Yes, Unforgettable. Really.

Est. 8 min. read: We’re going to cover a lot of ground. You ready?

Unforgettable.Unforgettable is a HIGH bar.

And yet the word is thrown around like every two-bit post can deliver the secret, this indefiiiinable quality that will change your character into a legend if only in your reader’s mind.

Frankly, “unforgettable” has become a clickbait buzzword.

But the real meaning of the word is NOT completely lost…

Unforgettable.

An unforgettable character is one that can be recalled long after a story is finished.

Like Sherlock Holmes. Or R2D2. Or Kvothe.

Those names are taken. Forever.

Because the characters are unforgettable.

Creating such a character is the ultimate writerly achievement, creating a legacy, something that will live long after you’ve gone.

It seems impossible.

Utterly beyond your reach.

But.

Don’t let yourself aim low.

It might be tempting because you don’t think your character is in the same league as Sherlock or the others, but that’s a cop out.

You see…

Every character, even the ones you can think of off the top of your head, started as an idea.

And every writer started with underwhelming efforts.

Even better, there’s a rhyme and reason to what people find memorable.

The Real Key to Unforgettable Characters

Distinguish between underlying storytelling goals and narrower rules adopted to reach those goals.If we stick to one narrow technique, we impair the richness of character diversity.

If we rehash basics, there’s a gap left to leap.

(That’s the disparity you sense when you don’t even dare think of your characters as hopefuls for Sherlock’s league. It’s another universe entirely, right?)

We need to go deeper.

I believe in bridging that gap by looking at the factors that build toward our intention.

I believe in looking at the goals behind the rules.

…So we can transcend the rules.

Every intention, like creating unforgettable characters, has goals—objectives—that bring you closer to pulling it off.

The basics and rules alike exist to fulfill those goals.

Every goal can be met in a multitude of ways, using different techniques and traits and tools. The thing about using goals as our measuring stick is it doesn’t matter how you fulfill them as long as you do.

Let me demonstrate a few of the infinite ways to be memorable…

What makes us remember a character?

It might be a question of whether we would have handled a situation differently, a debate about what motivates them, a new perspective, a memorable way of speaking (Yoda!), or even a single great line or motivational speech.

Think of Aragorn. …Gavin Guile. …Lock Lamora. …Mat Cauthon.

We remember them for their secrets.

We remember them for their strengths.

We remember them for their lies. Their mistakes.

We remember moments. And impressions.

We remember the contradictions that spark our curiosity.

We remember what they’ve lost and what they sacrifice and what they miss terribly.

We remember what they made us feel.

And so when we write, we can look at the goals those things fulfill. In doing so, we expand our repertoire of unforgettablenesses even further, and make every tool count.

Buckle up, we’re about to go cruising down the goal highway.

Goals to Remember

The Real Key to Unforgettable CharactersWhether you want to write the next cult classic or literary classic, the same basic goals apply. The fundamental factors that cause the human mind to latch onto an idea don’t change.

Made to Stick identifies six factors that make ideas memorable.

And you can fulfill them any way you want.

But you need all of them working together to give your character a solid chance at being unforgettable.

Capisce?

Now let’s get to it.

1) Simple.

The IDEA of the character must be simple.—This does NOT mean the personality or delivery should be simple.

It’s best if this summary is vivid and has a built in intrigue factor, whether that’s irony or a hint that something isn’t right.

Harry Potter is the boy who lived.

Sherlock is the brilliant detective who isn’t technically a detective.

R2D2 is the expressive droid who can’t talk.

Kvothe is the kid too stinking clever for University.

You get the idea.

2) Unexpected.

Surprising your reader is of utmost importance, but it has to be done well.

Secrets are great at this.

(I have a suspicion that this is part of why protagonists are usually outshone by their counterparts. It’s hard to hide something with a POV character.)

I won’t share spoilers, but most of the characters I named earlier have rather large secrets. Even R2, when you think about it.

And especially Gavin Guile. WHEW!

But secrets aren’t the only way to include something unexpected.

The unexpected is the intrigue factor that I mentioned under #1. Contradictions, irony, the kind of confusion that makes you want to poke it (ahem, that’s called curiosity, MJ).

…Anything that hints that things aren’t the way you would expect.

But if you want to bring the BIG GUNS to bear, you need a complex character. Just sayin’.

3) Credible.

Believable would be a better word in this case.

Your character has to act according to their personality, situation, and beliefs. Period.

The writing has to show the reasonability of the action. The nuances and natural believability in showing the reason will outweigh anything you can say rationally.

Showing lends weight.

4) Concrete.

For characters, I interpret this as needing evidence of the personality.

Actions are concrete. So are words, body language, and senses.

Your reader sees who your character is through these things, including vicarious sensing that conveys emotion.

Like when a character gets a chill of fear, for a simple example.

Again, nuances and the fine strokes of showing are going to be a major leverage point.

5) Emotional.

Ooh, this is where it gets fun! Your character should be capable of the full range of emotions, but it doesn’t stop there.

