The Secret to Making Your Characters Memorable

memorableWe 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?

Picture credit: OMG Cat YouTube

Picture credit: OMG Cat YouTube

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.

funny 5-july

47 comments

  1. I had a friend at uni, a girl, who had an obsession with the sleep in her eyes picking at the corner witH her long nailed index finger. Ne ear saw her blind herself but I did often wonder.

  2. And thats a right quirky little post, Sacha! What great examples from your trip to Paris, too. See, you are a real writer… you turn everything you see or experience into something to write about. 😁

  3. You gave me a lot to thing about with this post. My mind is spinning with the possibilities, and with the main character of my next five, future novels, I’m going to have a ball with this wacko and his many spliced genes from different species.

  4. It’s so fascinating the nuances of characters. You also became uniquely the girl at the club that insisted on vanilla macaroons when even the macaroon retailer refused to sell them.

  5. I think a drag queen in your upcoming best seller, is what you’ve been looking for (after what you told me last night).

    It’s not only an item or what somebody refuses to do, but I’ve also used a few characters in my stories because of somebody I have passed by and…the smell hits me. Sometimes, nice, sometimes not. I’ve used this example in one of my stories, but I can’t possibly go into why on here. It’s something that can only be said in person. 😀 However, totally agree with what you’ve said. That’s why, as writers, we need to get out more and discover those characters.

    1. hahahahahaha, I’ll take that under consideration! ahh Hugh, you are wise. Writers often get stuck behind their keyboards, but if we don’t live we don’t have inspiration. I so agree. We need to get out and do and live and BE.

  6. I love that macaroon story! So Paris.

    It’s totally true though. Most people are utterly forgettable but there’s some you’ll make an exception for. Like the lovely chap in the shop at the Catacombs who wouldn’t let me leave until he was satisfied I knew where I was going. Or the guy I nearly punched IN the Catacombs for yelling a cheery “BONJOUR!!!” from behind a pile of bones.

    Dick.

    1. Haha wasn’t it just! It tickled me pink!

      I agree that most people are forgettable sadly.

      Lol – see I’d rather not have to encounter the dick heads either, sadly there seems to be as many of them as there are quirky ones

  7. I like to go for the subtle too. The quirks of a smile that suddenly another character notices. In one novel it is the lines that show around the corners of his eyes when he smiles, it changes his stoic expression to one of wonder and makes him appear childlike. The absolute opposites of “lines” and “childlike” made him memorable.

  8. Reblogged this on Explore With Me and commented:
    If you wonder how to make your characters memorable and loved or even hated. Any kind of emotion born by the character will make you react. And if what you read makes you react then it means it is good. Have a read 🙂

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