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Memorable Characters

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The one thing that makes any story for me stand out is a memorable character. They don’t have be heroic, or even that good. But they have to be compelling and as an audience member, you have to want to know what happens to them. So as a writer, how can you make your characters memorable?

First, I think you should be able to say things about them. Like for example, they’re kind, smart, sensitive, or tough, impulsive, and moody. You can identify traits about them right away based on what you’re seeing with them in the story. They make you care about them not because you might like them, but because you want to see how they will handle whatever the story throws at them.

Second, you learn things about them. You learn about their past, their likes and dislikes, their problems, their demons, and how they feel about other characters. Because when you learn things about them you get a picture of who they are, where they’ve been, and where they’re going.

Recently, I started watching the television series ‘Grantchester’, a mystery series set in the 1950’s in a small village in Cambridge, England. The main character is Sidney Chambers, a young handsome vicar who is a bit shy yet sweet. But we learn that he’s haunted by his war-time service, and an unrequited love for a woman. What makes Sidney compelling and memorable is that he’s not perfect. He doesn’t utter empty platitudes but is cautious with his words. He’s also cautious with his feelings, perhaps too much. So we have a character who could be made out to a paragon of virtue and perfect in every way but instead, we have a real character with good and not-so-good qualities who has a lot of potential to grow.

On the other end of this spectrum would be Tony Soprano, from the HBO television series ‘The Sopranos’. Tony is a mobster running a strip club in New Jersey and head of a crime family. So he’s not what you would refer to as a good person. He breaks the law and has people murdered. He lies and cheats and is brutal in how he deals with things. Yet in the first episode we see him having a panic attack and subsequently seeing a therapist. So this shows he’s vulnerable, and able to feel things though not deal with them very well. It’s this dichotomy that makes him memorable and compelling because we know things about him, see how he interacts with the world around him, and see his conflicts.

So to make a memorable character you want to show the good, the bad, and in some cases, the ugly. You want your audience to learn about them and because of that, your audience will want to know what happens to your characters in the story. And that’s what not only makes a character memorable, but what makes a story memorable after it’s over.

What The Bandit can Teach Us About Writing

by Kenneth Lawson
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This last Sunday I went with my son back in time.

40 Years ago, this week.

May 27, 1977.

I was still in high school. The movie was “Smokey and the Bandit.”

Burt Reynolds, Sally Fields, Jerry Reed, and Jackie Gleason as Buford T Justice.

The epic car chase across three states that ended in a big beer party. But that’s not the real story.

The real story is the fact that I saw this movie when it first came out in 1977 while I was in High School. Since then, I have seen it probably more times than I can count. My son has grown up watching this film we have seen it numerous times together over the years. It’s the first time we’ve seen it the way it was originally presented on the big screen.

The movie is just as silly and in some ways as stupid as it was 40 years ago. The now “Classic” scene where Burt Reynolds and Sally Field jumped the bridge that was out is just as good as ever, even better on the big screen.

But why does anyone care about a chase movie made 40 years ago?

Characters.

Afterward, in the car, my son and I discussed the film for about 10 minutes. We picked a picked apart the plot or the “sort of plot” and the silliness of the whole thing. The likelihood Sally Field’s character did not recognize Jackie Gleason’s character on the CB radio it’s pretty slim if she knew the family well enough to almost married the stupid son. Then she would have recognized his voice over the CB; having probably heard it there many times before. All that aside, the movie still works pretty good.

But that’s the reason the movie works is not the story; the story sucks. What works is the characters. The characters are memorable. Burt Reynolds character the Bandit is likable he’s Every Man’s anti-hero he just doing the best he can and along the way he manages to do things that other people have not been able to do and mostly have fun doing it.
Jerry Reed is also excellent as the Snowman. Snowman is dragged into this crazy bet, he asked Bandit why we want to this silly thing; Bandit explains;

“‘For the good old American life: For the money, for the glory, and for the fun… mostly for the money. ”  — Burt Reynolds as Bandit in Smokey & the Bandit, 1977

You may wonder what this has to do with writing?

Theses characters resonate they speak to us, we can relate to them. They’re doing something that we would like to do. Granted, the story needs work, but that’s okay. In this case, it’s not so much about the story.

Face it, the actual story of “Smokey and The Bandit” is pretty thin. There are holes in the plot we could drive both Bandit’s Trans Am and Snowman’s tractor through. But that’s OK.

This story is “character” driven. We like Bandit, and “Frog” and Snowman, in spite of ourselves we like Sheriff Buford T. Justice. That’s why it works. It’s not so much the grand adventure, or the danger. It’s watching them do stupid stuff and getting away with it. As a teenager, in 1977, I probably wanted to be Bandit so bad I couldn’t stand it. To drive a Bad-Ass car, get the girl, and generally, do whatever the hell I wanted. That’s what these characters embody.

