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Memorable characters

So I went to the Dutch Comic Con the other day, and pretty much the only thing I did was following writing workshops, panels, and lectures. Honestly, that's the main reason I go to that event - besides buying books.

The first panel I found the most interesting: what can you do to make your character last in the reader's mind? What makes characters likeable (a slightly different thing), how can you introduce them, how about side characters, etc. I found the talk very interesting, so I wanted to share some things I've learnt from it with you.

So, let's start with character introductions. Honestly, I often forget how important they are. They give the reader a first hint of who the characters are, and if you give the wrong image, people might end up angry. The authors of the panel mentioned a few character introductions that stuck with them and what tricks helped with that:

- Use the 'zoom' on a character wisely to portray an image that last.

Example: Captain Jack Sparrow in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Remember how he sails into that harbour? It looks like he is standing on a big ship, but it turns out it's just a dinghy - a sinking one as well. Jack, however, acts like this is all part of his plan. Of course, writing does not have a camera, but you can certainly focus on a small thing first, then mention a wider setting.

- Use an item.

Example: the glass of scotch in the opening of the first Iron Man movie. It tells something about Tony Stark before you've even seen him.

- Use different viewpoints to create depth/contrast.

Example: Jaime Lannister appears as the perfect knight seen through Jon Snow's eyes, but later we learn he's quite a bastard, then he gets his own POV and he suddenly starts to make sense. Sort of. Enough to like him a bit.

There was another one mentioned, but the example featured Lara Croft in the latest Tomb Raider movie. I haven't seen that one though, so I can't really tell what was going on in her introduction scene. Apparently, it will show she's strong, but not the best, and has problems without telling them what they are, but showing them. It makes her human, and therefore realistic, which helps readers to care about a character.

memorable vs. likeable

The discussion then blurred from 'memorable' to 'likeable'. Does one automatically mean the other? I guess not. Villains have huge fanbases as well, after all. Still, likeability is a tool you can use. There already are a gazillion blog posts about what makes a character likeable, so I won't go into detail about it. I guess the panel boiled it down to making a character realistic. Real people have flaws - even the good guys - or something you can recognise yourself in, and a way to get this is to observe real people and use them as a base for your characters. What was also quite funny to note is that all panel authors seemed to find main characters more interesting than side characters, because with them, you can dig deeper into a person's flaws. Writers are quite disturbing people...

So that was likeability, but how about memorability? Some of the panel authors mentioned that the choices the characters make are the key to this. You might not agree with what the character chooses to do, but you'll remember his choice, so make that important, something that influences a huge part of the plot. That makes sense, right? Then I started thinking about it - which always happens way after the panel is done, so I can't talk with the authors about it. Such a shame...


In all stories, or at least, the good ones, the main character has to make a choice. Often a hard one. So why is that some characters stick with me more than others, even though their choices have less of an impact? I think it's because I expect the character to make such a choice, since it pretty much always happens. It often doesn't stand out to me. Or, when it does stand out, it might be that I only remember the choice itself, not the person who made it.

No, what I need is contrast for the character itself.

Contrast can come in many ways. Actions, quirks, items... Let's look at Captain Jack again as an example. Why does he stand out to me? He has this funny way of walking, he solves problems creatively, and I like his sense of humour. Compare that to the other characters in the movie. Sure, they have their own quirks, but none of them seem to overlap with Jack's. To make it even better, he stands out when compared to other movies in the genre - or at least, I think he does. I'm no expert on pirate movies, after all, but I haven't seen a pirate yet who is as odd as Jack. Items work like that as well; throw something unusual in that only the main character uses, and make him use it a lot. It will make him set apart, and the reader will notice that. How many adventurers besides Indiana Jones use a whip? Would Indy stand out as much if he would use a gun all the time?

Okay, he would get far with just a gun. But I think this scene works so well because Indy usually does not take down an enemy this way.

Of course, making a character different is something that can take on extremes to the point the character becomes ridiculous. A pink, fluffy unicorn in a pirate movie will not be forgotten quickly, but not for the right reasons. Jack Sparrow, on the other hand, still fits a pirate world, despite all his weirdness. I think that's the tricky part about this. What contrast can you give to a character without making him look unrealistic? The answer lies within your world; set up rules and let those form your hard boundaries. Do unicorns exist in a pirate world? No. Get rid of it. How about a pink, fluffy horse, then? Maybe that's possible with the right dyes (I am no expert on it), but why would someone dye a horse? Get rid of it, unless the pink horse makes sense somehow. And if it would have been just a fluffy horse? Sure, why not, but is the horse still special enough to stand out?

This idea of contrast in a character is rather new for me, so I'm still exploring books and movies to see if it keeps making sense. I'm even considering making a list of my favourite or most memorable characters, and see what it is that makes them stand out from the crowd. Interesting exercise, don't you think?

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