3 Simple Ways to Create Memorable Lead Characters

Posted

83 Comments

Posted in: Writing

3 Simple Ways to Create Memorable Lead Characters Image 1The best stories succeed because of memorable characters.

What makes a character memorable, and how can you create one?

Not by making him or her perfect, I can tell you that. Who can identify with perfection?

Identify? Is that important? You bet it is.

We love and remember powerful lead characters because we want to be them.

Make no mistake, they need to be flawed, but be sure those flaws aren’t repulsive. Your hero can be afraid of snakes, but they shouldn’t make him wet his pants.

Your heroine can be a contrarian, but she shouldn’t be whiny.

Heroic characters accomplish heroic acts, and to do this in spite of their humanity makes us want to rise to their example.

Trying to build an unforgettable character? Study the ones who moved you as a reader.

How to Create a Character Who Takes Your Story to New Heights

  1. Be realistic

The best characters are relatable—so if you give your lead an unbelievable strength, accompany it with a glaring weakness.

  1. Don’t let them look stupid

Be careful not to diminish your character in the reader’s eyes.

Don’t let a private detective forget to load his weapon or miss an obvious clue. Though flawed, he shouldn’t be a:

  • Wimp
  • Bumbler
  • Dunce
  1. Give them forgivable flaws

Your hero needs a flaw readers can relate to and still admire him.

Who was your favorite fictional character and what was his or her greatest strength and relatable flaw? Tell me in the comments.

  • Ryan Hoffman

    I enjoyed murder mysteries and detective fiction so I’m going to have to say that one of my favorite fictional characters is Sherlock Holmes. His greatest strength was his mind and also his Use of forensic science which was at its infancy in the late 19th century. His greatest weakness on the other hand was his pride, always known to be right, and always known to be a loner. If not for Watson, his sidekick. Sherlock would have essentially become a loner, ignoring advice from anyone else but his intuition. It would’ve been a lonely existence.

    • I like that–his pride. Today he’d probably be diagnosed narcissistic personality disorder. Is that relatable and forgivable?

      • Jerry B Jenkins

        Relatable for sure! :)

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      True, Ryan. Good.

  • Melanie Wilkes. Her greatest strength was her ability to forgive and rise above, and her greatest flaw was her desire for something she couldn’t have. We’ve all been there, eh?

    • It’s interesting that we thought of the same story, although different characters. My choice is Scarlet O’Hara. She was an unlikable character, spoiled and extremely self-centered. Yet when it mattered, she showed her tenacity and grit and saved not only herself but her land. She lost in the end, but in her mind she was determined that it was only temporary. She was determined that she would get him to return to her. Did he? We don’t know. That is the best part. The reader actually writes the ending in his or her own mind.

      • Those two were one of the best paired dichotomies in literature.

        • Glenda

          I think Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy are another memorable pair. :)

      • Jerry B Jenkins

        Good point, Rebecca.

      • If you read Scarlett as the embodiment of The South and the men in her life as symbols of our cultural history…did he?

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      I have,

    • Gloria Wullffe

      My favorite from this story line is Rhett Butler. Ya’ll should read Rhett Butler’s People, by Donald McCaig. It is Rhett’s biography. He is so real. Strong, courageous, loyal, a bit wicked, but never “wrong.” The novel is set in Charleston, so if you have ever spent any time in Charleston, SC, you will be hunting down his childhood and trying to remind yourself he is just a fictional character, but you will fail. He stops being fictional and becomes a real person.

      • Jerry B Jenkins

        Can’t ask for more than that, can we, Gloria?

  • Gina

    Edmond Dantes from The Count of Monte Cristo is one of my favorite characters, because he is determined and brilliant. His flaw is that it takes him a while to learn that vengeance belongs to God, and that unforgiveness causes life to become very hard.

    • Oh I love him!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Subtly teaching the reader a valuable lesson.

    • Glenda

      One of my favorites, as well, Gina. :)

      • Jerry B Jenkins

        The assignment was “your favorite.” Can you pick one? :)

        • Glenda

          May I have a top five list? Okay, you’ve found me out.
          My favorite memorable character isn’t in a novel, she is in a comic strip. Lucy Van Pelt. She is multi-talented and shows strong leadership skills but can be excessively snarky. Should I be ducking now? Sheepish grin

          • Jerry B Jenkins

            Lucy qualifies. :)

            Can you imagine if I expanded this to people’s top five? Then I’d get, “Can’t pick just five; here are my top ten.”

