Researching memorable characters

What makes a character memorable? There is no one clear cut answer and even much debate over which ones have that quality.  I have researched a number of lists, particularly for characters from novels written in the 20th century. After studying these, I chose a longer one, 100 Best Characters in Fiction Since 1900 From Book magazine, March/April 2002. Select this link to see the list and listen to a National Public Radio program discussing it.

Currently book series are gaining popularity among some readers and authors are obliging this audience. However, I’ve got bad news for those wishing to create an unforgettable character in a series. Many of the memorable characters near the top of this list didn’t survive their first novel. This includes Jay Gatsby, Lily Bart, Gregor Samsa (better known as a giant cockroach), Lolita and the insane Kurtz. There is something about the tragic hero and the character on a downward spiral that catches our attention. We often sympathize with them and don’t want to forget them.

Rabbit Angstrom and Sherlock Holmes are two of the few characters appearing both in multiple books/stories and high on the list. There are a few protagonists found in sequels or series further down the list among the sprinkling of works intended to entertain adolescents. Some characters magically manage to appear in multiple works, such as Peter Pan and Harry Potter.

When I look at the type of character who is considered memorable I noticed one outstanding feature. Males outnumber females three to one. But, then the number of books by male authors in this list also outnumber the books by female authors by a similar amount. There are a surprising number of animals (five) who stuck in the memory of readers, mainly those intended for children such as Winnie the Pooh and Toad. One monster also makes an appearance (I really don’t know what else you would call Grendal from Beowulf’s time). Sadly, there are a greater number of animal protagonists than Black characters.  

When I look at the type of novels from which memorable characters arise I note a number of them have chronicled the struggles within periods of history such Depression era America, or specific wars. There are the tales of soldiers, doctors, gritty detectives, devious criminals, adventurers and spies (like James Bond), and a number of characters forced to survive in the less than hospitable imaginary worlds known as dystopias. Then, there are some regular people trying to escape the nine to five rut. However, romance seems to be an afterthought rather than a major concern in most of their fictional lives.

Look at the characters in this list that you recall, and then consider why you have remembered them. That’s a good place to start thinking about how to create your own fictional people that will not be forgotten.

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