So must you write clones of Bandit, and Snowman, and Justice?

No. But your characters should be something either your readers can relate to directly, or in the case of Bandit, someone they can wish they were.

Bigger than real life. Characters that take over the story. They should ideally be relatable on some level, either age, sex, or occupation, or situation.

But above all, they must be memorable. Granted the movie has the added advantage of “Star Power” The actors bringing the characters to life. While we can’t have a young Burt Reynolds playing our hero, or probably not even the old Burt Reynolds, we must build our characters in ways that make them memorable, and for our readers to care what happens to them.

If we build good enough characters, then the audience will go along for the ride, silly as it may be.

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Kenneth Lawson was born in 1961 in Western NY.  He was born with a heart disease, called Transition of the Arteries, and is believed to be the first in the US to survive the procedure called the Mustard procedure.

He started writing as a teenager. Today he lives in Central Virginia with his wife of 30 years and the youngest of their four children.

Kenneth enjoys classic movies and television, and a variety of music. When not enjoying movies, he can be found writing his eclectic mix of science fiction, mystery, and time travel.

Find Kenneth at his blog


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Can Acting Help You Create Memorable Characters

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Whether I’m writing a comic, a blog post or a screenplay, the cornerstone of my writing remains the character.

From the very first moment you welcome your reader, and he reads your first paragraph, you want to make sure he knows:

  1. Whose story is it?
  2. What’s happening around the character?
  3. What’s at stake for the character?

This is because, from Shakespeare to Ibsen, the whole idea of dramatic writing revolves around the character: The one we root for, and the one who moves the story along with its actions.

But building character for fiction requires a deep understanding of human motives. A knowledge I had no access to until I shifted my perspective to a more experiential approach: That of embodying characters myself.

That of Acting.

And it changed me, it made me more aware of human dynamics. From the very first moment I started reading Lee Strasberg, Stanislavski and Grotowski, I noticed the similarities between my career as a psychologist, dramatic writing and those stories I wanted to create. 

But the real question is: Can acting work for you and your fictional characters as it worked for me?

Even without knowing you, and whether you suffer from stage fright or no. I do believe a short acting workshop can help you breathe life into your characters.

Here’s why.

Acting is a space for practice and creativity

Think of acting as a playground for discovery. Your own.

Acting will help you find your voice and it will give you a thorough understanding of your body language. All of this, on a playful and safe environment.

In this controlled space, you’ll have the opportunity to test, propose and create with others. It’s human interaction at its best.  

When you get back to your writing space, you will find how the relationships and interactions between your fictional characters become more natural and innovative.

Acting can teach you how to show, don’t tell

Regular conversations might sound like this:

“I’m sad;” “I don’t want to be here;” “I’m about to cry.”

I know, it sounds dramatic, but it has nothing to with dramatic writing. These are real life examples, yet you’re writing fiction. And since there’s no emotional value behind those phrases, we’re taught as writers to show and never tell.

Acting is no different. That means dialogue remains an extension of action. For example, a good actor on a good play wouldn’t tell the audience he’s about to commit suicide; no, we would see the signs: the gloomy tone of his voice, his gaunt appearance, his vacant stare and saggy posture. The way he thinks of life and the places he visits on a regular basis.

He’s hinting us. He’s suggesting and planting an idea. And we follow him along because we want to know if he’s going to survive or not. He’s in control.

That’s the power of character.

Acting teaches you to put yourself out there

Ok, all of this whole acting thing might sound promising. But what if you have stage fright? Or, you are self-conscious about your body, or your voice, or the way others look at you…

Just… don’t freak out. I feel you.

See, I’m an introvert. I like to read, spend time on my own, and sometimes too much social interaction can leave me heavily drained. Yet I’m so comfortable with myself that I can give a speech, act or sing in front of an audience –without fainting.

I had to learn that from scratch though. And acting helped me a lot.

Before acting I was afraid of looking at people in the eye. I was insecure. I didn’t know what to do with my body, how to move or whether to smile or not. I felt people would just laugh or criticize everything I did. But even when I forgot my lines, or made a mistake, I would just try again.

I didn’t die.

And that’s a huge lesson for us writers and aspiring authors. Acting teaches you to put yourself out there. It will help you with your pitching and that arrogant publisher. You will become more in control of yourself. And that confidence will translate into your writing. You will suddenly become less self-conscious about what you produce and you won’t feel afraid of being vulnerable.

Should you take acting classes?

I don’t think acting is for everyone, and I’m not encouraging you to pursue an acting career. But I do believe that it can critically improve your writing.

It worked for me, and my screenwriting feels more natural ever since.

