Create a Memorable Character

Photo by Bill Watters
Photo by Bill Watters

During the “Build & Break a Character of Two” workshop on Friday at 1PM in the Hyatt Hanover AB, prolific author Michael Stackpole shared the methods he uses to create memorable and engaging characters. Stackpole stressed the importance of characterization. “Characters,” he said, “are the windows through which we enter stories.” Readers are “emotional surrogates,” mirroring the character’s emotions and experiencing them through the character’s point of view.

Stackpole listed three ways to build an effective character. The first was to choose a real person as a model, either a historical figure or someone you know. Many sources describe historical figures in detail, but writers should consider the possibility of unreliable narrators. Using someone you know involves the risk of offending that person, which could result in a lawsuit.

The second method is to use archetypes, like the outlaw/pirate Han Solo and the naïve hero Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. The danger with this method is a tendency to default to simplistic conflicts. Writers need to do more, to delve deeper, if they use this type of character.

The third method, which Stackpole prefers, is to create organic characters who grow throughout the story. They come from the world itself and draw energy from it. One drawback of this method is that the author could end up with a lot of false starts before the story truly begins, but this excess material can always be cut during the second draft. The important thing is to finish the first draft. Once you get to the end of a novel, Stackpole said, “you are a novelist.” Then you can go back and fix any problems that have arisen during the first draft.

Stackpole noted that the writer’s perspective of an organic character will have to shift during the first draft, but such shifts will keep the story alive. He illustrated this method by developing a character with input from the audience. During the process, he gave several tips:

  • Jot down ideas as they come
  • Get the details right; research is your friend
  • Play fair with the reader; go back and drop in hints and foreshadowing
  • Find a point of change in the character’s life
  • Don’t have you character look into a mirror for descriptive purposes

Each character as three facets: who they are, who they think they are, and who they want to be. Decide on these, then figure out who they need to be and what would break your protagonist. And don’t forget the other characters. Each is a reflection of your main character. Build them up with your protagonist as the focus.

Stackpole warned about creating characters with a fatal flaw, a term he loathes. “If they have a fatal flaw,” he said, “they’ll die.” He prefers challenges to flaws. Challenge your character intellectually, emotionally, and physically. See how close to the breaking point you can get them by putting them under pressure. Force your character to choose. Put them in a position where something has to give. Throw in hints. Tease your reader. Create a character they’ll not only remember but also one they’ll love.

Author of the article

Debbie Yutko lives near Atlanta with her husband and two cats. When she isn’t gardening, rescuing homeless kittens, or cramming math formulas into teenagers’ brains, she can be found stringing words together at her computer and dreaming of adventures in far-off lands. She is a lifelong reader of Science Fiction and Fantasy and a veteran of Dragon Con, where she enjoys attending panels and working with the talented staff of the Daily Dragon.