater the success it will be.

LR Saul is the author of several fantasy novels for adults and young adults, including Bloodline: Alliance and Bloodline: Covenant. When she's not writing books, LR Saul is thinking about books, reading books, editing books, teaching about books, writing articles about books, or trying to ignore books. To learn more about her or her novels, go to

Do you have any unique ways you bring characters to life?


  1. Great post, thanks. One thing I do as well is to create a quick profile for incidental characters. It's very basic, age, gender, looks, profession. But I add one character surprise. For instance in my current thriller I have walk-on characters who each find a body. To avoid (I say, hoping I've been successful) having be cardboard characters, I have a tweak. An example, I have a cop who brings care packages to the homeless people she has to clear away from a parking lot in the morning (and her partner is a hardass who gives her a bad time about it).

  2. Awesome article on character development! Thanks for these great tips.


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