How often have you spent a dozen or so hours, over several days, reading a novel through to the end and, then, breathed a sigh of relief and immediately forgotten all about it? My guess is that it’s happened more often than not. I know it happens to me. Usually, it’s because either the story was uninteresting, or the characters were stiff and less than believable.
The characters are the framework, around which a good story is built. It’s possible to have a less than stellar storyline, and still have a book that is interesting and memorable, simply by creating unique, three-dimensional characters. As most of you know, I write the Matt Davis mystery series, and nothing makes me happier than to have a reader ask me, “What’s Matt up to lately?” or “When’s Matt going to solve another mystery?” It tells me that the character I have created in Matt Davis has become a living, breathing entity, who readers have become invested in. In Escaping Innocence, I created a composite character in David Justin, a “height-challenged” youth struggling with the burden of coming of age in the ’60s. I’d like to think he’s memorable, because he’s just like you and me.
How do we create good characters. The best way I know is to be an observer of people. Take notice of people who interest you. Note their physical characteristics, their speech patterns, the timbre of their voices. What kinds of clothes do they wear? Are they loud? Quiet? Modest? Brash? Are they likable, or maybe dislikable? These are all building blocks that you can use to create interesting characters that will stand the test of time, and engender an emotional response from your readers each time they read your work. And be consistent. Don’t have a character speaking the King’s English one moment, and gutter language the next.
A few authors whose work I admire, and whose characters have always interested me are: Mark Twain (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn); William Goldman (Marathon Man, The Temple of Gold); Robert Parker (the Jesse Stone mysteries, and Spenser mysteries ); and Joseph Heller (Catch 22). These writers have created characters with distinctive personalities, characters who actually inhabit their respective books, like residents in a guest home.
One final thing: It’s not necessary for a character to be odd, or quirky, to be memorable. Characters who are merely normal people can sell just as well as those who push the envelope of credibility. It’s not necessary for a character to be larger than life to be a good one. I dare say that some of the most interesting characters are those who are the most mundane, or ordinary, such as those of Joseph Wambaugh in The Choirboys, and The New Centurions. The key is to make them believable. Think of all the books you’ve read in your lifetime. Now think of the ones that you have read multiple times. The chances are that those are the ones with the most memorable characters.
Do you have a favorite author? One whose books are populated with characters who feel like old friends, each time you meet them? Which ones are they? What are names of some of the characters, and what are they like? We’d love to know.