How to Create Memorable Characters (with Inspiration from Classic Novels)
By Savannah Cordova | On July 8, 2021 | Comments (2)
Characters are the lifeblood of your creative writing, and you want them to power your stories to the end. Here you’ll find some actionable tips on how to create memorable characters for your fictional works, with a few case studies of famous literary heroines to guide and inspire you.
While the world you create in your fictional works is important, readers are more likely to remember the characters that populate it. Indeed, a well-developed central character (or characters) will stay with readers long after they’ve turned the final page.
Strong characters are a must if you want people to stay invested in your story! After all, if readers don’t care about the characters themselves, why should they care what those characters do or say?
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Allow your characters to be flawed
A perfect character is hardly a relatable one, and unrelatable characters are destined to be shunted to the side and forgotten. To create complex and believable characters your readers will root for, you need to incorporate some character flaws.
Not only do flaws intrigue readers from the get-go, but they also make for a much more dramatic and exciting story, as they demonstrate that your protagonist isn’t invincible.
Louisa May Alcott‘s most beloved character, Jo March of Little Women is a classic example of a beloved heroine who has plenty of human foibles. While there’s much to love about Jo — her ambition, her drive, her bravery — it’s her less-than-lovable traits that make her a well-rounded and realistic character. Her quick temper and propensity for bluntness are natural extensions of her more admirable traits, creating a balanced personality that’s grounded in believability.
Jo’s flaws also leave space for conflicts with her close friends and family that are crucial to the plot and the development of her character. Thanks to her flaws, Jo is a real person, and we want her to succeed all the more because of it.
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Give your characters real agency
Many authors approach creative writing from a plot-driven perspective: they establish the story’s sequence of events first, then build outwards from this spine by fleshing it out with characters and settings. This can be a useful way to shape a story, but one potential pitfall is the creation of characters who are perfunctory, rather than real actors in your tale.
If a character has no say in how the story unfolds, it can create a sense of predetermination — and not in the fun, magical prophecy kind of way, but rather in the “if the course of events is already fixed, why am I bothering to read on?” way.
It will seem as if the story’s simply happening to the character, a passive non-participant in its events. Strong characters aren’t like that — rather, they impact the world around them by making choices with real consequences, producing the kind of genuine, nail-biting stakes that readers love.
While the ending of Charlotte Brontë‘s Jane Eyre is often criticized for its deus ex machina-style resolution, Jane is nevertheless a classic example of a character who makes their own decisions and whose actions have weight in the plot.
Her willful nature and spiritual strength drive her to leave Mr. Rochester and refuse to marry St. John, twice going against the life path seemingly laid out for her — and significantly rerouting the plot. Though it may not always seem like it, Jane is a character who makes choices in line with her own desires, rather than merely being along for the ride.
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Allow the plot to affect the characters
It might seem counterintuitive to follow up my last tip with this one, but even active characters with agency should still be affected by what happens around them. If you want your character to feel true to life, they shouldn’t be impervious to the events of the story, but rather responsive to their environment and experiences.
Indeed, when faced with new situations, a character might even choose to be different from before. This can be an excellent way to create satisfying character arcs over the course of your story.
One character who is clearly impacted by narrative events in powerful, realistic ways is Gone With the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara. The devastation of the Civil War and her family’s subsequent financial ruin provoke a notable shift in Scarlett’s character: she becomes more mercenary and desperate, hardening as a person and going to more extreme lengths to protect and provide for her family. Margaret Mitchell allows readers get to witness her change in direct response to the altered circumstances of her life, making her story and arc feel far more authentic.
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Have your characters self-reflect
You may have a well-defined sense of your character’s mindset and personality, but have you ever thought about what the character thinks of themselves? Considering this might be where you strike gold in terms of character development. Your hero or heroine doesn’t need to be preternaturally self-aware, but some level of self-reflection (even only on occasion) adds another dimension to them and brings the reader closer to their psyche.
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is a masterclass in building a believable psychological world. The eponymous protagonist is constantly grappling with the disconnect between what she wants and what is expected of her. She reflects on her past and the choices she’s made, and constantly questions her happiness. This psychological drama gives readers insight into Mrs. Dalloway as she moves through an otherwise regular day in her life.
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One important lesson every writer must learn is to resist adhering to stereotypes, subconsciously or not. And while you don’t want characters who subvert expectations in superficial, ineffective ways (we’ve probably had enough “not-like-other-girls” heroines to last several lifetimes), it’s helpful to be aware of what readers have been conditioned to expect.
Then, rather than conforming to these expectations, you can attempt to create characters that challenge them — whether they’re aware they’re doing so or not.
One great example of a literary heroine going against type is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. In a genre dominated by fictional men (including Christie’s own iconic Hercule Poirot), this female detective allowed the author to explore a brand-new space. Miss Marple also challenged the “spinster” image of unhappy, even bitter, unmarried women that had dominated (and still dominates) the media.
Miss Marple frequently uses the tendency of people to underestimate her to utmost advantage; Christie doesn’t ignore societal expectations and constraints on her characters, but plays with them, highlighting how they can be turned on their heads.
Ultimately, the secret to writing good characters is making sure they engage with the world around them (and our own) in interesting, thoughtful ways. Armed with these tips, and with these examples of remarkable literary women by your side, you’ll soon be creating characters so vivid they practically leap off the page.
Contributed by Savannah Cordova, a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects indie authors with the world’s best publishing professionals. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading fiction and writing short stories.
See more writing advice inspired by classic women authors here on Literary Ladies Guide.