Notes on Craft: Creating Memorable Characters
by Olakunle Ologunro
So, to this week’s letter: CRAFTING MEMORABLE CHARACTERS.
I should begin with the obvious questions: a) What are characters? b) What do they do? c) Why should they be memorable? d) How can they be memorable?
I believe that any writer should be able to answer these questions easily. I want you to answer them while I add my own tiny points.
Characters are important to your writing. They are the human and non-human agents that help move your story forward. I say non-human because characters don’t have to be human sometimes. They can be animals, as in Animal Farm by George Orwell. They can be inanimate objects like a bundle of broomsticks, a sheaf of papers, a table and a chair. What they do is that they propel the story forward. Things happen to them, they make things happen, and thus drive the story further and further towards a resolution.
Let’s focus on human characters. How do you make them memorable? How do you write them in such a way that they jump off the pages of the book to become real, alive? How do you make the reader love them so much that they can picture them easily? How do you make the readers bond with them the way readers of Half of a Yellow Sun did with Kainene Ozobia?
The first and easiest answer is to think of the characters as real people. As humans. If you as a writer deny your character the opportunity to be human, it becomes difficult (and impossible, frankly) for the readers to see them as humans.
In creating something, you have to look at the previously existing models. That way, you are able to draw inspiration and see what you are doing right and wrong. I think it should be the same for your characters too. What existing models do you have? People.
Look at people. Study them. Observe and take note of the things they do and how they do them. How do they speak? What kind of gestures do they make? What is it about them that strikes you? Their dressing? Their poise? Their carriage? Their anger? Their laughter? Their silence? Now ask yourself, how can I bring this into fiction?
To create memorable characters, a simple hack is that you should have an idea of what the character looks like. That is, their physical attributes and features. This is a bracket that answers questions of age, height, facial structure, hair, etc.
Another thing to put into consideration is their personality. Are they boisterous, quiet, prone to fits of anger? Why? This question then leads to the question of their psychology.
What kind of upbringing do they have? How educated are they? What do they struggle with? What motivates them?
Yes, memorable characters must have motivation. A reason for doing the things that they do. Do they love someone that is unattainable? How are they taking this? Do they feel slighted by someone? How are they reacting to this? Why do they work at that job that doesn’t pay well? Why do they continue to attend that church?
Give your characters conflict. It can be internal, for example, a decision to choose between what seems right and what is right, as in “True Happiness” by Efua Traore. The conflict can also be external. Between them and another person, between them and their environment, the elements.
Put a barrier between your character and the very thing they want the most. How they struggle to achieve this desire is a story all on its own. Make the character a person you can live with, a person you cannot live with, a person you cannot live without.
At the core of your character creation should be the awareness that all humans are flawed. That is one way to begin the work of crafting memorable characters.
See you soon.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Olakunle Ologunro is a Nigerian writer. His work has been published in Brittle Paper, Agbowo, the Queer Africa anthology, and the Gerald Kraak anthology for work that provokes thought on the topics of gender, social justice and sexuality. He is an alumnus of the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop and a finalist for the 2020 Adina Talve-Goodman Fellowship from One Story Magazine. He won the inaugural Kreative Diadem Prize for short fiction.