Creating Memorable Characters by John Lindermuth

The average person is rarely concerned about technique when reading a novel. But they’ll know when it isn’t there.

Technique is the business of the writer. It consists of such varied ingredients as character, plot, dialogue, style and point of view.  Think back to the last novel you enjoyed and considered what it was made it memorable.

Most times that element will be character.

You can’t have a credible plot without believable characters.

So how does a writer create memorable characters? You might describe his/her appearance, job, eccentricity, desires, and other such aspects of personality. Yet all of these are no more than statistics. Statistics are generally dull and don’t stick in the mind.

The secret is the one ingredient too often overlooked.

Whether your favorite is Emma, Hannibal Lector, Scarlett O’Hara or Ishmael, they all share one thing in common. They inspire emotion in the reader. It doesn’t matter if that emotion be love or hate, pity or envy. The important fact is they stir emotion and that makes us remember them.

Without emotion, a character is lifeless. You can list all the statistics you want. It won’t do the trick.

So how do you instill emotion in your characters? By having empathy with them. Consider what it is that stirs emotion in you. Love. Hate. Fear. Joy. All these feelings are best conveyed in words through verbs. They are by their very nature active, not passive. Don’t write just what you know, but what you feel. If the writer shows he cares about what’s happening, the reader is more likely to care, too.

Instilling emotion in our characters isn’t something which can be learned from a book or taught. It comes with practice. Lots and lots of practice.

“Sooner Than Gold,” second in the Sheriff Tilghman series:

It's the summer of 1898. The nation, just coming out of an economic slump, has been at war with Spain since April. And Sylvester Tilghman, sheriff of Arahpot, Jordan County, Pennsylvania, has a murder victim with too many enemies.
There’s Claude Kessler, who is found standing with a knife in his hand over the body of Willis Petry.
There’s Rachel Webber, Kessler’s surly teen-aged stepdaughter, who admits an act intended to cause him harm.
Then there’s the band of gypsies who claim Kessler is the goryo who stole one of their young women.
If this isn’t enough to complicate Tilghman’s life, add in threats to his job by McClean Ruppenthal, former town burgess; a run-in with a female horse thief; scary predictions by a gypsy fortuneteller, and the theft of Doc Mariner’s new motorcar.
There’s plenty of good eating, church-going and socializing along the way. And, before all is over, Sylvester solves the crime and even comes a little closer to his goal of finally marrying longtime girlfriend Lydia Longlow.

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Other places to find J. R. Lindermuth:

Bio: The author of 13 novels and a non-fiction history, J. R. Lindermuth is a retired newspaper editor and currently serves as librarian of his county historical society where he assists patrons with genealogy and research. His short stories and articles have been published in a variety of magazines. He is a member of International Thriller Writers, EPIC and the Short Mystery Society. His two children and four grandsons do their best to keep him busy and out of trouble. When not writing, reading or occupied with family he likes to walk, draw, listen to music and learn something new everyday.


Good advice, John. I've been trying recently to put more emotion into my stories and hope it helps make my characters more memorable. bobbi c.
Yep, John. You are exactly right. What surprises me is that some authors don't know how to stir those emotions in the readers. Good post!
margaret blake said…
You are so right - some characters are unforgettable, Jane Eyre, Heathcliffe, Harry Bosch, good or bad they have to leap off the page and bite you!
jrlindermuth said…
Thanks for commenting, Bobbi, Sharon and Margaret.
Jan Christensen said…
Great post, John. Short and very helpful.
Wise words, John. I agree that character is the key element in any story. The author needs to be able to make the reader care about the main characters or he/she will not keep reading. Without emotion, the rest won't matter.
Pam De Voe said…
You're post is right on. Plot is essential but without memorable characters few readers will care enough to finish the novel!
Anonymous said…
You've cut right to the point, John. I've always believed that characters in a traditional narrative achieve at lease one of three things, and they sure relate to prompting emotion: they're someone to relate to, to root for, and/or someone that fascinates us. They very best of them cause a stir, a deep vibration, and remain with us long after the cover is closed.
Linda Hall said…
Yes! I totally agree. I begin all my stories with character. Plot, although vital, comes out and through characters. You could have the same plot and two different characters and the story would be entirely different.
Patricia Gligor said…
I couldn't agree more, John. Plot, setting ... all very important elements of a novel but what makes a book forgettable or memorable is the characters.
jrlindermuth said…
As always, comments are appreciated Jan, Jacqui, Pam, Linda and Pat. Especially when you agree with me. LOL.
Anonymous said…
You're on the mark, as always, John. If readers don't relate to the character in some way, they won't spend time with them. The relationship may be based on love, lust, hate, pity, greed, or another emotion, but if there's no emotional connection, readers won't stick around.
marja said…
Excellent post, and you're so right. The characters need a personality and everything that goes with it. Thank you for the reminder.
Marja McGraw
jrlindermuth said…
Thanks Earl and Marja. And a big thanks to Marilyn for hosting me again.
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