Creating Memorable Characters

September 25, 2013
(This post originally appeared on

Usually, when I sit down to write a story, I have a pretty good idea of who my characters are. I know their names, I know their personalities, I know what their general roles are in the story. But they don't become REAL to me until I figure out what it is that makes them different from every other character in every other book.

It's hard, right? It's hard enough to come up with a story that hasn't been told yet, or a new twist on an old tale. But of all the stories that have already been told, there are even more characters that have already been created. How do you make yours stand out? I love my characters. I want you guys to love them as much as I do. I want you to remember them. Here's one strategy I use to make that happen:

Take a stereotype. I like to start with The Breakfast Club in my head. A jock, a princess, a loner, a brain, and a troublemaker. (There's a million more. The drama queen. The artist. The painfully shy kid. The bully.) Very, very broad categories.

I know we're supposed to avoid stereotypes, and I agree, but here's the thing--stereotypes exist for a reason. They're everywhere, and they're relatable. You say that your character is a gorgeous quarterback, and most of your readers immediately have an idea in their heads about what kind of person he is.

And that's where you use the stereotype to your advantage--make your character more interesting by going against the expected traits. Maybe your quarterback is a girl. Or gay. Or secretly hates football. Maybe he's actually not all that popular because his parents are control freaks who won't let him do anything (they're obsessed with making sure he's goes to college on a full ride thanks to football, so he's not allowed to hang out on the weekends, but he meets a girl and....yeah, okay I want to write about this poor sweet guy with no social life who's supposed to be the king of the school).

What was I saying before I got all distracted by Ben? (Ben, right? He sounds like a Ben. His parents probably call him Benjamin. And the head cheerleader calls him Benji because she thinks she's ten times cuter than she actually is. And we'll throw that cheerleader stereotype a curveball by making her a virgin who desperately wants a boyfriend but comes on so strong it freaks guys out. Her name's Jenna.)

My point is- give your characters a quirk. There's always a great thread of character quirks in the Nanowrimomessage boards every year. I love to read through it. I've seen everything from "speaks only in song lyrics" to "paralyzed by conflict" to "constantly plays freeze tag." Some of them wouldn't be practical for an entire novel, but they give me fun ideas for scenes or inspire other more suitable quirks.

In BETWEEN, my main character Charlie (Oh p.s. for those of you who know my book- Harper is no longer Harper. SURPRISE!) doesn't swear. She makes up her own swear words. So she says things like, "Holy sheet!" and "unduckingbelievable" and "glammit." There's also a pixie who's obsessed with country music. And a hot boy who's an annoying goody two-shoes.

The quirks can serve various purposes--they might provide comic relief, they can be plot device, they can cause conflict--but whatever quirk a character has, it must be consistent. Don't just set up the quirk in the beginning and then forget it throughout the rest of the book. Make sure that the quirk isn't there ONLY to make a character memorable. Make it mean something. Use it to delve deeper into your character's thoughts and personality. (i.e., Why doesn't Charlie swear? Why is Seth such a rule-follower? Why does Lulu love Patsy Cline?) You know how posers are quirky just to be quirky? Don't do that to your characters.

What about you? Do you have any particular tips or tricks you use when creating characters? 

September 11, 2001

September 11, 2013

(Sections of this post were taken from the post I wrote on this same day a year ago.)

My desk was loaded with folders, a stack that grew by the day. I was supposed to file them, but it was the task I put off the most. I didn't want to stuff folders in drawers. I wanted to write journal articles  and press releases, which at least seemed like a step in the actual career direction I wanted to go in.

But that Tuesday morning, I wasn't even doing that. I was downloading music to Napster on my work computer, which was so very not allowed, and trading emails with my friend Bret. We used email like instant messaging, talking our way through our days--me in Lexington at my boring desk job as a Communications Assistant with a non-profit education association, he at his much more interesting position as a Marine at the Pentagon.

Bret and I had been friends since middle school, although we didn't become close until high school when he dated one of my best friends. While that relationship eventually ended, he became one of my dearest friends after high school and through college.

I don't remember at all what we were talking about.

