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Creating Memorable Characters in Literary Fiction

By Author Christopher Canniff

When you think of memorable characters, who comes to mind?

Perhaps you think of humorous characters, such as the vivacious Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces, Yossarian's eccentric hilarity in Catch-22, or the impetuous and resourceful Henry Smart in Roddy Doyle's A Star Called Henry.

Maybe you recall the tenacity of Santiago in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, or Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice whose opposition, at first glance, is stark and yet assuming. Great Expectations may come to mind, with the creepy, jilted Miss Havisham in her decrepit mansion wearing a tattered wedding dress.

But what of others, such as Madame Bovary, the bored wife of a country doctor? Or James Joyce's Ulysses, chronicling a day in the life of Leopold Bloom and other Dubliners; or Mrs. Dalloway, detailing a London high-society woman who is anticipating a party as she traverses the city, and a veteran on his way to a psychologist appointment? Or the life of architect Howard Roark in The Fountainhead?

What makes these characters memorable, or even interesting enough to make us want to stay with them for an entire novel?

One could argue that there is more excitement in following Robert Jordan as he plots to destroy a bridge in the Spanish Civil War in For Whom the Bell Tolls, or the psychological struggles of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, or the imagined quests and lunacy of Don Quixote de la Mancha.

But among all of these, many of them classics of world literature, what are their novels without the characters that drive them?

Writing Advice from the Bookshelf

Writing books suggest that memorable characters make the ordinary extraordinary. Proust's narrator eloquently describes the experience of tasting his first cup of tea in Swann's Way.

The mundane details of everyday existence can feed into our writing by providing the pretext for why such details are important to the formation of one's personality and motivations.

Memorable characters are moral, other books suggest, and provide a sense of who we wish to be. There are certainly exceptions to this, but we need to be fascinated enough to be drawn into the main character's inner conflict.

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In the beginning of my latest novel, Intervals of Hope, the main character Nicholas is torn between his allegiance to his father, who he considers a war hero, and his desire to reunite the family. This leads him to act in unpleasant and surprising ways while working toward his goal.

Some writing books mention the importance of the main character's introduction. This is analogous to a first impression of someone you meet. Readers must find the characters interesting or intriguing in some way, believing the characters exist despite their fictional context, and readers need to care what happens to them.

The first impression is what starts this process. Either we have an immediate connection with the characters, or we do not.

I once attended a writing workshop with a literary agent and an editor from Penguin. Students submitted the first page of their manuscript, and the agent and editor relayed their impressions based on those pages. That is how quickly they can make a determination of whether the characters are compelling, or not.

Seemingly Uninteresting Lives

How would you make a reader care about an assistant book-keeper in Portugal in the early part of the twentieth century? Add in the mind of a poet. Mix in an imaginative narrator and unique observations, such as musings about his boss being the master of his time.

What else separates this series of diary entries in The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa from other works of fiction, other than exceptional characterization?

And what else could distinguish a story that starts with a reckless, homeless boy and his brother? Henry Smart is lucid, entertaining, and brings life to A Star Called Henry that other characters could not.

Are your characters interesting enough to carry the novel forward? What distinguishes them from others in their chosen profession, and those in the same time, place and circumstance? Do they act in interesting and sometimes unpredictable ways to achieve their aims?

Looking at the answers to these questions could enrich your novel.

In Conclusion

Peruse your bookshelf. What fuels your writing? Look at these works, and find within them what interests you. Examine the novels that led to your transition from reader to writer.

Why do you admire the characters within these books? What makes them stand out to you? What are their inner conflicts, and why are you drawn to such conflicts, based on your own life and motivations for wanting to write?

Only by searching for answers to such questions can you begin to create unique and memorable characters whose stories, if you had not written them, you would have a fervent desire to read.

Want advanced tips for outlining your book? Our expert, author Barbara Radecki, will teach you how in our New Year, New Book program. Apply now!

About The Author

Christopher Canniff is the author of Intervals of Hope (Blue Denim Press, October 2021), Abundance of the Infinite (Quattro Books, 2012) and Poor Man's Galapagos (Blue Denim Press, 2015), nominated by the publisher for the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Learn more about Christopher and his writing here.

1 comment

  • Sorry I left a comment, which was not what you asked for. Sorry but to be honest I felt as if I was writing a novel the storyline was so blizzard.
    Maureen Mcparland

    Maureen McParland

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