How To Write Memorable Characters

by Gary Smailes

in Improve your book,Writing tips

In this article I will show you how to create memorable characters using four key elements. If you weave these elements into the characters that populate your novel you will avoid producing one dimensional and easily forgotten stories.

I recently wrote an article called How To Write Effective Dialogue In Your Novel which examined how using characterization can help you to write better dialogue. Wiki defines characterization as ‘the process of conveying information about characters in narrative or dramatic works of art or everyday conversation. Characters may be presented by means of description, through their actions, speech, or thoughts’. I often try to explain this on a more simplistic level by suggesting that characterization is the demonstration of a character’s internal dialogue and hidden belief system. What makes a character fascinating, is not predictable behaviour, but instead complex and occasionally contradictory behaviour, driven by deep, and often hidden, character traits.

In this article I will show you how, by using four key elements, you can build these character traits and, as a result, write characters that display complex and interesting behaviour.


Conflict is the key that you will use to unlock your character’s inner thoughts, allowing you to write the kind of scenes that will live in your reader’s minds. Conflict is not war, or violence or fighting (though it can be!) In this context, conflict is the tension that exists between a character’s internal belief system and the character’s words and actions in the world in which they live. As a character negotiates events, conflict will produce interesting and unpredictable reactions.

For Example:

Imagine that when planning your novel, you decided that your main character would have a lifelong fear of dogs. You decided that when he was a small baby he was bitten by a dog and now has a fear that is so imbedded in the character’s belief system, that it operates on a sub-conscious level. This is a driving force that will influence your character’s reactions to events. The character’s reaction to dogs may well be in conflict with other desires. It is also a driving force that you never have to explain, has little to do with the plot but makes your character unpredictable. Your character has an inbuilt internal dialogue. It is now easy to imagine a scene in the novel where your main character must go into a deserted house, but the presence of a small dog makes this impossible. In fact, any scene in which a dog is present will produce unpredictable reactions from your main character as a conflict exists between concious desired outcome and an unconscious fear of dogs.

This example is fairly simple, but imagine what happens when you build in traits such as racism, or chauvinism or even a fear of peanuts. All add conflict and ultimately interest for the reader.

There are three levels of conflict:

  • Inner: This is a protagonist’s internal thoughts, feelings and belief system.
  • Personal: This is relationships with friends and family.
  • Extra-personal: This is Society as a whole.

INNER conflict is the conflict that exists between a character’s thoughts and reality. This is the inner dialogue that will predict how characters will react to events. A character’s external dialogue (speech) will not always match their inner dialogue. A character will often say one thing but do another. PERSONAL conflict is the character’s relationship with the people that populate their world. This is the interpersonal conflict that exists between people, family, friends, enemies and strangers. EXTRA-PERSONAL is conflict between the protagonist and Society as a whole. This is the conflict that sees super heroes clash with police, soldiers fight off invading armies and spacemen fight aliens.

You can read more about conflict in this article called Why Understanding Conflict Will Make You A Better Writer.


The second essential element to building memorable characters is backstory. In fact, backstory goes hand-in-hand with conflict. If solid, a backstory, together with careful use of conflict will allow you to present a complex and textured character.

Backstory is everything about your character that is not directly relevant to the plot. In fact, the example we gave for conflict (fear of dogs) is actually backstory. The rule of thumb is that all major characters should have a backstory, though it is normally only the protagonist (and perhaps a couple of supporting characters) that have in-depth and complex back stories. When developing the backstory you are looking to paint a detailed picture of the character’s likes, dislikes, habits and thought patterns, as well as key events in their lives. This can be the fears, likes and dis-likes, but also birth dates, names of siblings and place of work.

However, one trap you must avoid is to over use your backstory. Unless directly relevant to the plot, you should NEVER tell the reader the backstory. Instead, the backstory (or a very small slice of the backstory) should be scattered SPARINGLY throughout the narrative. It should be revealed through actions, thoughts and snippets of dialogue. The backstory is something to be alluded to in conversation, it should never take centre stage, but instead skulk behind the curtain only ever showing a glimpse of its full form to the reader.


The third element is surprise, which is produced as a direct result of conflict and backstory. The idea of surprise isn’t a character jumping out of a cupboard shouting, “BOO!” Instead, it is the concept that the way your character reacts to events is unpredictable to the reader, and therefore more interesting. A well-formed backstory will produce its own conflicts for the main character. The result is that you (the writer) are the only person with full access to the character’s motivations and therefore, you are the only person that can predict how the character will react in any given situation. This produces surprise. Since the reader is never fully aware of the main character’s hidden driving forces, the reader will never be able to fully predict the main character’s reaction to any given event.

Small dogExample: Let’s go back to our character who is scared of dogs. Perhaps he is a policeman hunting a serial killer. Let’s say you have built up the character as a man who will never stop pursuing the killer until he is captured. You have established the policemen as a man of honour, proud of his reputation as an unrelenting seeker of justice. Now imagine a scene in which the main character is pursuing a serial killer. The scene pops up close to the end of the book when the reader senses the climax is looming. The policeman has to flush out the killer from a deserted house and now chases him through the city streets. He is hot in the heels of the killer, gun in hand. Surely this is the moment of resolution? Capture is inevitable. Then, suddenly, the killer nips into an alley. The policeman follows just a few paces behind… then stops, frozen to the spot. He can only stand and watch as the killer escapes into the darkness. Why did he let the killer go? Well, tied to a lamppost is a small, yappy dog. The policeman is too scared to go past. The writer knows he is scared of the dog and his reaction is perfectly in line with the character’s backstory. However, the reader, who is unaware of the backstory, is surprised by the character’s reaction to the event.


The final piece to the jigsaw for writing memorable characters is voice. The concept here is simple, your main character (and in fact all major characters) should have their own voice. No two people speak in the same way. We all have our own mannerisms, accents and phrases of choice. Your main character should also have a speech pattern that sets them aside from the other characters.

Once again this is all about control. I am not suggesting you add heavily accented speech or so much local slang that the character becomes painful to read. What I am suggesting is that you should make an effort to distinguish the speech patterns of all your major characters.

One mistake many writers make is to produce characters that not only all sound the same, but all speak in the same way as the writer. The key is to ‘listen’ to your characters. One tip that may help is to develop some stock phrases and sentences that you would like them to use. Write them down and then sprinkle them through your dialogue. Use your backstory to add phrases that relate to certain situations. For example, our dog-hating-policeman might never refer to dogs as ‘dogs’, but instead always call them ‘flea bags’.

Next Action…

If you do nothing else after reading this article I suggest that you carefully consider the backstory of your main character. Set aside a separate document dedicated to recording the backstory. In this document make a list of the major and minor events and inner drivers that will dictate your character’s reactions to events. Do include birth dates, family trees and workplace details, but also fears, likes and dislikes. Only when you ‘know’ your protagonist and can predict how they will react to any given situation, are you ready to write a memorable character.

  • Rochelle

    Hi! Just FYI, “wiki” is a technology, not the name of a site. A wiki is a website that can be collaboratively edited with versions of each page recording the changes. There are many kinds of wikis, and many (many many) wikis on the internet. When you say “wiki”, you clearly mean “wikipedia,” which is a site of it’s own. You’re essentially saying “Book says” and expecting that to make sense.

  • Anonymous

     This is what Wiki has to say about wiki:

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