The phone rang. I worked in a small office, and every single person aside from me was in a meeting to plan the group's annual conference. It was mostly women, and they all shared a hairdresser. That hairdresser was on the phone, calling at a little past 9:00am to tell me to turn on the TV.

"A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center."

Still holding the phone to my ear, I emailed Bret, "Hey, did you know a plane crashed into the World Trade Center?"

The hairdresser was still talking, something about how they'd originally thought it was some kind of horrible accident but then another plane crashed into the second tower. 

"It's a terrorist attack," the voice on the phone said.

"What? No." Because those things didn't happen here. Not like this. 

Bret hadn't responded to my email, so I sent another one. "It's two planes. This guy is saying it's a terrorist attack. Is it a terrorist attack?"

I went to the conference room to interrupt the meeting. The only TV in the office was in there. I don't remember what anyone said or did, but I do remember ending up alone in that room, glued to the TV. I watched dark smoke pour from the towers. News anchors didn't bother to keep up a cool, reserved appearance--they were emotional, and it was weird. I'd never seen or heard anything like it. The screen kept showing a replay of the aftermath of the first plane crash, and the stunned live reaction of the news anchor when the second crash occurred.

I went back to my office.

Nothing from Bret.

But at this point, I knew it was a terrorist attack. I imagined his day had just become insanely busy.

Back to the conference room. I pulled a chair up to the TV and sat, wondering who would do this and why. I was twenty-one years old. I should've been much more concerned about the rest of the world than I was.

The screen went dark, filled with smoke so thick you couldn't see anything else. I can still very clearly remember what I heard next. "I'm not sure what we're looking at here. Ok, alright. It's the Pentagon. A plane has crashed into the Pentagon."

I stood straight up, staring. The smoke had hardly cleared, but you could barely make out the unmistakable shape of the building.

I flew back to my desk, pulling my cell phone from my drawer at the same time as I logged back into my email.

Nothing from Bret.

I sent another email. "Let me know you're okay."

I left a voicemail. "Call me as soon as you can."

I spent the next hour sending more emails and leaving more voicemails. "I know there's probably no way you're going to be able to get to your phone or your email anytime soon. I just don't know what else to do. I want to know you're okay. I hope you're okay."

I left work around 11:00. The whole office shut down, like most other businesses that day. I drove to my parents house. The drive took about an hour, and took me down quieter, two-lane roads that allowed me to cry in my car without anyone seeing.

It was a long afternoon, sitting at my mother's table, wondering if my friend was okay. I cried for all the people I knew had died, for the people who experienced the horror in and around the towers, in the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, and in the Pentagon. My heart hurt for all of them and their families, but I was very much focused on the guy who had been such a wonderful friend to me for so many years. He'd served his country abroad, and came home to a position in the Pentagon doing what he loved. Bret was always so proud to be a Marine.

I finally heard from him late that afternoon. Just a quick phone call to let me know he was okay, but the things he saw and dealt with that day were horrifying. I was so relieved to hear from him I started crying again.

There are so many images from that day that come to mind every year. Watching people jump from windows; seeing the towers eventually crumble to the ground, knowing I'd just watched thousands of people die; watching the TV screen fill with smoke and hearing the words "A plane has crashed into the Pentagon"...I'll never forget it.

It strengthened us, in a lot of ways, and shattered our arrogance. It was the kind of thing that I never thought could happen here. Now, it's the kind of thing I think about every time there's a major national event or whenever I board an airplane. The anxiety is fleeting, but it's there.

I can't understand the kind of deeply engrained hatred it takes to carry out such a horrible attack, but I try to remember that for the people who carried out the attack--that hatred is all they've ever known. They grew up in a world where Westerners are evil. In their minds, they were doing the right thing in the name of the God they believed in (or their interpretation of His words). That's the part that I find most terrifying--How do you make sense of  that kind of radicalism?

As horrifying as that day was, I try to focus on the way people came together like nothing I'd ever seen. It didn't matter what else had separated us before--for the next few months, we were all united by our grief and by the compassion we felt for people we didn't even know.

That's the feeling we need to remember--the closeness we felt to our fellow humans, our compassion for each other no matter who we were or where we came from, and our willingness to set aside our differences and remember that tomorrow is guaranteed to no one.
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