Even if it doesn’t improve your writing you will have some fun, you will find an alternative way to express yourself creatively, and you will exercise too. Besides you can meet some interesting people in your classes –they could even end up as potential characters for your fiction book.

If you liked the article feel free to share it. Or, if you have any questions about acting and writing you can leave a comment below and I’ll be happy to help.

Happy writing –and acting.

Dan

Find me on my blog Fourth Walled

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Dan de Abreu is dedicated to helping  others aspiring authors while studying the relationship between psychology and writing.
He holds a BA in psychology and  works as a copywriter, screenwriter, and comics writer.
His longtime goal is writing scripts for his own animated short films.

Karl Taylor: Creating Characters

Okay, they say everyone has an opinion. Guess what? So do I! For me, it’s the characters that make the story, not the other way around. Strong, memorable personalities can make the difference between a good story and a great one. You might say, “Yeah? So how do I do that?” Well, I think my strong suit these days is creating characters and I’ll share with you how I go about it. Everybody will probably have their own way of doing this but maybe you’ll see some little thing you haven’t thought of before and you can use for your characters too.

  1.  What kind of character is it? Is it a good guy? Is it a bad guy? Is it a primary or secondary character?

Now, in my experience, this could change as you write your novel. You may fall in love with what you thought was a secondary character and they suddenly get a promotion. Anyway, when I create them, I treat secondary characters a little bit different than the primaries. I’ll get around to that later.

  1.  What does the character look like? Is it tall or short? Is it fat or thin?

Get a clear picture in your mind of exactly what they look like. You need this clear image when you write about them. Their physical build, their expressions, their scars, physical cues that give away their internal emotions, anything that you might notice about a close friend in the real world. You probably won’t give away all of this information to the reader ( I suggest you don’t. Let the reader use their imagination) but I feel it is important for you as the writer.

  1.  What is their personality? What are their physical quirks?

Are they shy? Are they a bully? Are they kind? Are they mean? You need to have all these things figured out before you put them into your writing. All these personal things will play a major part in how they react or their response to whatever situation you put them in.

  1.  What is their history? What was their childhood like? Do they have brothers or sisters? Are they married? Do they have children? What kind of jobs have they had in the past and what job do they have now? What is their name?

I go deeper into their backstory for the primary characters than I do the secondary characters. There is less need to put that much effort into a secondary character. The backstory gives more depth to a primary character and should be referred to at least a couple of times during the story. Think about talking to your friends. Sooner or later, they will refer to something about their family or something in their past or something about a job they had/have in any conversation that lasts more than a few minutes. We want to create characters that will feel as real to readers as any of their real life friends do.

  1.  Where were they raised? Are they highly educated?

The dialogue of your characters needs to sound realistic and where your character was raised will play a major part in that. I’m not suggesting that you, who were raised in the city poke fun at the country folk, but it is very true that a country boy or girl will talk differently than someone raised in a big city. The most important thing is to have consistency in their dialogue. You don’t want them talking like a hillbilly in chapter one and sound like an English professor in chapter three (unless there is a reason for them to do so).

Now that you have all this figured out for each character, you need somewhere to keep this information safe so you can refer back to it. I create a separate computer file to contain all this info in one handy reference. You may not see the need for this but I think it is very important, especially for your secondary characters who don’t appear regularly. You might have a character that appears in the first paragraph of page one but doesn’t appear again until the final paragraph of the final page, maybe page 365, and you may not remember that he spoke with a lisp on page one but it is important to be consistent in even these minor details,

If anything new comes up during your work about the character, (maybe he takes an arrow to the knee and he walks with a limp now) it is important to add this new characteristic or information to your bio that you’ve written on them. This is even more important if the setting of your work is to involve a series of books. Maybe they appear in book one and don’t reappear until book three.

Anyway, I hope that some of my suggestions help you in some small way. If I am missing something obvious, I hope you’ll let me know. All of us learn things every day and hopefully one day we can finish something and re-read it with satisfaction and say, “You know, that wasn’t half bad.” I hope if that day hasn’t come for you yet, that it comes very soon. Happy writing!

 

Dan Ellis Crime Fiction: Why Your Character Might Commit a Crime – What Can Social Science Tell Us?

“He was slouched in a worn armchair positioned in the centre of a cluttered dingy living room. The amber streetlight permeated through the yellowed net curtains. The flicker of the TV screen gently illuminated his motionless face. A burnt out cigarette was wedged between his bloody fingers, and his other hand gripped an empty bottle of scotch. For hours he hadn’t moved, contemplating what he had just done.”

If you write crime fiction, there is no doubt you’ve had a character in a similar scenario to this. They have just committed a crime, attacked someone, killed someone perhaps? The reasons why they may have done this are probably tied into specific events in the character’s life or their personality. Or maybe the plot is to blame – the treacherous conditions you have forced them to go through?

