We readers are fickle beasts.
If you have a shit book cover we won’t pick up your novel. Sloppy blurb and we chuck the book on the NBR (Never Be Read) pile. If we get past all that and find forgettable characters buried in your pages, well… fuck you author, here’s a one star review.
A couple of weeks ago, I was lording it up in Paris with the girls for a cocktail fuelled weekend… I still have a hangover!
The thing is, I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t take advantage of any and every opportunity to spew some more of my hyperbolae into the world, and Paris has provided me the perfect opportunity to do just that.
I have a terrible memory. Like ,really bad. But my substandard brain cells got me thinking about books and specifically, about characters.
Without memorable characters, your book is worthless. Why?
Because books are written about characters. If your characters are boring, your books boring. But how do you make them memorable without turning them into the equivalent of a glitter covered literary drag queen?
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with drag queens, I quite like them in nightclubs and on stages, but not so much in my YA fantasy novel.
The art of creating memorable characters isn’t about competing in the strangest quirks and weirdos world champs. In fact, the exact opposite is true. The best character quirks are those that are subtle and nuanced. Let me give you an example.
I did a lot in Paris, and a lot of big things too like: the Moulin Rouge, the Lourve, the Royal Opera House, the Eiffel Tower and drank and ate my body weight in cocktails and croissants.
But of all those big exciting things, the most salient I have, was in a macaroon shop. I was, minding my own business, trying to buy enough macaroons to feed the 5000, when I attempted to order a vanilla macaroon. This is how the conversation went:
Me – “Can I have a vanilla one please?”
Shopkeeper – “Non.”
Me – “huh?”
*looks at the full rack of vanilla macaroons*
“Sorry, umm, I meant one of those ones”
*points at vanilla macaroons*
Shopkeeper – Non.
Me – “Um. Okay? Why?”
Shopkeeper – “They no good.”
I tried again for the vanilla after requesting a caramel and strawberry one. But still, she refused to serve me a vanilla macaroon, despite having an entire rack of them on show.
I won’t ever forget her. She found a permanent home in my memory as the shopkeeper who refused to sell her goods.
But why did this work and how do you apply it to a story?
It works, because it’s unexpected. As kids we build heuristics and categories in our brains. They help us ‘know’ things. Things that are fundamental, like the red man means stop when we cross the road, girls have bits boys don’t and sweets are the food of gods.
Shop keepers are meant to sell us their products. It’s their job. To sell their goods to make money, no matter what. So when the macaroon lady didn’t, and all because she didn’t deem them good enough, it rocked my teeny tiny world, and THAT is how you create a memorable character.
The art is not to give them rainbow coloured hair, or exaggerate them into a cliche, but to focus on one small detail. The something unusual that stands out. What is it about someone that you just can’t forget?
Can’t think of the perfect quirk?
Ask yourself this:
- What you love about that boy you’ve never plucked up the courage to speak to – was the curve of his lips when he laughed? Or the way he always bought every homeless person he met a meal.
- Or perhaps there’s a girl in the shop you buy your morning latte from that catches your eye because she always puts your change in a tower on top of your take out cup. Or slips you a free cookie when her boss ain’t looking.
- Is there a till clerk you remember? Why?
- What about an annoying habit? The way someone eats – is it surprising? Does your first date like to eat the shells of the snails instead of the innards?
Another example from Paris was the girl in a black string vest who sat in a shop doorway sanding down the frame. Not unusual in itself, but instead of wearing the white builders mask you’d expect, she was wearing a vintage war gas mask. That caught my eye too, because it was surprising.
So tell me, how do you strike the perfect balance with your character quirks? What quirks do your characters have? And how do you make them memorable? Let me know in the comments below.