Characters have to serve a purpose in a story. They further the plot, threaten the main character, fall in love, dance the lambada; whatever their actions are, they have to serve a purpose in furthering some aspect of the story.
The problem with this is that these characters are flat – they’re unbelievable and difficult to relate to. They’re written to serve a purpose, and once they’re off the page they no longer exist. The issue with that is the reader will forget them as well. So not only do characters have to serve a purpose, but they also need dimension to be memorable.
Memorability is an odd thing – a simple description of a person, highlighting what they look like, is a good way to get a general grasp of their appearance, but unless they look like the elephant man, they won’t be very memorable. Think about your favorite book; now describe the main character. Pick another book, describe that main character. And another – odds are the descriptions you’ve given are all very similar to each other. This is because no matter what description is written on the page, our brain insists on imposing our own particular view of the world on them (consequently, this is also why movie characters never appear the way you expect them to). That’s why everyone’s description will be different.
So how do we make a character memorable? There are three basic considerations that will help make characters more memorable:
Physical abnormalities – The most difficult and least important of the three, this is where you remark about something remarkable in their appearance – a jagged scar over their left eye, a white streak in their hair, etc. The problem with this is you can’t simply mention it once, but it has to serve a purpose of its own. And if you mention it too much, you’ll get on your readers’ nerves. A fine line to walk indeed.
Personality quirks – Does your character always talk formally? Do they refer to everyone by their full name? Do they always wear the same suit, or have to eat the same food for breakfast every day? Do they approach every situation with a joke? Whatever their personality, it should shine through as well – this is also a great way to create conflict between two characters with conflicting personalities and, as we all know, conflict is interesting.
Personal wants – This is the big one, the thing that every character must have. What do they want? What is their goal? It doesn’t matter if they want to rule the world or just wear shiny pants, every character wants something in their life, long term or short term, and this want is what drives their actions, that moves them through the story, dictates their actions and reactions to different situations.
Now, while these three things are important in generating characters, they don’t have to be complex. For anyone – including the main character – you could list three simple things about them (one in each category) and have a workable character. For example, let’s say you have a character you want to build, and you’ve decided to name them Sue. Now, Sue has to have a purpose, so simply write down three facts about Sue. For instance, Sue is a person who always deflects blame away from herself (personality), walks with a slight limp (physical) and desires more than anything to become a singing star.
That’s all it takes to create a usable character – perhaps Sue is the waitress in a diner the main character visits once, and if so that’s all we need to know. She moves quickly but with small steps to hide her limp as she goes between her tables, singing quietly to herself when she’s not interacting with a customer, and any time something goes wrong it’s automatically the kitchen’s fault.
The larger the character, the more detailed these facts will be and, often, the more of these facts there will be. So, let’s say Sue has entered a relationship with our main character. Now, we begin to discover that her limp and the deflection both come from a traumatic past – perhaps her father was an abusive alcoholic, and one day he broke her leg so now she has a limp. Not wanting to relive that event, she developed the habit of deflecting all blame away from herself so she wasn’t the one who got punished. This also left emotional scars, so now – even though her voice is beautiful – she doesn’t believe that she is a good singer so she’s never applied herself for fear of rejection; the dreams are better than the possibility of a possibly awful reality.
Now, we have Sue’s troubles; as a major character, her life gains dimension and we begin to see what makes her tick. We have a way to progress her story – perhaps through her life with the main character she gains enough confidence to pursue her dreams? – and that progression dictates how she moves through the story. Now Sue, once a stereotypical waitress character that was immediately forgotten, has drive, purpose, and is memorable.
Adapted from Evil Hat Productions’ Dresden Files RPG