Forest Gump told us, “Mama always said life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.” Maybe you prefer, “All this happened, more or less,” by Kurt Vonnegut. If you’re a reader or a movie watcher, you probably have a favorite character. What about Atticus Finch, Holden Caulfield, or maybe your taste turns to characters like Harry Potter. We can’t forget villains like Hannibal Lecter or Darth Vader, those we may not like but still intrigue us.
It is an accomplished writer who can draw us into a story by the power of memorable characters. In the best writing, we may not love or admire a character, but a competent writer will make us remember a well-developed one. They build notable characters layer by layer. No human is only one dimensional, nor are they only two. We are a complicated species with a myriad of thoughts, feelings, motivations and failures. It’s what makes us human.
Can you imagine if Herman Melville had told his readers Captain Ahab was a fisherman and said no more about him. As a reader, I want to know why the character gets out of bed in the morning. Why did he cheat his business partner and what made Emily join the army and volunteer to go to Iraq. Why does the protagonist always wear red? Don’t tell me the antagonist is a mean dude, show me the enjoyment he feels when he breaks the arm of his competitor. Make me feel something. Have me see something. Make me like, love, or hate a character. I want to believe in them. Don’t tell me the kid born in a Detroit ghetto speaks like a Harvard professor or the gazillionaire suddenly starts hating money. Make me cry or make me laugh out loud when I read your work.
I’m not sure anyone has an innate ability to create memorable characters. I damn sure don’t, it’s always a struggle to build a character from scratch. They often look and sound like a billboard image of the used car salesman trying to talk me into buying a rusted 1986 Yugo. I believe a writer has to know his or her characters intimately. He’s talked to her, he’s shared his fears, and she’s shared hers. He’s watched them reveal their most raw emotions. Mostly, a writer has to be honest. Not clever, not verbose (like that word) and not perfect, simply a believable human. The best advice I’ve received as a novice writer was being told I make characters “too good.” Not too good in the sense of being well written, but too good in the sense that they have no flaws. I listened to that advice.
“Show, don’t tell,” is a common refrain when talking about writing. Don’t tell me the sky was blue, the clouds were white, the sun was shining. Make my eyes squint when I look up, make me see an elephant in the cloud, make me gasp at the beauty of the sky. It’s damn hard, but it’s worth it.
I wish everyone the best in developing unforgettable characters or in finding them in their reading. I need all the friends I can get, finding Boo Radley, Ishmael, and Yossarian has added to my list of friends. I’ve grown to know them, to like them and to better understand them. Honest and lasting friends.
If you have a favorite literary character or movie character, send me a note and let me know why they are your favorite.
“You must learn to be three people at once: writer, character, and reader.”
Denni’s Wise Words
“Be a friend to everyone, even if your big brother tries to steal your treat.”