You need MOMENTS.

I will never, ever, ever forget Commander Ironfist from the Lightbringer series, and it’s because of one specific moment that’s burned in my mind, one between him and his brother. A secret is revealed, and I turn into a bubble of tears.

Moments also help you make emotional elements—like desire, fear, enthusiasm, and regret—vividly concrete. (Oh look, the factors are overlapping again.)

6) Stories.

Let’s amend that to Arc.

We remember things through movement and happenings. We remember learning moments and unexpected changes in a person.

Remember how Han Solo came back to save Luke’s butt?

Teach. Give hope. And leave an indelible mark.

There’s More

There are secondary goals that help reach any goal.

For example, high-impact meaning and uniqueness both help multiple factors.

But either one can be handled wrong and botch everything.

(We cover good handling in the Character Foundations Workshop, fyi.)

The Tools

Every fundamental element of a character maps to one or more goals, every trait can be used to raise your character toward unforgettability, and every bit of characterization is a tool.

THIS is the bedrock upon which unforgettability stands.

This is where your character becomes embedded in their story, finds their voice, and becomes believable.

This is where the magic happens once you know what you’re aiming for.

Fear and desire fuel the goal and work against it, NOT respectively.

You need to know how to disguise and subtly reveal the deepest fear with a web of highly believable fears.

You need to know how to layer desires to create empathy and resonance.

Strengths and flaws provide opportunities for mistakes.

Yes, mistakes.

You need to know how the strength can affect the scope of the goal. (Doesn’t matter how strong it is.)

You need to know how your character’s coping mechanisms have allowed him to avoid facing his flaw.

And all of it fits together with inner conflict and character theme.

You need to know how to handle inner conflict believably.

You need to know how the theme shapes the character.

Add secrets and a quirk to make things interesting.

You need to know how secrets affect your character’s psyche.

You need to know how a quirk deepens a character, becoming more than symbolism.

All of that will flesh out the 5 Dimensions, but you’ll need more nuance to make it feel like you aren’t just creating a new stereotype.

Everything you aim for in your character will start here. These are the tools you will use to make your character unforgettable, because these are the things you will use to make your reader feel the story.

You have to make the reader forget the character is just a character before he can become compelling, let alone unforgettable.

Your Character’s Destiny Awaits

I want to challenge you, RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW.

Write women that are unforgettable, especially if you write fantasy.

Give them secrets that blow the reader’s mind and change the course of the book.

Give them flaws and inner conflicts that will haunt us.

Unforgettable characters aren’t unforgettable just because they have a dichotomy or just because they have a larger-than-life trait.

Unforgettable characters aren’t unforgettable just because they are strong.

…Strength alone is a low bar to set for our lady characters.

Is it her destiny to become lost in the crowd of strong women that writers are writing even now?

Or is it her destiny to OWN her name?

Are you inspired? Will you use the 6 factors as you write this week? Comment and tell me. 

~~The link for Made to Stick is an affiliate link, but won’t cost you a cent more. I link it purely because it’s amazing and you should read it. (Check your local library.)~~

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About MJ Bush

Developmental Editor.
Founder of Writingeekery with 10,000 monthly readers.
I help writers like you master the craft.

Comments

  1. Hi, Love your blog and thanks so much for all the very useful and succinct information.

    Just a head’s up! I tried to tweet this page; although the link opened Twitter, it didn’t bring the page with it. Maybe I have a dodgy connection at the moment, but then again, perhaps not. It’s hard to know.

    Thanks again!

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    • Gah! Disregard my previous comment please. It was indeed my internet. Love Aussie internet… not!
      Thanks again MJ.

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      • Hi Trixie. Thank you, it means a lot.
        And I appreciate the heads up either way. I’d rather have a false alarm than not be told if something really is wrong. :)

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  2. A fine overview of characters, and the intensity you write this with adds a lot.

    I wonder, is this a lead-in to a more detailed exploration of how these principles work? I’d love to see you dig deeper into just what makes a character “Credible” or “Concrete,” maybe a firm principle or a detailed seat-of-the-pants test. Characters is a topic that only a few writers cover in more than a few pieces at a time, and it seems like you want to do more.

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    • Hi Ken, good to see you. :)
      I suspect my email list will see some further exploration of these goals, but the upcoming posts are focused more on the employment of process goals to enhance our writing. Sure, the current focus is character creation, but at some point I want to bring it to bear on other areas as well. I simply want to go deeper here first. 😀

      (I should add, the participants in this pilot workshop will basically have full access to my brain during the course.)

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  3. Hi! This was pretty helpful and I’m definitely going to put these tips to use. I, myself, am really tired of those female protagonists who are strong without an effort. So I’ve decided to make my protagonist, a lazy, clumsy procrastinator like myself, and develop her from there to a stronger character. I want to start her of as the girl we all are, and the slowly and gradually, change her into what we all want to be. Here, a lot of character development will need to be done, and I can’t help but see how a lot of things can go wrong, but, I’m ready to take the risk.

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