Tuesday, July 30, 2013

From Good to Stellar: Characters That Won't Leave You Alone

"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."
-Stephen King, On Writing

Over the next few posts we will be discussing exceptional books and what makes them different. 

Jay Gatsby. 

Tom Joad.

Mr. Darcy.

Scout Finch.

What do all of these characters have in common? An alcoholic spoiled playboy, a Depression-era migrant worker, a stubborn but loveable beau, and a plucky girl coming-of-age in the first part of the century.

If your answer is not much, think again.

1) Memorable: I still remember peering in at Gatsby's society party through the eyes of Nick, wondering how the other half lives, all while being watched by the giant eye on a billboard.

Its been twenty years since I read The Grapes of Wrath yet I will never forget gruff but loveable Ma Joad who spouts wisdom as the matriarch of this family of travelling vagrants. Or Tom Joad who determines to carry out his friend Casey's social reforms fighting for the average man.

I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look, wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build, I'll be there, too.- Tom Joad, from Grapes of Wrath

2) Just like us: These are the characters we love. Like Tom they're all around. We can relate to them. They are everyday people like us.

True characters follow us as we live our lives.

They change things in the stories and they change us as we read. 

Like Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, we have all learned hard lessons growing up, lessons about the real world and the way it works, about what's good and true and what's worth fighting for. We know what its like to find out someone isn't who they seem to be. 

We may not have yacht parties and loads of servants like Jay Gatsby in The Grapes of Wrath, but we all have struggled with what it means to be liked. What lengths will we go to in order to be loved and accepted by others?

3) Quirky: Funny, unique, these characters dare to be different.

The main character in The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler is a travel guide writer with a twist, he despises leaving home. His books are devoted to those "homesick" tourists who are looking for a good armchair and an order of fish and chips while on their business trips. 

Nick is a recent Yale graduate, a bond salesman, living next-door to a millionaire. He and Gatsby are opposing characters in many ways. The surprising pairing of the two characters as neighbors and coincidental friends adds a depth to the novel.

4) A great backstory: These characters have a vivid past illustrated through small nuggets deposited here and there for the reader.

When you first meet Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre it is difficult to conceive of his past. As Jane uncovers terrifying details the reader is introduced to Mr. Rochester's past firsthand. 

Or what about Miss Havisham from Great Expectations who wears her wedding dress and mopes around her house for years for her long lost beau?

Next time around we'll discuss making your characters memorable in further detail.

What characters have you read about that "won't leave you alone"? Why are they so memorable? What can you learn from them to apply to your own characters? 


Susan Francino said...

That quote by Stephen King...SO TRUE...

Pepper said...

Fantastic points, Julia.

Memorable, quirky, backstory...YEP! LOVE!

Julia M. Reffner said...


Love On Writing!!


Thanks! You do great at writing quirky memorable characters yourself!

Casey said...

I LOVE a good backstory! It can be the main reason I really get into a book...what brought the character to this point and why. :)