          • Glenda

            Point taken. Favorite means favorite. :)

          • Not just excessively snarky; if we take the strips literally her weakness is real cruelty. She’s always tripping Charlie Brown or beating up Linus. Children that size aren’t very dangerous and it’s always been easy to understand why Lucy is so angry and mean, but…would you really want to know a child like her?

            (I wouldn’t…my parents were Christians, but Lucy-style hostility is what I had to be “saved” from!)

          • Jerry B Jenkins

            Ha! I think all kids are born with Lucy style original sin.

          • Glenda

            Sounds like LVP is pretty memorable, too.

  • Deb Bisset

    A George McDonald character who was blind and hired out to expertly clean oil lamp chimneys. I read it years ago and can’t tell you who the lead characters were in the story but can’t forget that personna.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      That’s writing, isn’t it? My favorite MacDonald talent was his ability to describe an orbital character in one word. He described one guy as ‘knuckly,’ telling me everything I needed to know.

  • Judy Peterman Blackburn

    So many to choose from; Scarlett, Tom, Huck, but a mom in a LaVyrle Spencer book comes to mind. Roberta in That Camden Summer was strong, courageous. Her daughters came first. Even though she faced opposition in coming back home a divorcee at a time when divorce was deeply frowned on, she held her head high and her beliefs higher. Her flaws are her messiness and thinking her family would welcome her home. Her strengths are in how she wins the town and friends in spite of it all. Thanks for a good post. :)

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thank you, Judy.

  • Frances Wilson

    One character who portrays silliness, is Harriet Smith in EMMA. She falls hook, line, and sinker, for all the unrealistic ideas to dream of relationships out of her reach.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Speaking of identifiability. :)

  • Brent Clark

    Tyrion Lannister of Game of Thrones. His strength is his wit and intelligence. He could always get himself out of a bad situation with a few humorous comments, or snide remarks which made him likeable. Tyrion also challenged injustice even if it could cost him his head. His forgivable flaws were the fact that he is a drunk and whoremonger. When you take a look at his brother and especially his father and sister, its no wonder why he finds his escape through booze and women.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      If those are forgivable flaws, you live in a different universe than I. :)

      • Brent Clark

        Define forgivable flaws. Can we expect an obvious non Christian Christian Character to act in like a believer? Especially since this is in a different fantasy world? In real life, aren’t we to show grace to people like this?

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          Absolutely, but we’re not talking about actions that might separate the believer from the unbeliever. My issue is with flaws that might repulse the reader. If this is a story, ultimately, of redemption, I have no problem with showing the depravity of the former life–but even then, readers might not be able to forgive nastiness, cruelty, etc. If a nonbeliever is a drinker and promiscuous, that’s one thing. If he’s an abuser or a destructive drunk, that’s another.

          On the other hand, as I say, if the point of the story is his character arc, showing the real change could redeem the story as well.

          In Riven, one of my main characters is a murderer, so…

          • Brent Clark

            Okay, I see your point.

          • Glenda

            Riven is in my top 10 favorite books of all time! Truly an inspired work.

          • Jerry B Jenkins

            My fave of my works, as you know.

  • Johnese Burtram

    I love Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice fame. She really is more than a bit of a snob. But she is handsome and highly intelligent, even if she is a woman. She champions fairness and loves her family–her admirable older sister Jane, the younger silly sisters, her father who is her soul parent, even her mother who is often
    utterly ridiculous. She stands by them. I love her because she is so clever. She makes those comebacks that I think of in hindsight and so wish I had the presence of mind to speak in the moment. Ya gotta love her.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      “…even if she is a woman”? Take cover. :)

      • Johnese Burtram

        You couldn’t see my tongue in cheek?

  • Gloria Wullffe

    Can’t say just one. In addition to Rhett Butler, there is Grandfather from Heidi, Father Stephen from City of Joy, Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls. They are real people, doing impossible things with courage and grace.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Good criterion, but which was your favorite?

      • Gloria Wullffe

        Rhett Butler. But not from Gone With the Wind. I did like him in Gone With the Wind, but the other author, Donald McCaig, (Rhett Butler’s People) fleshed him out so much more. He had a major role in Gone With the Wind, but Scarlett was still the star. In the McCaig “biography,” Rhett was given his own stardom. Huge task to take on, to build on someone else’s character, but I think he did exceptional. I do love historical fiction.

