Let's Give 'em Something
To Talk about
characters. But have you ever stopped to wonder why
some characters are stronger than others?
by D. J. Herda
If you were to think back over all of the stories you've read
over the years, you'd be hard pressed to come up with more than a handful of
memorable characters. That's because most writers don't take the time
or the energy to create living, breathing, multi-dimensional people to
populate their books-not even the most successful of writers. And that's a
But if you were to think back over all of the real-life people you've met in
your lifetime, you'd remember a few doozies! The reason is simple:
memorable people are memorable because they are real characters. They
stand out in a crowd. They break from the mold. They can
literally knock your socks off. And that's a good thing.
The reason I bring this up is simple. By introducing a memorable
character early in a book, you can literally snag a reader for life.
Better still, you can snag that overworked, jaded editor into wanting to
read more-you know, catch him just long enough to get him interested in your
story so that he keeps reading far enough into the book to discover the
unique plot and your effervescent literary style.
Hook 'em, book 'em, and cook 'em. That's what it's all about, after
But what marks the difference between a truly memorable character and a
ho-hum creation in your own writing? It's something I call the quirk
Remember Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye?
He's a morass of quirkiness, a cauldron of contradictions. Once you
read some of his early reflections, chances are you're not going to want to
stop reading until you find out just what happens to the guy.
"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll
probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was
like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all
that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if
you want to know the truth."
Let's be honest here. There's something awfully
intriguing about a narrator who begins telling his life's story by saying he
doesn't feel like telling his life's story. That unexpected vignette
makes us more determined than ever to follow up on him, to learn what makes
him tick. Of course, when we do, we discover even more quirkiness.
"I'm the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life.
It's awful. If I'm on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and
somebody asks me where I'm going, I'm liable to say I'm going to the opera."
Of course, we've all known liars in our lives. But
liars-as pathetic as they may be in society-are still as interesting as
hell. That's yet another reason we're anxious to learn more about this
guy. He's a liar, and he says so outright-the paradox of the ages! But
that's not all.
I think you're beginning to get the message. Characters
who are lazy or crazy or loons or toons are simply more interesting, more
intriguing, and more memorable than your run-of-the-mill type creations.
Writers who realize this get in on the action early. They're the ones
who produce books such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Caine
Mutiny, The Maltese Falcoln, and even Moby Dick. Can
anyone honestly say after reading that classic-written 200 years ago-that
Captain Ahab was just average?
Of course, not all memorable characters are memorable for
what they have to say. Some are memorable for other reasons, as in the
case of the main character in Solid Stiehl, by yours truly. The
narrator is describing his first encounter with the venerable older writer:
"I quickly surveyed his large, bulging eyes, puffed out and
encircled by several rings of time, then let my gaze drift across his thick,
meaty face to his nose-a great bulbous affair that shone bluish-gray in the
cast of a long bank of fluorescent lights stretched out overhead.
Running from one side of his nose to the other were scores of tiny
blue-green lines-ribbons of highway seen from a jetliner, at first barely
visible from high above the city, then growing ever larger and more
prominent with each passing second until they threatened to explode into a
billion shards of concrete and steel.
His mouth was the only thing about him that did not seem too large for his
overall carriage. Not his mouth, exactly, but his lips. Two thin
lines that, later when I got to know him, I would see purse out in an effort
to expand their size, as though he knew that these mere slivers of pastel
were the one feature out of keeping with his greatness and set about to
Without so much as uttering a word, Hymie Stiehl marks his
debut as a genuine character, an intriguing personality with strange quirks
and bizarre features out-of-keeping with most other characters we encounter
in our daily sojourn through life. Of course, later in the book, he
confirms that notion with his unique way of expressing himself:
"Hey, kid. You're all right. Got your head up your ass
sometimes, but, basically, you're okay."
So, writers reveal their characters' quirky personalities via
their dialogue and their characters' descriptive features. That gives
a writer two opportunities to wax chaotic, although there's a third more
subtle but equally effective means: by noting the character's off-beat
actions, as in this scene where Stiehl prods a taxicab driver into taking
him to Chicago's Comiskey Park.
"Hymie leaned forward and rapped his knuckles against the
driver's back as if he were knocking on a door. "Hey, Hor-hey," he
growled contemptuously. "I said Thirty-fifth and Shields, not
Forty-fifth and Michigan, comprende? Where the hell you takin'
us, anyway? Come on, wetback. There's fifty cents American in it
for you if you get us there alive."
Within a few short lines, we're treated to a painting of the
real, the genuine, the unpretentious, the base, the intriguing Hymie Stiehl.
That's another thing writers need to remember when painting their creations:
memorable characters don't need much to become memorable characters. A
few carefully chosen words, a couple of descriptive passages, and the
exhibition of a genuine contempt for--or lifelong love affair with--humanity
are enough to create a truly quirky character from any novelist or short
Spend some time fine-tuning your characters' personalities, and
you'll reap the rewards of success as sure as you're sitting there, thinking
to yourself, "Who's for dinner?"