Creating Unique and Memorable Characters

I have just finished reading the fifth Kate DiCamillo book I have on my shelf. Each one of her books is more satisfying than the last. Kate weaves such original, compelling stories.

But I have been thinking to myself, why do I love these books so much. Really, why?

And I think what I got to is this: the characters.

Kate’s characters are so honest, raw, quirky and original. They sing off the page. You can never forget them. And if you love and care for a character, you can’t put a book down. And then the story sticks with you.

Miggery Sow, from The Tale of Desperaux, has to be one of my favourite characters of all time. Mig is described by others as a cauliflower-eared fool. She was sold by her father for a red table cloth, and a hen, to a man she called Uncle, who clouted her ears until she could barely hear. Despite or maybe because of her misfortune, Mig longed to be a princess.

I have never before come across a character like Miggery Sow (named after her father’s pig). And I doubt I ever will. She is so unique, she has a special place now in my memory, so that despite her unfortunate life, I will often think about Miggery.

No matter how odd and strange and distinctive her characters, Kate DiCamillo somehow manages to make them loveable. We find ourselves sympathising with the nasty old rat, Ruscuro, in The Tale of Desperaux.

Because he is not a simple character. He has shades. He’s not all bad. All the rat longs for is light.

So, how do we write unique, memorable and believable characters?

We could create character histories.

Character histories allow us to explore the character’s background and story. Who they are, where they come from, what their favourite foods are. The more specific we get, and the deeper we delve, the more honest and original our characters become.

Push the stereotype.

So often, a character comes to us. But they are predictable. A small boy, who is shy, but wants to be a superhero. A quiet mother, who spends her life creating a warm and cozy home. A brooding man who doesn’t know how to communicate his feelings. We lean into old and familiar stereotypes, characters we have seen over and over. But we need to push the stereotype open. If the small boy is shy, what makes him shy? How does his shyness express itself? And why does he want to be a superhero? What drives him? The more questions we ask, the further we go beyond the predictable, two dimensional character.

Allow your characters to speak

Kate DiCamillo herself talks about writing without thinking. For Kate, the characters find her. And she doesn’t know a character until they start talking to another character, and she discovers more about them through dialogue. Miggery Sow speaks in a particular dialect, ‘Gor, I dunno… Eh?’ Her speech says so much about her.

John Green is another master of character and dialogue. I could read dialogue between his characters for the rest of my life. It never gets boring or predictable. And although there’s not necessarily a lot of action going on, you can’t put the book down. It feels like sitting on the edge of the interesting people gang. You are so intrigued by their lives, and entertained by their speech, you don’t want to pull away.

And again, John Green goes way beyond the stereotype.

I’d imagine John Green listens in to teenage conversations, and speaks to teenagers directly to get a feel for how they speak.

Do you have a favourite character? What makes you love them?

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  • Dani @ sand has no home

    June 16, 2017 at 1:23 am Reply

    I just finished reading Gillian Mear’s Foal’s Bread, and the characters all resonated so strongly, but Noah (a woman, who We are introduced to as a 14 year old, giving birth to her Great Uncle’s premature baby in a creek while her dad is off getting drunk) was amazing, and as I write my book I think a lot now about how dialogue and dialect can work. I use Kate Grenville’s The Writing Book to make character histories and backgrounds.

    • zanni

      June 16, 2017 at 11:14 am Reply

      That’s a great resource too. Thanks for mentioning! Wow, Gillian Mear’s book sounds amazing…

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