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5 tips for developing memorable characters

Who are some of the most memorable characters you remember from books you’ve read? One character that always leaps to mind when I’m asked this question is Daemon Sadi from the Black Jewel novels. The way Anne Bishop describes him, the way he walks, talks and moves are amazingly detailed and evocative.

Late last year, while I was in the early stages of developing my novella Confession, Book One of the Sin-Eater Novella Collection, I wanted to ensure I had characters who were both memorable and well rounded. I didn’t want one-dimensional characters who blended in with one another. I achieved a sense of growth and development in the main characters to a varying degree of success. Still, I did make sure that each character was able to stand on their own two feet independently from the other characters around them.

Given I’m on hiatus from my day job – an excellent way of saying my company has shut down production while the COVID-19 decimates the Australian economy – I thought I’d explain how I went about developing a character blueprint for the characters in Confession.

5 tips for developing memorable characters

Tip 1: Inspiration

I don’t “see” things. I hear other authors talk about how they close their eyes and see scenes and images of their stories. I close my eyes, and I see sparkles of colour against a black background. I don’t see images, or visions, or snippets. Occasionally, I’ll hear something being said, but as for the writers’ tool of seeing it, it doesn’t happen. It never has. For me to be able to focus on what a character looks like and to keep it consistent, I need to have a visual image of someone who represents the character. In Confessions, for example, Emily’s Grandmother, Janice, was modelled on photographs of veteran actress, Oscar Winner Vanessa Redgrave. The elegance, the smoky voice, the sapphire blue eyes – which ended up being a running trait in Emily, her mother, brother and Grandmother – it all came to me based on the fact I heard a voice in my ear tell me Janice was regal, elegant and capable of dropping a house on a bitch if they crossed her. Once the image of Janice was fixed in my mind, I moved on to other characters. Each has a visual inspiration I used to draw the basic outline of the character.

Tip 2: Personalise your character

Each character has to have something that makes them stand out. It could be a wart or a habit of picking their ears. For Emily, it was a tendency to use only the best products and dress in only the most expensive fabrics. Even towards the end of the novel when she’s locked in a battle against the ghosts of her murdered relatives, she’s still wearing fancy, designer, clothes. For Emily, it’s all about the external validation. She’s rich, you need to know it. On the flip side of that, Father Eugene, dressed in his priestly uniform, wears highly polished black oxfords and a fedora. They’re his ‘thing,’ his personalisation of a dull black outfit with a white-collar. Another character who doesn’t really appear in the story outside of the funeral at the beginning is Gordon Wallace. He’s described as “the beak-nosed family lawyer with the clammy hands and high-pitched voice.” He, as a character, wasn’t at all critical to the story, so I didn’t have a tremendous amount of time to describe him. Honestly, I think his description is one of the most memorable in the entire novella.

Tip 3: Streamline the information we get as readers

As a writer, you discover pages of information on your characters, their likes, dislikes, favourite TV show, and whether they like classical music or K-Pop. Not all of the information you find out is going to be relevant to the story. In Confession, I found out Emily did whatever she could to annoy her Grandmother, including becoming a vegetarian. I had no idea of this until I started writing the scene where Emily was making lasagne. It was only as I wrote it that I discovered she was vegetarian, Why she was one, no one needed to know in the context of the book. One significant insight I learned in writing Confession was don’t scrimp on the background knowledge. I always thought this step was at best procrastination and at worst a waste of my time. Writing Confession, I realised trying to write a character without knowing their background is like trying to climb a mountain using only your tongue. It’s painful, you look stupid, and it’s not going to turn out well.

Tip 4: Clothes are important

Now, this should come across as a fairly obvious thing, but fun fact. I once wrote an entire fantasy novel draft and didn’t once mention clothing or what the characters were wearing. For all intents and purposes, I’d written the worlds first nudist fantasy novel. It’s crucial, as a writer, to take the time to fully explain what you can ‘see,’ so to speak. Clothes say as much about the character as to whether they wiggle their eyebrows or have a tendency to set fire to the family home when they don’t get their own way. I’ve already mentioned that Emily wears designer fashion and uses only the most expensive products as her way to force you to acknowledge her financial superiority. At the end of the day that all comes to mean nothing to her, but for most of the story, she unconsciously uses fashion as a suit of armour. Keep in mind that clothes are necessary and can say as much about your character as any other quirk or foible.

Tip 5: Keep it simple

I found when putting together the background information on my characters, it helped me to keep a cheat sheet. I could flick back to it and remind myself of a character detail or how they would react in a specific set of circumstances. Below is the final “cheat sheet” for Father Eugene to give you an idea of what I mean.

Father Eugene – Cheat Sheet

  • Short cropped, frizzy, salt and pepper hair;
  • Round face;
  • Weak chin;
  • Angular cheekbones;
  • Narrow nose;
  • Thick eyebrows;
  • Thin lips;
  • Strong jaw;
  • Wide Set eyes;
  • Grey eyes;
  • Pudgy;
  • Ruddy skin tone;
  • No birthmarks, tattoos or blemishes;
  • 6-foot 1 inch tall;
  • Wears a thick silver crucifix around his neck and a thick banded silver signet ring;
  • Priest clothes; black on black with the white clerical collar;
  • Carries a set of black onyx rosary beads in his pocket;
  • Harsh and forbidding voice, quite formal in the way he speaks;
  • Authoritative body language; tall, stands straight, steeples his fingers and rests his chin on them when he’s listening to you talk;
  • He smells like incense, patchouli or frankincense;
  • Believes 100% in the world as described in the bible and lives his life to its tenants;
  • Father Eugene has a small role to play in this story. He’s the one who is trying to save Emily from damnation as he’s the only one who truly knows what she is suffering from. Because of the sanctity of the confessional, he can’t say anything directly, but he tries to do the best he can to light a path for her to find salvation. He’s a gentle, kind and nurturing person.
    • Gentle – He exhibits his gentle nature through being soft-spoken, considerate and loving, speaking thoughtfully in a calm, comforting tone. Emily’s situation is a challenge for him because it presents him with a turmoil he can’t pray away;
    • Kind – Father Eugene goes out of his way to try and help Emily as she’s falling apart; he takes action – helping Gabriella to get Emily to the hospital and arranging for Emily to see a doctor; He’s a proactive man who is a good listener and believes in the good of others, even those lost in the darkness;
    • Nurturing – Father Eugene worries over the bad choices of the members of his congregation, making sure he does everything he can to make people feel loved and safe. He can’t help but reach out to Emily as he sees her pain and wants to help her to heal. His major challenge here is Emily refuses his help and ignores his advice.

If you’ve read Confession, or are considering it, let me know if you think Father Eugene, as described above, is the one who ended up in the novella.

My debut novella Confession – Book One of the Sin-Eater Novella Collection is available for download now at the following eBook retailers.

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