Among the masses of characters in the masses of books out there, what truly makes a character stand out in a crowd? What makes a character remain living and breathing in the reader's mind long after they've closed the pages of a book as opposed to characters that are "here today and gone tomorrow?"
This fall I read a book called Flat Out Love by Jessica Park. I was impressed with Park's character-building. EACH of the characters was distinct, quirky, and amazingly alive.
Since it's nearly impossible for me to read without turning off my internal-editor, of course I had to analyze the nuances behind Park's stand-out characters. Here are just a few of the techniques she employed as well as a few others we can use to help our characters jump off the page.
1. Make the character HEROIC in her own way.
She needs to have a greater cause than just herself and her own needs. She needs to be concerned about someone or something else, so much so that she's willing to sacrifice her own needs. But of course, that greater cause should be unique to our character's personality. Not everyone has to be Superman in order to be heroic.
2. Give the character QUIRKS or distinct traits.
In Flat Out Love, each of the characters is really quirky to the extreme (which worked in this story but I'd caution against being too over-the-top).
One of the characters, Celeste, carries around and talks to a life-sized cardboard cut-out of her brother. Another character has a geeky tee-shirt collection and is a huge math and science nerd. Even the minor characters are very distinct with unique traits that set them apart from the others.
3. Make the character MULTI-LAYERED.
In other words, we want our readers to have to keep peeling away layers of the character's personality to discover the "real" person hidden beneath. She may have issues that she's dealing with on the surface. But give her deeper struggles too. Hint at the problems but don't be too quick about revealing her fullest nature. Let the reader wonder and peel away those layers as the book unfolds.
4. Drop the character into a UNIQUE PLOT.
Rock her world. Show her having real struggles that are believable but different. On the other hand, we don't want to have our character flattened by the circumstances. No one likes a character that is constantly having a pity-party.
5. Make the character LOVEABLE.
It IS possible to make our readers fall in love with even the gruffest, weirdest, and quirkiest of characters. The best way to do that is to make her heroic (the first point). But beyond that we need to make her logical, confident, self-sufficient, strong, and wise (the kind of person we aspire to be).
Obviously, our character needs to have a flaw. But the flaw has to over-balanced other traits that make her redeemable. For example, if she's weak in logic then we need to make sure she's high in confidence and other positive traits. If she's weak in self-sufficiency then we need to be sure she's strong in logic and other areas. The positive has to outweigh the negative otherwise it becomes difficult for our readers to care about the character.
6. Have the character DO THE UNEXPECTED.
In Flat Out Love, I didn't expect the heroine, Julie, to cater to Celeste's obsession with her life-sized cardboard cutout. But Julie was constantly surprising me by how she accommodated Celeste's need to take the cutout figure with her everywhere.
Not only did the heroine act in ways I wasn't expecting, but the dialogue and plot also kept me on my toes. I was always uncertain what was coming next with the characters, and because of that they were all that much more memorable.
My Summary: Perhaps we aren't able to do each of the above to each of our main characters in every book. But the more we can chisel away and shape our characters into unique individuals who are admirable and likeable but delightfully surprise us, the more readily they will join the ranks of unforgettable characters.
How about you? Have any characters you've read about lately really stood out to you? What are some traits that make those characters memorable?