Create Memorable Characters

As creative writers, we all want to create memorable characters.

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TV Characters

I love watching a good movie. Recently, because I seem to have exhausted Netflix’s current supply of these, I’ve been watching a couple of TV series, a French one – The Hookup Plan – and a Norwegian one – Home for Christmas. Nothing like cultural variety, I say.

Are the Characters Memorable?

The two series are entertaining, and I’ve been observing how the characters are portrayed in a TV series. More characters are given significant ‘airtime’, whereas a novel tends to focus on a protagonist and one or more central characters.

But it got me thinking. What makes the characters in these series memorable? In fact, are they memorable? Will I even remember any of these characters a couple of weeks after I’ve finished watching the episodes? I suspect not. And it’s not really the aim of the series.

However, as creative writers, we do want to create memorable characters.

Is Your Creative Writing Process Subconscious or Academic?

All writers create differently. The process for me tends to be subconscious rather than academic. By this I mean that for me, the creative writing process just tends to ‘happen’ – aside of course from research and planning (such as creating chapter structures, timelines, character lists…). Academic creators tend to consciously plan out most aspects of the writing, including how to create memorable characters.

Regardless of whether you’re a subconscious or more of an academic creator, it’s worth exploring some of the factors when thinking about how to create memorable characters. If you’re a subconscious creator, you’ll tend to do this after the fact – after you’ve created a character. As an academic creator, you’ll think about it before creating a character.

Suggestions from a Screenwriter to Create Memorable Characters

Aaron Sorkin, Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Social Network (2010), about the founding of Facebook, has some winning tips on how to create memorable characters.

Know what they want and what stops them from getting it

‘It all boils down to intention and obstacles. Somebody wants something; something’s standing in their way of getting it. They want the girl, they want the money, they want to get to Philadelphia—it doesn’t matter, but they have to want it bad. If they need it, that’s even better,’ Sorkin says.

It’s interesting when he says that thinking of a character’s physical characteristics ‘absolutely comes last, if it comes at all.’ In the course of my professional day, I read lots of character descriptions. One of the ways of handling this that doesn’t ‘work’ is when a character description overtakes a scene or the action. While Sorkin’s ideas refer to screenwriting, and we need character description in novels, it’s worth bearing in mind not to subordinate the storyline or action to character descriptions.

Be empathetic

To create memorable characters, one of the essentials is to have empathy towards your characters. ‘You can’t judge the character,’ Sorkin says. This is challenging when your protagonist is the antihero, which is how Sorkin views Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, in The Social Network.

Don’t confuse characters with real people

This is an interesting one, because we’re always being told to create realistic characters. We need to do this by keeping the lines clear. Sorkin often writes about real-life characters but he holds no illusions about his characters being anything other than creations. ‘The properties of people and the properties of character have almost nothing to do with each other,’ he says. Insightfully, he adds, ‘I know it seems like they do, because we look alike, characters and people, but people don’t speak in dialogue, their lives don’t unfold in a series of scenes that form a narrative arc.’

Let your characters fail

If we get too close to our characters, we may be hesitant about having them experience the necessary obstacles and challenges that create story. To maintain our audience’s engagement, keep our characters relatable and help create memorable characters, we have to step back, like a parent with a child, and allow them to make mistakes. ‘They don’t have to succeed in their goal. They can fail. But they have to have tried as hard as they can possibly try … The obstacle has to be formidable.’ Sorkin continues, you may not ‘have a happy ending, but that’s OK.’

Give them a voice — yours 

Sorkin refers to the opening breakup scene of The Social Network and how challenging he found writing it, because he’d never written such young characters before. ‘I think I maybe wrote six lines before I said, ‘This is just god-awful. They’re gonna have to talk the way everybody talks in everything that I ever do.’

Ultimately, it’s your voice that makes your writing unique. You may need to eavesdrop on conversations around you in your local café to help your characters sound authentic, but in the end, you need to use your own voice.


Aaron Sorkin’s 7 Tips for Creating Memorable Characters,, Accessed 31 August 2017

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