Making Characters Memorable

So I’m trying to decide if I should spend $200 dollars and go the one day BookExpo America, held by Writer’s Digest Books in Los Angeles. Tomorrow. The biggest draw for me is Donald Maass, agent extraordinaire, and author of Writing the Breakout Novel. What I’d really like is to attend one of his ripping Breakout Novel Intensive Seminars, but there’s not one remotely close this year.

So instead, I could pay $200 to hear him speak/teach for one hour on “Fire in Fiction.” Of course, James Scott Bell is also teaching and could make the time worthwhile, but I’m getting off track.

One reason I would like to hear from Donald Maass and to have him rip apart my writing is because I think he’s identified the keys to creating memorable characters. And it isn’t through research. He doesn’t say this, to be sure, and I suspect he would actually advocate a writer becoming a student of human nature.

However, I suspect he would frown on pulling a list of characteristics from the Myers-Briggs personality test results and plugging them into a character. Rather this method would seem to be the antithesis of his idea that “larger-than-life” characters are, in part, quirky, willing to say or do what average people are afraid to.

Interestingly, Maass does not include “fatal flaw” or even “harmful flaw” as one of the needed elements to create the next Scarlet O’Hara or Bilbo Baggins. You don’t hear that in many Christian writing conferences … at least not the ones I’ve attended. What Maass does say is the character must have an inner conflict.

Which brings to mind a recent discussion on a writers’ email loop about the new breed of hero, the Jack Bauer and Batman types. The interesting thing to me is that Jack Bauer (of the television program 24) is always experiencing inner conflict. His choices are moral in the sense that he adheres to his over arching purpose—to preserve democracy and make the world safe. He struggles, though, against evil leaders, threats to his family, friends who lose sight of that central goal, and against the need to violate another person’s freedoms in order to preserve the lives and freedom of the greater population

In other words, he is god. He becomes the final authority to judge who is an agent of good and how good. But his decisions cost him, which is why he struggles internally.

And thus he becomes larger than life, a hero we remember and cheer, even as we lament his moral choices.

How much better to create that kind of character (memorable) than to take a list of traits from some personality model and formulate a character (type-cast). I’m not saying there isn’t truth in these professional observations of human nature. But I think writers need to do better, to see people as unique and capable of breaking the mold. Because a test identifies them as a “guardian” or “introverted” or “analytic” doesn’t need to mean the character must therefore behave in a patterned way according to the trait list presented.

In essence, this is where art must overrule science—at least if the characters are to be memorable. And memorable is one thing I’ve decided I what from my characters. Which is why I would like Donald Maass to rip apart my manuscript.


  1. “In essence, this is where art must overrule science—at least if the characters are to be memorable. And memorable is one thing I’ve decided I what from my characters.” I’m with you. I want the same for my own characters.

    There’s a supporting character–a teenage boy–in the novels I’m writing, but a friend wishes he had more time on the page, because she thinks he’s such an interesting guy. However, she can’t tell me WHY she likes him so much.

    (Sometimes I like him, sometimes I don’t. Mostly I don’t.)

    Maybe, simply because he’s a teenager, he’s still unsteady on his feet and can go in an unexpected direction.

    And, I have to admit, I am fascinated by characters that never act or react the same way all the time. Isn’t that part of the humor and surprise of Cyrano de Bergerac, when–instead of fighting Christian, who has insulted him–he embraces the young rival and even helps him woo the woman of Cyrano’s own dreams?


  2. Keanan, I have a minor character that at least one of my readers really is attached to, as well. Thing is, I agree with her. I think he is a character that might be memorable. I’m working on my protag, trying to give him those same qualities.

    Surprise is one element that makes a character interesting, I think, but what Cyrano had that made us love him so was selflessness. It is a really, really attractive quality. But it’s a fine balance. A selfless character can look too stupid or naive for his own good, and that doesn’t make his selflessness attractive.

    Quite a business we’re in, eh? 😉



  3. Yeah, you’re right about the selfless character. Sometimes I get queasy on some of the sentimental stories with which I grew up, stories in which the hero/heroine is almost TOO good. Blech.

    FYI: This blog is on my Top 5 list, so I’m hoping more readers will mosey on over and participate in the conversations.


  4. Keanan, thank you! What a nice thing to read. I sure appreciate your participation. I can’t imagine a blog without interaction with the people who visit.

    I love talking about characters … and plot … and theme. All of it, really. Writing fiction is fun to think about, fun to do. 😀



  5. Becky,
    Thanks for the insight on Maass’ view of characters re fatal flaw. I didn’t know that. I’ve resisted putting myself in those analyzed Myers-Briggs boxes, so am equally reluctant to squeeze my characters into them (Honestly, I can’t ever remember whether I’m a ITFP or PTSS or CRZY). I don’t think we as readers look at characters that way–it’s an artificial situation, such as when we sit down for pre-marriage counseling. The tools can be great in business and personal situations and lead to great discussions, but they sure aren’t my normal day-to-day thought.

    That said, I know some people who DO think that way on a daily basis. Scary. I think I’ll model my next axe murderer after them. So there.


  6. I know I’m a little late to the fray, but I was just going to say that I recently saw James Scott Bell give a talk at APU (Azusa Pacific University). He was great. I’m hoping I can get him to write for my blog one of these days. 🙂 I highly recommend his thoughts in regards to writing.


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