  • Glenda

    Emma Woodhouse. She is compassionate and hospitable but tends to think a little too well of herself and how life should look for others. Her restless discontent is nearly her undoing.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Good, Glenda. Thanks.

  • MofPennsy

    Of course Harry Potter…Rowling starts the identification with the oppression of the stair cupboard…Aragorn of Lord of the Rings is an interesting almost secondary character as a paragon of royal majesty-yet accessible because he is fighting with courage and honor to overcome exile and dishonor and be worthy of Kingship. But one I go back to is Ursula K. LeGuin’s Sparrowhawk (Ged)- He’s a very confident (arrogant) youth learning to control immense power, and mucks it up horribly…but he learns the good lesson, not of the humiliation, but of humility. Were any of us young, stupid and bulletproof? yeah, kinda…Ged was able to learn through “Earthsea” philosophy (quest for Truth) and the guidance of his teachers, and face his fear.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      And so the question remains: who was your favorite? :)

      • MofPennsy

        the one I go back to as favorite
        …Ged/Sparrowhawk

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          :)

  • Linda Jewell

    Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge

    When I read the book or watch the movie, I relate to Mr. Scrooge’s biggest flaw because I see my hard heart and selfishness in his. I see his greatest strength as his single-mindedness of purpose, which changed from pursuing money to taking positive action on the behalf of others.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      He’s a good one, Linda.

  • Tammy Koschnitzke

    Glenda, the pie lady, from Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals. Her ability to get people to do what was good for them was her strength. Her flaw was not doing what was good for herself. He did not place her in a position of power and yet allowed her to influence many powerful people in the story.

    • Glenda

      I’ve never heard of that book, Tammy. Hmmm. Intriguing. Btw-Have you ever heard of a book called the Mechanical?

      • Tammy Koschnitzke

        No, but it looks like a neat series. We’re going to give it a listen on Audible. Thanks Glenda.

        • Glenda

          I didn’t know The Mechanical was a series, Tammy. I was just curious about the genre and premise. Some authors grab my attention no matter the genre… but if I see an intriguing title by an author I don’t know I generally seek reviews from others before delving deeper…:)

          • Tammy Koschnitzke

            As far as we are in the book, the premise seems to be that man-made machines enslaved by the ruling Dutch empire break free during a power struggle between the papist and protestant classes. It has potential, with its exploration of free will and predestination. I like the steam punk genre, but I haven’t found a lot of writers that I really feel do justice to it. We’ve enjoyed listening to Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series with our girls.

          • Glenda

            Thanks, Tammy. I’m not familiar with the steam punk genre.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks, Tammy.

  • Jamie Jenkins

    My favorite fictional character is Diane Chadwick Selby in Tracie Peterson’s novel series, Heirs of Montana. Those four novels are some of my favorites in all of fiction. I relate to Diane on so many levels…she’s a lot like me. Her greatest strength is her determination to overcome all that life throws at her and still stay true to herself, her family, and God. I love that! Her relateable flaw (at least for me) is being stubborn and bullheaded. A lot of times she does things impulsivly, in her own strength and knowledge, instead of seeking guidance from the Lord or her loved ones, including her husband. In one of the novels in the series, she learns how to submit to her husband. That’s always a challenge on some level for all wives, no matter how much we may love our husband. At the end of the series, she has greatly matured in her relationship with God and others. That’s what makes me love these stories so much.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Well put, Jamie.

  • Elizabeth Herendon Dyer

    Even Superman is weak around kryptonite and detectives usually had a weakness for women. So many characters come to mind. My dream is simply to be able to write one of my own….Now, what will their flaw be?

    • Peter Wimsey was sort of icky in the first few novels, then matured through his relationship with sort of obnoxious Harriet Vane. Their characters aren’t the main point but after reading the whole series I remember liking the way they matured from book to book.

      • Jerry B Jenkins

        Dorothy Sayers’s character, to clarify.

  • To the contrary, isn’t it more fun to learn how a wimp, bumbler or dunce can be a compelling lead character? A book reviewed as “Author Authorson wrote a wimp with class!” is a book I’d want to read.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Examples?

      • I can’t think of any, and that’s the point. I think it’d be really original.

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          The key would be getting the reader to care for him/her not just in spite of those flaws, but also because of them. Columbo, Monk, Wimpy Kid.

