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Creating Unforgettable Characters
(that will bring your readers back for more)


Cheryl Wolverton


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Creating a character that will be remembered is one of the most important things you'll do in a book. Think about the characters you remember? Dorothy, the Wicked Witch of the West. Rhett and Scarlett or Luke Skywalker and Leia. Even Cpt. Kirk. Or, how many of you remember Lt Reilly from Star Trek?

What makes these characters stick in our mind? What is it about them that draw us to remember them?

They stand out from other characters because someone took time to develop just who they were.

Take the above characters, think back and see if you can remember anything special about them. Scarlett with her fiddle de dee or Rhett's famous last line. Dorothy's words that she wasn't in kansas or perhaps, one of my favorite, Lt. Reilly with his Irish background.

While characters are important to the plot, I feel they are one of the most troublesome areas some people have(next to conflict). The mistakes I most often see are mistakes where the hero/heroine bicker instead of having real emotions, goals, drives, which makes them really shallow and 2D.

We're going to discuss some basic ideas that other writers use to develop their characters. Hopefully, one of them will work for you.


The first thing you must learn about creating characters is they must fit the story. Secondly they must be 3D not 2D. And they must be bigger than life.

Some people write the plot first and fit the story around the characters, others write the characters and then fit the story around the plot. I like to do a bit of both. The first thing I always do is come up with an idea. Example: Can you imagine what would happen if this doctor who only wanted to quietly put in his time in a clinic and then go out and discover the world ended up with the bane of his existence in the clinic? So we have this quietly determined doctor put with an eagerly spontanious doctor. Then my character development starts. The goals, motivations, internal and external conflicts, the background. By the time I have the characters developed, the story is ready to be written because we KNOW what motivates them and what their goals are in life.

How do we find out their goals and motivations? Debra Dixon wrote a book about goals motivation and conflict. She had a very concise way of creating characters. She tells a person to describe their character in two words.

For instance, Luke Skywalker in his first movie would be adventurous seeker. Think about the picture that draws in your mind. A young person who is out to discover everything he can. As you think about that, other things come into play.

What made him such an adventure seeker.

Why is he this way?

What does he want to gain from this?

Fill in those questions and you'll get a pretty good idea of just who Luke is.

How about Scarlett O'hara? Spoiled belle.

In my mind this brings up an image of an antebellum woman who has it all and doesn't appreciate it. Why is she this way? What motivates her to be this way? What are her goals? Start filling in the questions and your character will develop.

In both of these examples notice the one thing: They both start out with two very descriptive words.

Why do we remember them? Let's quickly discuss the bigger than life aspect. Then we'll discuss personalities. For me, Kirk is bigger than life. You always know when he goes into a situation he is going to come out the winner because he's quick and smart. You know when Reilly is going to be on the show something major is going to happen because this guy isn't just accident prone, he ends up in major trouble each time--the luck of the Irish personified. Scarlett isn't just spoiled, she is more self-centered than anyone else you'll ever meet. This is what I mean by bigger than life. In other words, instead of having them break into a house to steal five dollars, have them break into the bank and steal millions. Or instead of letting them feel remorse for smashing up a car, have them smash up the car and burn down the house and smile as they do it.

Get the idea? Go for it all! So find two descriptive words and develop their background and when you do, make it larger than life. That is how you create a character.

So, what type of character do you want?

Most characters have basic traits. Let's look at some of those. Carl Jung came up with the theory that every person has two personalities. You have the one people see, and the deeper one. From this, the mythological archetypes were discussed.

If you have never heard of the archetypes, these are some basic 'characters' that all people can have or possess.

I read a wonderful article that Susan Wiggs pointed out at a recent conference that was in USA Today. I had just heard a similar speech by Debbie Hancock at a conference not two months earlier. The article was about the Greek archetypes you have.

Let's discuss some of these.

SHADOW This is the enemy, the dark lord like Darth Vadar, the boogey man, the secret person who is the evil one. Contemporary shadows are seriel killers, psychopaths, sociopaths.

WISE OLD MAN The redemption of Darth Vador brought him from the Shadow to the wise old man archtype. One who has learned. Yoda is another one.

MENTOR This is any companion who brings advice or aid to the hero. For instance, Obi Wan was Luke's mentor. The mentor can't defeat the shadow himself, but can be a father figure, nuture and train the one who does.

HERO This is the light, the Robin Hood, Beowulf, Hercules, Luke. An interesting note about the hero. Death haunts the hero. It is a recurring theme for heroes to cause the death, accidently or deliberately of their own fathers or mentors.

ANIMUS/ANIMA This one is harder to understand. Jung believed every man had a feminine side and every female a masculine side. They are usually represented by two people. In Star Wars our two heros--the animus/anima are Luke, the Hero and Leia, his opposite. They are both strong determined characters and later it is revealed that they are brother and sister. No relation is necessary, however, they will be opposite sex. Rarely, however do you see a female with the 'masculine' side in myth. However, for contemporary reasons, perhaps when setting up a story, the female, the heroine would have her opposite in an equally heroic man though she would be the 'hero' of the story, the story being told from her point of view much like Star Wars is Luke's story.

MOTHER One place women are more common in the archetypes is the 'mother'. Though she may not be a mother, she represents fertility, warmth, protection of home and hearth. Aunt Beru was a Mother in Star Wars.

Maiden The maiden is the virgin, the pure object of love for the hero to protect from monsters and shadows.

CRONE The crone is often considered an anima of the shadow. Much like the animus/anime is the masculine/feminine, the crone is the part of the shadow.

TRICKSTER The trickster is the last of these archetypes. He excels in mischief. But more importantly, his actions, etc., explain the taboos of society. Loki was a trickster. I would imagine into this would be your 'clumsy' character who, as she/he gets into trouble discovers all the no nos.
Any or all of these can be present in a story. Each hero/heroine/protagonist can have more than one of these characteristics. It's really up to you. However, by taking the above you can get an idea of what type of character you want and then find two words to describe your character. Then find out their goals, and why they feel that way, their motivations and their one secret fear and your characters will develop a life of their own and jump off the pages and be something memorable for your readers that will keep them coming back for more.

copyright January, 1999 by Cheryl Wolverton




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