Why is Cecil from the Final Fantasy Universe so beloved? How did Harry Potter become one of the most recognizable characters on the planet? What makes a character so memorable? Is it the story? Perhaps. Let’s see if we can pick out just a few things to answer that age old question, “Why are they so cool?”
The Creation: So much goes into the creation of a character beyond just looks. You must consider the name, the personality, their goals, passions, values, and background. A lot of what you do might never make it into the actual story, the reader my never see it. You, however, need to know it. Show as much as you can that is relevant, but don’t turn your story into a fictional biography.
Name: Names are symbolic and represent a lot about your character. When I choose I name I often think of: Does it sound good? What does it say about the character at a glance? Does the last name flow from the first name? Is it unique? Too unique no one can pronounce it?
For extremely important characters I will consider what the name means. Now, I don’t do this for everyone I create, I’d go nuts! Over the course of my writings I have upwards of 200 major characters with unique stories and backgrounds and to hammer out the perfect name with the perfect meaning would be too much. You don’t have to consider the meaning for every character, but it would be a good idea to seriously think about it for the players that you want to send a certain message.
Look at the name Voldemort. Sounds cool, easy to pronounce, but it has lots of meaning behind it. It breaks down into two words, “Volde” meaning “cause” and “mort” meaning “death”. “Cause death” is a pretty awesome name for a Dark Wizard bent on wrecking the world.
Try to change up the names of all the characters in the same story, similarity can make some forgettable. For example: Anna, Ann, Ashley, Amanda, Adam. No one really stands out, you can get them confused, and then the reader has to do more work about finding the differences between them all. (Re-reading passages about the character descriptions, thus breaking their connection with the story.)
Try something like: Anna, Kate, Samantha, Brittany, Joshua. If your character names are diverse and aren’t really similar to each other, the reader has to do less work in figuring out who you’re talking about.
Try also to avoid putting in several complex and intense names. I understand writers want to build up a world, have unique characters, and set themselves apart, but having many difficult or long names can be hard to keep track of and remember. A simple name can go a long way.
Personality: This is one of the most important steps to making a memorable character. Your character doesn’t have to be “one of the good guys” to be memorable. Above all your character needs to be relatable.
Don’t fall into the fallacy of “generic = good” because you think more people will relate and put themselves in place of your character. Why do you hang out with a particular friend or family member more than others? Who is your confidant for personal struggles or decisions? Can you see yourself replacing that confidant with just anyone? I can’t. Stay away from generic major characters. Give them unique interests, skills, hobbies. For example: Harry Potter plays Quidditch and he’s actually really good at it! Lots of people like sports and Quidditch is most definitely a sport. Harry is relatable to people who are athletic or enjoy sports.
We’ll care about your character because they care about the things we care about.
The fallacy of equal opposition: A lot of people believe that each conflict, whether external or internal need to be proportionately equal to their hero or villain. This is false. That doesn’t make a memorable character in of itself, nor is it always good for storytelling. A good story is something that makes us feel and pulls us in.
What times in your life do you remember the most? When you stood on equal footing against a trial or struggle or when you were presented with something almost insurmountable and were able to win against it? People are going to relate to that. They will remember it.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the appeal of Yin and Yang characters; it’s like Batman and the Joker. But there’s more to Batman than just the Joker, isn’t there? Batman has a host of other villains and struggles that, when they are combined, far outweigh his own power. Feel free to go with a Yin and Yang thing as a subplot, but exercise caution in making it the central focus of the story.
The flawed character: This one should go without saying. Nobody is perfect. The most memorable characters have their flaws or quirks that set them apart from others. These traits can get them into trouble or make a situation worse and help make your character believable, three dimensional.
A theme song: This is personal preference but I’ve found it to be pretty helpful in creating central characters. For one character I listen to A Perfect Circle’s: Outsider, The Noose, Weak and Powerless, Puscifer’s Humbling River, and Tool’s Schism. While another character may be something else entirely, like AC/DC.
When I choose songs for the character it reflects the struggles they are facing, have faced, and will face, as well as their attitude on certain subjects. Once I have a theme song I branch out and explore how they would feel about other topics based on what they felt about another, related topic.
The character should fit the story: This can be subjective to the kind of writing you want to do. Let’s say you have a character who is always first to volunteer, a go-getter, confident, skillful, strong, and never backs down. In your story however, you want to write about someone, maybe similar to Bilbo Baggins, who is small, doesn’t want anything to do with an adventure, but becomes the stuff of legends at the end. It might be a good idea to take your first character and make him part of the supporting cast or, if you really want the story to be about him, put him in a different story so you can have more character development.
If there are key points you want to hit and develop with a character, make sure they don’t have qualities or attributes that already show they have those key points. (E.g. a brilliant mathematician going back to school to learn math.)
If your character is relatable, has something to be admired, and unique among your character cast, then you’re off to a good start.