  • I sat down and made a list of fifty, once…I think the only way to pick just one is to pick the one who’s been on the list longest. As a small child I seem to have liked stories primarily for their escape value and/or the sound of the words and/or the relevance of the information adults liked to sneak into picture books. I became interested in characters around age seven, which was when I met several long-term favorites, and I think the first *human* character I liked most was Sara Crewe (in the longer version of “A Little Princess”). I still like her. The plot is as contrived as a Victorian melodrama can be, but the way Sara’s character develops through that lame plot is real. She gets tired and emotional at times but she’s tough as nails.

    That same winter I was even more delighted by the novels “My Friend Flicka” and “Caddie Woodlawn,” but I liked several of the horse characters better than the human characters in “Flicka” (though later I developed some empathy for Ken). My sympathies were divided between “tomboy” Caddie and sickly sister Clara, too.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      So, your favorite?

      • Sticking with Sara Crewe; sorry if that wasn’t clear.

  • Janet

    The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells caught my attention shortly after the book was published. I grew up in the era that Siddalee, Sidda, and her siblings grew up in. Drinking alcohol was indeed rampant. At first I did not have much sympathy for Sidda. She had it easy compared to me and my sibling. I could understand why Sidda wanted her mother’s approval even though I did not want the same approval. I did however relate to the love/hate relationship Sidda had for her mother. Sidda did not seem to understand an alcoholic usually does not remember the horrific things they did or the problems associated with the disease. Sidda’s flaw was she had no compassion for her mother. She was too busy feeling wounded.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Great, Janet. Which was your favorite?

      • Janet O.

        Originally, I selected Sidda from the book The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood. Sidda grew up in the same era as I did. She carried with her great hurt from her childhood if I did for a long while. I felt Sidda had it easy compared to my childhood. As a result, my initial reaction to her character was not one of empathy. God reminded me, as I kept reading the book, of something I said to a childhood friend when were teenagers. My friend, whose father was an alcoholic, said she couldn’t believe that another friend was so upset over her pimples. I responded that is the worst thing that she has known. To her it IS a big deal. There’s no way to compare you with her. She doesn’t know what you and I have endured. With that said I should have gone with the character Sidda from The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

        Sidda did have some traumatic experiences. She had a great deal of difficulty understanding and communicating with her mother. Her mother’s friends tried to help Sidda when she became an adult by explaining her mother was an alcoholic and drunk during those painful memories Sidda had.

      • Janet A. Orcutt

        Somewhere I read you would be replying and making comments each Tuesday. I understand this discussion board began by asking us to make comments about our favorite characters. However, I thought this would be a writing workshop. Last fall you told me there would be another Writers’ Workshop in January. Did I miss the boat again and did not enroll in the workshop?

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          No, I try to reply and comment every day. And this is not a discussion board, though discussion is welcomed and encouraged. It’s just the comments section of my blog.

          You may be confusing this with my Jerry Jenkins Writers Guild (www.JerrysGuild.com). We open registration for that every several months (next month is one such opportunity). You could go to that site and get on the notification list with no obligation and then decide if it’s right for you when you’re informed registration is open. We’d love to have you, and you’d be amazed what we offer for a very modest fee. And there’s a 100% money back guarantee if it doesn’t deliver what you hoped.

  • Carol Nicolet Loewen

    When I was a child I read a book called ZONYA. It was a novel combining stories of six or seven women who tried other belief systems – Communism, Christian Science, and several others – before coming to know Christ. Zonya’s greatest strength was her persistence. There HAD to be something better, more fulfilling, out there – and she kept searching. Her weakness was her need, her vulnerability, which made her susceptible to every new belief system presented in a positive way (and then almost destroying her). I’ll never forget the book!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Good, Carol. Thanks!

  • Abhishek Soni

    Alaska Young from Looking for Alaska also qualifies as being a flawed but memorable character. I mean she was, what the kids are calling these days, broken. And that became a huge part of the story(trying hard not to giveaway spoilers to potential readers :D) Fun. She was fun. Every scene she was around, you just knew something bizarrely amazing was going to happen. From the pranks to the life lessons hidden i her conversations with Miles Halter(Pudge), she was brilliant.

  • Matthew Landadio

    My hero’s main is an Agent name Emily Frost. she’s really good at being an agent, but her main flaw is in her backstory, where she was forced to her fellow agent and fiancee to die during a mission or else be killed herself too. she struggles on whether she made the right choice or not throughout the book. is this a good flaw?

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      I think there’s a word missing in each of your first two sentences.