Character Studies: Writing Memorable Characters

I’m blogging about characters this week!

You’ve just finished a terrific book. The plot sizzled, the writing was crisp, the tone fun, the pace clipped along. Now, will you ever read it again? Will it become a permanent part of your library, or will you pass it along to Cousin George and say “just keep it?”

Chances are, if you enjoyed the plot and the book made a good, quick read, you’ll pass it on to George. If you find yourself missing the book, hoping for a sequel or re-reading an entire series just to fall in love all over again, you’ve gotten hooked on the characters.

I’m not an expert on writing memorable characters. I struggle with it. I can fall in love with my own characters, but have no idea if I can make anyone else love them. Here’s what I love to see in a character:

Flaws. I’m re-reading JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series right now, and on the surface you’d think the brothers–all alpha male bigass vampires who fight and love with intensity–don’t leave a lot of room for character development. But each one of them has a problem that differentiates him from the pack. Wrath, the king, is blind, and is born to a position he doesn’t want to hold. Rhage, the beauty, shifts into a dragon if he ever loses his composure, which is often. Zhadist is an illiterate former sex slave who can’t stand to be touched. Etc. They’re flawed, they’re compelling, and each has…

A Personal Journey. Life is a series of journeys. We’re all on several at once. How our characters approach their journey, and how they grow, touches us on some level as readers. I love Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson books because Mercy is on several journeys–to learn to trust herself and establish her own identity away from the wolves among whom she was raised; to learn to accept love and form a relationship without losing her independence and identity; to straddle the line between the wolves and the fae and the vampires, understanding that friendships aren’t political appointments.

Insight. My favorite characters are willing to look at their rough spots and acknowledge them, even if they aren’t fixable. Good example is alpha wolf Richard Zeeman in Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. Richard just can’t stop himself from pulling the caveman routine, from being jealous and petty and, at times, even cruel. He knows these things about himself and doesn’t feel able to fix his own self-loathing, so he just keeps hurting those around him. I want to kill Richard sometimes. But I never, ever forget him. And he’s never bored me.

What are your favorite character traits? Who are your favorite characters?

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About Suzanne Johnson

Author of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and suspense. As Suzanne Johnson, she is the author of the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series (Royal Street; River Road: Elysian Fields, Pirate's Alley, Belle Chasse, Frenchmen Street (March 2018). Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she is the author of the Penton Legacy series (Redemption; Absolution; Omega; Storm Force; Allegiance; ILLUMINATION); The Collectors series (Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Deadly, Calm, and Cold); and the Wilds of the Bayou series (Wild Man's Curse; Black Diamond).

8 thoughts on “Character Studies: Writing Memorable Characters

  1. Those are all good traits in a character. I like something quirky in my characters too. And if it’s my MC I want him/her to have that spark of heroism, even if it’s hidden at first. Of course, it’s also important to make them struggle. The bigger the struggle, the more they stand to lose – even ACTUALLY lose – the better! I’m so mean.

  2. We have to torture our characters! Sad but true. I’m always trying to figure out how far I can push a scene, how much I can make it cost. But I love to read those characters too 🙂

  3. Suzanne, I think you’re the only person who’s made me tempted to read a paranormal. The subgenre became popular when I was on a romance hiatus, so it passed me by. I just didn’t get the attraction. But the way you describe the Black Dagger Brotherhood…scrummy.

    Right. Characters. I think the ones who stick with me the most are the ones who say something unexpected – whether it’s something clever and funny, or they take up the dare of another character. In other words, they’re never lost for words. In fact, they’re so clever that they make others lose their words.

    Basically, it’s the dialogue and what it tells me about how special this person is.

  4. I think you’re right about what makes a good character. It’s so funny because as I read your post, a character that I love would pop in my head and then you mentioned them in the next paragraph.

    Another good one is Kitty the Werewolf from Carrie Vaughn.

  5. Kat, the BDB is an awesome series if you’re going to try a paranormal dark romance. The characters are awesome. It IS dark, though.

    Angie–I love Kitty too! She started out so weak in the first book, but with each book she’s grown and found herself. The new one’s coming out soon!

  6. You’re completely right that it’s the characters that I miss and need to revisit and not the story itself.

    I fall in love with characters so often it would be impossible to pick a favorite. However, I love someone with a good sense of humor as well as all the things you added. If they can make me laugh out loud, they have my heart 🙂

  7. Hi Suzanne!
    We read different genres so I don’t have any favorite characters you’d know. That being said, there are some characters I fall in love with and can’t get rid of their books. I read them over and over, not the entire book of course, but my favorite parts.

  8. Tara–I love a character who can make me laugh, too. It’s one reason I keep going back to Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series. And, outside the paranormal realm, I love Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series because I actually have to put the books down to guffaw!

    Wendy, I don’t think the genre matters when it comes to characters–a great character sucks you in. Like you, the books I hang onto and re-read are the ones where I fall in love with the characters.