Friday, April 9, 2010

The Secret to Memorable Characters—by C. Patrick Schulze

Patrick_on_Twitter Today I’d like to welcome writer C. Patrick Schulze to the blog. Patrick is a friend of mine through Twitter (@CPatrickSchulze) where he not only posts helpful original content, but also tweets useful links for writers.

I would like to thank our host, Elizabeth Spann Craig, for this opportunity to guest blog. She is kind and generous to offer me this opportunity.

The Secret to Memorable Characters

To listen to a podcast of this article, click HERE.

Have you ever paid attention to the extras in a movie? You know who I mean, those faceless people who float about in the background. Notice them next time and you’ll find those human backdrops are not quite so faceless at all. Each one has an remarkable look about them and that is no accident. When studios cast about for their hoi-polloi, they first search out those with “interesting” faces. So it also should be with your novel’s characters.

Of course, I don’t mean you describe the details of each face on each minor character in your book. Rather, think of their descriptions, personalities, expressions or other traits and what might be odd or unique about them. In my current manuscript, one of my favorite characters is described by his colloquialisms, his skeletal body and as being so tall he has to duck to exit a door. When one character asks his name, he replies, “Bones. I guess you can reckon as to why.” This distinctiveness is what you strive for with your characters, both major and minor.

This brings us to the first part of the secret to memorable characters. That is, identify their most unique feature and intensify it. Keep in mind these characteristics need not be related to their appearance, though that works well. It might be a mannerism, a sound they make or even a tool they use. Would the reader tend to remember a character who walks around with one arm in the air? How about the character who snorts when they laugh? Would the villain who uses a spoon to cut out his enemy’s heart be memorable? The first part of the secret is to find your character’s exceptional quality and exploit it.

Remember, be sure to consider more than just physical appearances. You can create something exclusive from almost any aspect of a character and anything is fair game; personality, movement, dress, even the color of their eyes. The more you use your imagination, the more memorable your character.

Still, that’s just the first part of the secret.

The rest of the secret to memorable characters? Contrast. Once you’ve developed that one-of-its-kind characteristic, contrast it to the character himself and to others. Exceptionality and contrast comprise the secret to memorable characters.

First, let’s look at how to use a character’s contrast with himself. Do you think a piano player with no thumbs might be memorable? Would a successful speaker who stutters or a preacher who moonlights as a hit man leave an impression? Generate an unusual feature, then build contrast around it within that same character. It’ll make them all the more memorable.

Now let’s use a character’s oddity and contrast it with another character. Here, you can use any form of contrast you can imagine. As in contrast with oneself, the more inventive you are, the more memorable they become.

One way to exploit differing characters’ contrast is with personalities. This technique is most effective when they face conflict. For example, if your hero cracks wise as he shoots the bad guy to pieces, maybe your sidekick kneels over the villain’s corpse and wells up. Maybe your hero is a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants type, but his villain is serious and formalized in his thinking. Personality contrast is a prime technique used to create memorable characters.

Motivation is another potential point of contrast. What is it your characters want? Maybe your hero sees himself as the reincarnation of Dudley Do-right and your villain loathed the movie and the cartoon series. Who knows? As long as their motivations clash, it has potential in your novel.

Yet another contrast in found in what Ragetti, the pirate with one eye in “Pirates of the Caribbean” fame called “the dichotomy of good and evil.” By this, I mean show both the good and bad of your major characters. Everyone has their faults and so too should they.

I could go on forever on this subject, as it’s one of my favorites, but you get the picture, I’m sure. For best results with this creative writing technique, be inventive and courageous.

Are there pitfalls to character contrast? As with so much in the craft of writing, of course there are. For example, when you contrast two characters’ personalities, it’s easy to create one that comes off as untrue to life. Another caution? Keep the number of characters and their oddities limited. If you insert too many characters with their multitude of peculiarity, you soon weigh down your story and its pace. To understand what I mean, read the first fifty pages of “Gone with the Wind.”

Try to think out of the proverbial box when you create your contrasts and your readers will thank you for your efforts.

To learn more about characters, read THIS article by our mutual friend, Elizabeth Spann Craig.

Best of luck with your characterizations and know I wish for you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze Author of the Emerging Novel, "Born to be Brothers"