But if you are looking to base the characters’ actions in reality. To create a set of circumstances that are believable and grounded in widely accepted theory, social science can help. I want to take you through some basic criminological and sociological explanations (without the jargon!) of conditions that may push your character to do the dirty deed. Just some questions to think about when you are planning a story or building a character.

What sort of person is most, or least likely to murder someone? What sort of background or upbringing makes the ideal recipe for a criminal? Or what in particular about a society creates the ideal environment for criminality?

Are we in control of our actions?

Let’s take the individual. Do you believe that we are rational actors that make our own decisions? Or do you believe in the idea that there are bigger forces in play that push us into certain behaviours?

These are good questions to start with when creating a character or setting up the ‘laws’ of your story. Depending on which one you lean towards will result in different characters and suit different plots. For example, a rational actor that consciously makes their own calculated decisions is very different from an actor that is not in control and has been influenced by various factors that ultimately have made them act irrationally.

An area of criminology called cultural criminology suggests that people get a buzz from committing a crime, there is a certain thrill element. So here, the actor is fully aware of what they are doing and they have proactively planned to do it, or even built a sub-culture around it. Good examples here would be joy riding or graffiti.

Graffiti is an interesting one because many graffiti artists don’t consider it to be a crime in the first place. This is something else to think about in your story’s world – what sorts of crimes are taken seriously? If a certain type of crime is not heavily enforced or does not carry a particularly harsh penalty, are people more likely to do it?

What about a serial killer? An obvious type of criminal for a crime story. This generally tends towards psychological explanations, but sociology has something to say too. It has been found that many serial killers or people that have murdered someone have had a traumatic experience of sorts. Perhaps as a child they were abused or witnessed horrific violence.

These are probably the more popularised theories of crime given the amount of movies and books based on killers. But the question here is, are they making rational decisions – or have they been influenced by external factors that have pushed them to commit the crime?

Does our socio-economic background determine our criminality?

This area of social science asks what influence a person’s environment has on their actions. The example of a murderer’s upbringing I mentioned earlier is an example, but it is more than just childhood experience.

Take a thief. They may be choosing to steal or get a thrill out of it, or maybe they have a starving family and have no choice in the matter. But going deeper than this, if they live in a deprived area where the authorities are less present, it’s probably more likely that there will be more theft going on.

Broken Window theory suggests that if a certain type of crime appears in a certain area and is not dealt with, it will become more commonplace. So if a drug dealer starts dispensing on a particular road and is never approached by authorities, it’s likely that more dealers will start operating in that area – this can then affect the residents growing up in that environment – or your character!

They may have had a poor education, in the academic and social sense. In this case they may not have developed appropriate morals, or the line between good and bad is distorted. They may not comprehend or understand the consequences of their actions. In a similar way, they may not have fully developed their social interaction skills. Here, they may become agitated or violent just because they feel they are not understood, or struggle to get their point across to someone in a collected manner.

What sort of society creates criminality?

When you are deciding on the setting of your story, the country will make a big difference in how crime is represented. Crime in Western countries like Britain or USA will be very different to crime in third world countries like Libya or Niger.

Depending on how the fabric of society is weaved will affect how its citizens perceive and react to crime. The government is probably the most influential institution here. Does the government enforce its laws appropriately? Are they locking people up for no good reason or torturing people? All of this will affect each and every citizen. The better the country governs their society and responds to crime; the less likely crime is to occur (well, that’s the theory).

Similarly, how are the countries citizens treated? Are there extreme policies in place that pressurise people’s everyday lives? For example, austerity measures in Britain which make it difficult for people on low income to get by, coupled tensions and conflict between different groups. Or, if the government are seen to exclude a certain group of people in society, like youths, this could encourage disorder such as riots.

Another example of this, and again a very popularised one, is how the criminal justice system works. Is it fair? Is justice delivered? If a murderer is released without charge how might that impact the victims – it could lead to vigilantism. What about prisons, if your story is set in a prison, how are the inmates’ rights upheld? Are they physically abused? All of these factors will all affect how your characters behave in any given situation. So it’s worth checking out government policies or researching where promises haven’t been kept – anything that might push someone into angst and act irrationally.

So I hope that this has helped to get your creative juices flowing! There is definitely a lot to think about in creating a relatable criminal story, but social science has endless amounts of answers that can help add depth to a crime fiction story.

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Dan is the creator of the Facebook group ‘The Crime Writers Den’, aspiring novelist, and social science student. The group has enabled writers to connect with criminal justice professionals, to help with technical questions, and just to chat about crime in a fun and supportive environment.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/631273680370573/?fref=nf