MEMORABLE CHARACTERS are at the heart of every good story. Yes, the plot must be tight and credible and there must be attention to the mechanics of good writing. But in the end, characters are what we remember: what they say, how they act, who they are.
It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.
There is no doubt Faulkner’s long sentences and often times disconcerting rambling stream of consciousness style can give one quite a headache because to even mention Faulkner forces one to abandon the sacred web writing rule of using short sentences but there is no doubt he understood the power of memorable characters. (Insert short sentence here so everyone’s brain can catch up.)
But how do some writers come up with the characters we remember so well? The better question would be, “How can some not?” Orson Scott Card observed, “Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.”
I don’t live or write in New York City or Katmandu but there are plenty of memorable characters in my relatively quiet town of Pensacola.
- Like the fellow who jogs almost every day of the year up and down the streets on the west side of town. Obviously a military vet, he runs stiff legged and shirtless proudly carrying an American flag in one hand.
- And then there is the Asian woman on the east side of town who walks everywhere dressed all in white from head to toe. All she seems to own is the large Walmart bag you never see her without. I once asked a long-time checker at the local Walmart what the mystery woman carried in her bag. “She stuffs it with more Walmart bags,” was the checker’s casual reply as though the answer made perfect sense.
- Anyone who has ever traversed Three Mile Bridge between Pensacola and Gulf Breeze, FL remembers Jesus waving at motorist seven days a week as he held a huge white cross. Well, not really Jesus but some guy who it made it his mission for years to stand on that hot bridge during the summer waving at locals and tourists alike with his signs of impending doom.
Characters don’t have to be quirky to be memorable. It may be your neighbor who has been nursing her dying husband for years. Of maybe it’s that kid you see every day walking alone to an empty house and then sitting for hours alone on the porch with his dog and a book. Or maybe a relative that left a lasting impression on your life like one I wrote about in Faded Eyes.
One writes out of one thing only–one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from the experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. – James Baldwin
No good story exists without memorable characters. My guess from experience is that every one of those characters had some basis in the life of the author. We all know those characters. It’s just as James Baldwin said, how deep and far am I as a writer willing to go to find the essence of that real life person and translate it into a character to be remembered in my stories?
I used to think most of us would like to know more about that strange man running with an American flag, or that little woman with all the Wal-Mart bags, or Pensacola Jesus baking in the hot August sun. But I have come to suspect differently. Knowing more about such people would mean slowing down, risking being misunderstood, and seeking to understand someone different than ourselves.
Maybe if we all quit being fooled by our own self-importance we would notice a little man sitting up in a tree. Perhaps it we weren’t in search a hurry to get home 10 minutes earlier we would stop and talk to that woman by a well in the noon day sun. You know, like the best observer of humanity ever and the Greatest Author of all.
Other thoughts about characters in the stories we read: