278 – Memorable Characters
Hmm, who was that one character again? You know, the one that did the thing in that place? Ugh, if only they were easier to remember! That’s what we’re talking about today: making characters more memorable. We talk about sneaky tricks authors can use, like unusual verbal quirks or cool talismans, but we also talk about the fundamentals, like making your characters do memorable things. Plus, you get to find out what we think our own most memorable traits are.
Generously transcribed by Yzsekh. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m the woman and with me is…
Oren: The guy who hates everything
Wes: That other guy [Chris and Oren laughter] Come on guys [laughing]
Chris: I’m pretty sure you’re the literary guy. I’ll have you know.
Wes: Oh, that’s so sweet.
Chris: I asked everybody to think about if listeners didn’t know our names, how would they identify us and what would they remember about us, Oren is a guy who hates everything is probably appropriate [laughing].
Wes: That’s why he’s so much fun.
Chris: The guy who rants a lot.
Oren: I mean people do think that I hate everything. Like this is a thing that every once in a while I will run into people who are surprised when I talk about something I like cause they get the impression from me that I hate everything cause I like to critique stuff.
Chris: The answer to that is that we think everything has flaws and we’d like to talk about those flaws, but we don’t actually hate everything.
Oren: Although I do probably hate more things than the average person just as a rule [laughter]. So it’s not entirely inaccurate.
Chris: So that might be a distinctive feature that you have that somebody would remember.
Oren: They definitely would, and they do [Wes chuckles].
Chris: It’s true, in social situations Oren unusually marches in and then rants about the book that he’s reading and what he doesn’t like about it.
So pretty sure that is what people remember. Anyway, we’re talking about memorable characters and how to create them. At Mythcreants we generally call this characteristic distinctiveness, how distinct your character is, what makes them stand out. How strong of an impression do they make? If they’re really distinctive, that means they make a strong impression. How unique are they and ultimately how memorable they are?
Oren: And just a note, Chris, don’t think, I didn’t catch what you did there at the beginning where you were like, I’m the woman. I’m not saying nobody remembers you as that because your voice is pretty distinct compared to me in Wes’s. But I think the true connoisseurs of the podcast would definitely remember you as the insightful one.
Wes: Yes, yes.
Chris: Oh, Oh, that’s so sweet.
Oren: Don’t think I was gonna just let you get away with that [laughter].
Chris: If somebody is familiar with me from the blog, and particularly might be thinking about me as the conceptual abstract one who doesn’t like examples, only likes concepts [chuckling].
Oren: I know at least one person thinks of you as inappropriately impertinent.
Chris: as opposed to Oren “has an agenda” Ashkenazi.
Wes: [laughing] I know we’re having fun, but this is a good thing to do in stories, and we’re talking about giving your characters epithets, a descriptive name. For example, in the The Chronicles of Prydain, The Black Cauldron in Book of Three, he’s Taran the assistant pig keeper.
Chris: Oh, I love that title so much. A perfect way to give your protagonist spinach at the beginning of a story because an assistant pig keeper, that’s not a glorious title. So it makes him really sympathetic, but it’s also really distinct, and I think he gets it in the beginning because he wants a title, and so then his mentor figure’s like, ‘Oh, here you’re the assistant pig keeper’. It’s a glorious title.
Wes: Which is great because the pig that he’s, you know, the assistant to keeping is an oracle pig or an oracle pig who can see the future.
Chris: That’s a good point. This is actually an important pig. This role is more important than it seems.
Wes: I think epithets like that, they’re just wonderful. Different settings and worlds and stuff can make better use of them. But descriptive names are good because names are hard to remember.
Chris: That’s why we tell you if the character is not important, then we don’t name them, her mother or brother the secretary, it’s just way easier to remember than trying to keep track of tons and tons of names for people who aren’t important.
Oren: And you know what is easy to remember? Doing stuff cause we were just talking about how the things people will probably remember us for on this podcast is what we do on the podcast. Cause Chris is always analyzing and I’m always hating and Wes is always talking about literary stuff.
Wes: I was going to say ‘and Wes is always there’.
Oren: [laughter] No, stop. Rude. So if your characters are doing stuff in the plot, your characters are much easier to remember. And that’s why when I read a book like The Goblin Emperor, I was annoyed by how much more easily I could remember the male characters because they all had jobs and did stuff.
I was like, oh, that’s the prime minister and that’s the general, even though I couldn’t remember any of their names, I could not for the life of me, remember which woman was which, because none of them do anything. They’re all just around. One of them, I think was kind of into the main character, but that was the closest any of them had to any kind of distinctive actions.
It wasn’t that their personalities were all the same. When I was reading their dialogue, I could tell, okay, this is a reasonably distinctive dialogue, but I just couldn’t remember who this was. Because none of them ever did anything other than talk occasionally. This is a thing that I’ve discovered is that if you want your heritage to be memorable, they should do stuff, cause it’s much easier to remember a character who does things.
We remember the girl from Jurassic Park way more than we remember the little boy because she is active in the plot and hacks the system and uses what turns out to be an actual user interface from some period of time. Whereas the boy mostly doesn’t.
Chris: He gets electrified once. That’s what I remember about him.
Oren: That’s his most memorable sequence is that he gets electrified. For most of the story he’s just kind of around.
Chris: A lot of distinctiveness is also about just making the traits stand out more. Sometimes exaggerating them. I think a really good example is Harry Potter, the characters’ distinctiveness is their primary strength.
They are more distinctive than they are anything else. They tend to be missing other things like depth and complexity. Being distinctive and memorable is not the only factor in making a good character, but they do fairly well, just on distinctiveness. There’s no mix up between how Hermione acts versus Ron versus Draco.
Harry is a little blander because he’s the blank protagonist, but for the most part, you’re never going to mix up these characters personalities. They all have a very unique way about doing things and say things differently.
Wes: How would you describe Ron’s distinctiveness?
Chris: Honestly, the first thing that comes to my head is Ron is an asshole [Wes laughter].
Ron needs help. He doesn’t like to actually do work. He’s bad at things. He has a whole bunch of negative characteristics. It’s not as distinct as Hermione, but there are a number of things that he does, including just not being nice.
Oren: The way that I remember them is that Hermione knows stuff, Harry does stuff and Ron’s a jerk. [laughter] Those are the traits of those three main characters, and Ron is definitely the weakest of them, hot take I guess [laughter].
Wes: My coworker said, ‘Oh, Ron’s distinctive because he’s the lesser Harry’. Yeah. Harry’s not great at this Wizarding world, but he’s new to it and Ron is just kind of bad.
Chris: Ron does make a big deal about Ron being in Harry’s shadow. I can see where that impression came from, but Harry’s just never a jerk like Ron is.
Wes: I was trying to think of a more positive association that I could broaden out for what makes Ron memorable. Cause I was trying to think of generalized items and so we talked about epithets earlier and he gets his introduction with Harry and then they go to school.
And Ron’s largely most memorable characteristic is that he’s a Weasley. They really draw attention to that. And so he’s memorable by association, which is interesting because like, Crabbe and Goyle are memorable because of their just association. There’s nothing really distinct about those two guys.
Chris: I mean, certainly they blurred together.
Wes: They’re just Draco’s henchmen. Ron’s more than a side character, but association is kind of a nice, easy way to like remember people kind of like what Warren was saying about jobs and things like that is if it’s kind of clear where they stand or who’s on their team, that can help.
Chris: I think it’s also worth adding that they all have a distinctive look. Harry with his green eyes and black hair and scar, Hermione with her brown, bushy hair, Ron with his bright red hair and freckles.
Oren: Although in the movies have somewhat made that a little less clear, Hermione now looks like Emma Watson and not the way I imagined her [laughter].
Here’s a small thing you can do to make your characters more memorable.
Don’t give them names that sound similar or look similar on the page because I’m reading through some of The Wheel of Time now because I’m a masochist. There are these two characters named Gawyn and Galad. And I cannot for the life of me remember which is which, and they hang out together a lot. It doesn’t help that they’re both very similar.
They’re both upright do gooders, one of them is supposed to be too good, which is the book’s way of foreshadowing that he’s going to join the crypto-fascist militia later. At this moment when they are first introduced, they are almost exactly the same. They’re also both very attractive. And so I can’t remember which of them is talking when they show up.
I’m like, oh God, who is this? Cause it kind of matters cause one of them knows things. The other one doesn’t. And I don’t know who this is.
Chris: And it’s interesting how different it is when it comes to mixing up names between what is on the page, if you’re reading it or if you’re listening to it, if it’s on the page, whether the shape of the word, whether it has ascenders like a T or an L or descenders like a P, that matters cause it changes the shape of the word.
But then if you change it to auditory, it’s a lot more like what kind of vowel sounds do we have? Either way, just giving the name a different first letter goes a long way.
Wes: Also, different number of syllables is also helpful.
Oren: So in more substansive advice, I would say that giving your characters contrasting personalities is a good way, especially if they are major characters who are on screen a lot together.
Chris: If you’re creating a team, usually contrasting them against each other is really great. It creates more interesting interactions. It creates more conflict in scenes that would otherwise not have as much conflict because an enemy isn’t around.
Oren: This is actually a problem with the MCU, is that they have so many characters who are the quipsters that it starts to get a little weird when those characters are in a room together.
You know, I need a little break between my quips, okay. You got Spiderman and Tony Stark and Star Lord, they’re all in the same room and they’re all quipping and it’s like, okay, calm down. Calm down.
Chris: Yeah. The quipping doesn’t stand out anymore. Right? The whole landscape, knowing what’s in your genre and out there in general does make a difference.
People compare your character not just to other characters in the story, but to other characters in other works. I’m not saying that you should try to make a character that’s 100% unique because that’s impossible. Be realistic about this. I don’t think that you, for instance, should try to avoid making a character that reminds anybody of any well-known character in any story anywhere.
That’s not going to work out. If yours is a very common character archetype, a character type out there, you can do your best to steer away from that or do something that’s just used less often. One way you can do that, of course, is that there were some people who just aren’t covered very often at all in stories in general.
When’s the last time you had a story where the main character was homeless or a social worker, or there are certain people, we just don’t make the heroes of our stories often enough.
Oren: And I actually can think of an example of a story with a homeless protagonist, and I’m not doing this to be snarky and be like, ‘Oh, but there is one Chris’.
Chris: [laughs] Like every commenter.
Oren: It’s because it’s a perfect example because I remember him. This is the character from The Sword of Summer. The main character starts off homeless, and it’s so unusual that I remembered it. Now it has some issues cause you get the distinct impression that this character is homeless because he is too proud to ask his relatives to stay with them.
Which I’m not gonna say that’s impossible. But I just feel like the book is kind of underestimating how much it sucks to be homeless. Even then, I still just remembered that cause it was so weird.
Chris: There’s a lot more tendency to have main characters who have more power and privilege. Our stories are more likely to be about privileged people, also generates less sympathy.
It can be really good to try to make your story about types of people who don’t have their stories told. Not that you should co-opt somebody else’s story, but telling a story from the perspective of somebody who is not the hero often can be very helpful.
Oren: We should mention that we really discourage trying to use marginalized traits to make a character more memorable.
You should have marginalized characters in your stories because it’s the right thing to do, and because diverse casts are inherently better than non-diverse ones in most cases. You probably shouldn’t try to make your character super memorable because of their race or gender or ability status because that way lies bad things.
It’s very easy to go from that to being a caricature, especially if you yourself are not a member of that marginalized group. I don’t recommend that.
Chris: Yeah. Let’s talk about stereotypes for a bit, and I specifically want to talk about iZombie because again, character traits, if we don’t do it well, a lot of times are used for novelty and that’s good, but you don’t want to take somebody’s inherent demographic characteristics and use those for novelty. Cause that looks really bad.
So the premise of iZombie is we have a main character who is a zombie. That’s great. That’s memorable. Obviously zombie, that’s becoming common, as we have more stories about zombies, we have more characters have zombie traits instead of zombies just walking around braaiins.
But still, it’s very memorable to have a main character who is a zombie, and she eats brains and she works in a morgue [chuckles], where she has some availability to eat brains, but she tends to solve crimes because when she eats somebody’s brain, she gets some of their memories, which helps her solve the crime, but she also gets some of their personality characteristics temporarily.
What the show has done as it has used that to create a per episode novelty factor. She’ll eat part of the brain of an old woman, and then she’ll act like a cranky old woman for the episode. It’s a very stereotypical manner that is not respectful to the people. There was one where she ate the brain of an Asian dude. It was a racist episode. It was not good.
Oren: Oh no.
Chris: It was very cringe-worthy. So the lesson here is that you have to be careful about using people for novelty, using real traits, of real people of demographic characteristics and trying to do some to get all of the novelty distinctiveness that you can because you’re going to make it disrespectful because to somebody who has those traits, that’s not a quirk. That’s not fun and entertaining. That’s just who they are.
So those things should always be normalized. They should never be used in that kind of manner. It’s a lot easier to use somebody’s career, for instance, in that manner than their inherent demographic characteristics.
Oren: Another thing that can be really useful for making character more memorable is making them likable [Wes chuckles].
If I like a character, I am much more likely to remember who they are. And I’m not just talking about Murderbot, but I am definitely talking about Murderbot.
Chris: [laughing] Murderbot is also very distinctive. I’ve been talking about the Murderbot series a lot. They’re called the Murderbot Diaries specifically, because Murderbot is a character that has what I would consider the three tenants of likability, just all maxed out.
This is like a best case scenario for a likable character. Murderbot is very selfless and very sympathetic and very novel. Specifically, Murderbot is a construct who has both biological and machine components. Therefore, an unusual character, and that distinctiveness and novelty that comes from that is part of Murderbot’s appeal.
Oren: Another cautionary tale to keep in mind is that being memorable doesn’t automatically mean the character is good. There are some characters that I remember because I hated them and one of them to not be in the story. Like Chris and I are watching Fruits Basket right now and they just introduced a new pervert character.
Who is always going around verbally harassing women into a certain extent, physically harassing them, and I hate him. I remember him because I hate him so much and I hate every moment he’s on screen, especially because all the other characters are more memorable for good reasons.
Chris: Yeah. It’s like Mineta in my Hero Academia. Mineta is the worst character. Nobody likes him. Why can’t we just take him out of the show?
Oren: Yup. I will never forget Mineta but that’s not a good thing.
Wes: Small little things can help. I mentioned association. I mentioned epithets, a talisman and a character that possesses a talisman can be more memorable. A talisman in this instance would be an article of clothing, a piece of jewelry, some item that the character possesses.
And for example, if we’re going into the Book of Three, The Chronicles of Prydain, two characters are most known for their talismans. There’s Fflewddur Fflam, and he has the harp that strings will break when he lies, which is great because he also has a very just quirky manner of speaking that makes him memorable, but also Eilonwy has her bauble. It’s some kind of glowing sphere that lights up and that makes her quite memorable. Also she’s memorable because she’s the ego deflator of Teran. Every time he starts thinking he’s cool, she just shoots him down, which is great.
I was thinking about in The Black Cauldron, and there’s a character who doesn’t survive the first half. His name’s Adaon, but he has a crystal that offers insight and Taron gets Adaon’s gem after he dies from a Huntsman attack. It’s kind of like, ‘what do you remember about the character? Oh, okay, well, I remembered that character had this item and this item was important in some way’, and so that talisman is kind of like an external representation of the character.
Chris: It’s also very iconic visually, the bauble, it’s like this round glowing orb. It’s different than the rest of the setting. The harp that strings breaking and crystal like, these are all very iconic things.
Wes: What also is great about it being a physical object like this is if the character is missing, but another character possesses the talisman, it’s kind of a good way to keep that other character around because of so much symbolic significance that the talisman has for the other character. I think that that can be done well. You don’t necessarily need to make your main character have a talisman because your main character is probably already memorable because of her goal or quest. There’s enough going on for the main character but side characters benefit from this.
Chris: I do think characters that appear more briefly do have to be a little more distinct. If you go all in on making your character super distinct and unique some of the risks is that they will come off as a caricature because you’ve exaggerated them so much, they don’t seem like a real person.
But depending on the length that this character is going to be around for, how long the story is, if you have more time, it’s easier to develop a character that is distinct and memorable, but it’s still pretty complex and deep at the same time. Whereas if the story is shorter, you don’t really have time for that. I actually have this one story, Hellgate Incident 24, it got a lot of comments about how the characters in there feel so real and their mannerisms are based on people in the workplace, in real life, which makes a difference, but they’re actually written like caricatures.
They’re definitely exaggerated from how real people behave, but it’s a very short story that’s composed entirely of emails. So there would have been no way for those characters to make an impression unless I exaggerated those real behaviors I’d seen.
Oren: And by the same token, if that had been a longer story, having characters who were always talking that way, and a caricature of their archetype would have gotten annoying, I suspect.
Also, just for the record, y’all erased Gurgi and his wallet while you were talking.
Chris: [laughing] No.
Wes: But the point is, Gurgi gets the wallet at the end of the first book. I contend that while Gurgi has a talisman Gurgi is mostly memorable A for being a Gurgi.
I think he’s kind of a Yoda in that respect. It’s unclear what he is, he’s Gurgi, but he gets crunching and munchings. He has like a verbal quirk and also he’s always hungry. I think that makes him more memorable.
Oren: I’d honestly forgotten he didn’t start with that.
Wes: He gets it at the end, is kind of a reward because he’s always hungry.
There’s a point where some of the other characters, but they don’t really have any food, and so Gurgi’s feeding everybody from his wallet of ever food, but they find out that it’s not that satisfying, which I think is like a great thing. It’s like, here’s your magical item. It’ll always give you food. You’re not going to really like it though. Gurgi liked it. Nobody else did.
Chris: Gurgi does not have a very like picky palate there. Gurgi just likes food. That’s what matters. Everybody else is like, ‘okay, it’s food. It will fill us up. It will allow us to travel without the story being bogged down by the logistics for how we get food all the time while we’re traveling, but it’s just not very good food. And we would really rather eat something else, but if we don’t have anything else, then we can have that’.
Wes: I’m going to specifically talk about Gurgi, Fflewddur and Doli the dwarf, because at the end of that book, they all get something. Gurgi gets his wallet. It goes along with his crunches and munchings and now he has his food. Fflewddur is the one with the harp talisman and his verbal quirk is that he exaggerates in lies and so his heartstrings break, and so his gift is one string that will never break. That is kind of an interesting play on his talisman already. Doli is memorable because when he’s introduced in the story, he barely talks to any of them and whenever he’s asked a question or frustrated, he just holds his breath.
And turns purple cause he’s holding his breath so hard and then they find out that he’s mad that he can’t turn invisible cause all the other dwarves in his family can hold their breath and turn invisible. So at the end of the first book. He gets his wish and he can hold his breath and make him invisible. But then when he comes back in the next story, we learned that going invisible makes his ears buzz and hurt. And so then he starts bringing in more verbal quirks about bees and hornets, swarms of them and stuff like that. So he’s still agitated, but for like different reasons.
Chris: Instead of watching him turn purple, now we’re hearing him complain about all of the hornets in his ears.
Wes: It’s five books and they’re well planned out, but how he’s taking what’s initially memorable and changing them as it’s going through the story is kind of a fun way to keep your attention.
Oren: I mentioned contrasting personalities earlier. I wanted to give a pretty interesting example, which is actually Mando from the Mandalorian.
I think Mando on his own would be very boring and not really relatable or interesting or even very memorable because he’s stoic and has no facial expressions, but pairing him with baby Yoda is where the memorability comes from. I really feel like I have a super strong image in my head of who Mando is, and almost all of that comes from interactions with Baby Yoda.
If it was just Mando being a cold, silent bounty hunter, I would be asleep. I would just be like, ‘yeah, I guess he was going to go and punch somebody [snoring, Chris and Wes laughing]’. Instead he’s like, ‘no, stop playing with my spaceship, Baby Yoda’. ‘Okay, fine. You can have this little knob that can be your toy now’. Beautiful. I love it.
Chris: I really think Baby Yoda was just stroke of genius from wherever storyteller came up with that.
It was the perfect solution to this protagonists they had that had to be mysterious kind of by necessity. It’s like how do you build attachment to a character that is supposed to be mysterious? Normally, protagonists are not mysterious [chuckling].
Oren: it’s not that Mando is completely unmemorable without Baby Yoda. There are a couple of instances like when he uses sign language to talk with the Tusken Raiders and gets through their territory without violence. That’s very memorable and I’ll remember him forever for doing that because. In the Star Wars onscreen universe. I don’t think anyone’s ever done that before.
There are a lot of books where people talk to the Tusken Raiders, but as far as the live action films and now TV show go, the Tusken Raiders when they appear have always been treated as auto agro bandits. Now, having someone talk to them and treat them like human beings is just so, Whoa, my mind is blown!
That was very memorable thing for him to do because in that case, that wasn’t even necessarily. The thing that it said about his character, although it does also say cool things about him, it was that he was doing something memorable.
Chris: Doing things, show, not tell!
Wes: And show, doing things that are different from the normal things.
Chris: Before we go, I just want to mention that in our future podcast, we will be covering the Hugo finalists. The novels. Oren has actually already read all of them, he had a headstart. When they were announced he had already read four, Wes and I are getting through as many as we can, but then we’re going to be discussing them on future podcasts.
So that is coming. We will have much to say on these. If you are reading any or planning to please join us or if you just want to hear what we think about, novels that are up for awards. Spoilers: We don’t love lots of them.
Wes: I wonder what the guy who hates everything is going to say about it.
Oren: [laughter] Ooh, it’s a mystery.
All right, so we’re going to have to call this ups to a close. Thank you everyone for listening. If anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory and star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber, who is a urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Denita Rambo and she lives at therambogeeks.com talk to you next week.
Mythcreants is free, but the fairy dust and anti-matter we feed on isn’t help us out by going to patreon.com/mythcreants.
Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself, by Jonathan Colton.