“Seven(ish) Techniques for Unforgettable Characters,” by L. Gilbert Heedyn

Jan 6th, 2010 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

As part of my writing self-help series, “Great writing while sedated,” today I will discuss seven-ish techniques for crafting unforgettable characters.

1. Name names

Your character must have a name. As a writer you will find it really helps giving your character a name as a way to distinguish them from other characters (note: you should also give your other characters names).  For example, the opening sentence of Herman Melville’s novel “Moby Dick” would have been hampered somewhat if it began: “Call me old what’s-his-face.” Doesn’t quite have the same ring as whatever the fellow’s name was, I can’t remember of the top of my head right now, but you get the point.

2. Natural gestures

The importance of naturalistic gestures cannot be over-emphasised, or for that matter under-emphasised. If the reader doesn’t believe the gesture they probably won’t believe you get paid to write the stuff (the title of my first book actually was: “Yes, I Get Paid to Write This Crap,” self-published). Now take the protagonist of my most recent book, Simon H. Sghutyututt II (Egyptian-Welsh), his signature gesture is to slap his forehead while making the noise of a monkey getting an enema: RARRRRRRRRRRGH ARH RRRRRRRRGH. Through 15 gruelling days and 23 failed efforts, I can confirm that monkeys receiving backyard enemas do indeed generally make that sound, when they’re not scratching your eyeballs out.

The non-gesture gesture is also very powerful. Try writing about your character making no distinct movement at all just, you know, sitting there. Maybe they’re lolling in the back of a desert caravan, maybe they’re reclining on an intergalactic spacecraft being sucked into a rupture on the space/time continuum. It doesn’t matter so long as you have them doing nothing of particular interest.

3. Minor characters

Think of all the great books and all the great characters from the past century, Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby, Leopold Bloom from Ulysses, or Bernie from Weekend at Bernie’s (the film to novel version). Now picture how much more interesting those books would be by adding an alien!

For example, Jay Gatsby is flitting through another one of his decadent parties when in walks a green, long-necked alien wearing a charcoal pin-striped suit. The alien, let’s call him Philip, invites Gatsby for a ride in his new car. Bam! Now you’ve got narrative tension, interest, and possible probing. What more could you ask for from a novel or the novelised version of a movie?

4. Obstacles

The strength of your characters can be measured by the obstacles they must overcome. Hurdlers make great characters because they are always leaping over obstacles. Mountain climbers make pretty good characters too. Consideration should be given to the type of obstacle you place in front of your character. Usually, when the narrative pace is starting to slow I will have a meteor land in front of my character. If the story needs a bit of pep, I have it land on them.

5. Consistency

Keep your characters consistent, but make them unpredictable, while still being consistent.

6. The Discomfort Zone

It is into here that your character, Shirley the waitress, or Neville the Chartered Accountant, must plunge. If your character usually saves the world from total destruction, have them NOT save it. See what happens.

7. Dialogue

Finally we come to dialogue. Pay close attention to the dialogue of your characters, but more importantly ensure your character has a mouth. I read so many books these days by established authors where the character starts speaking straight away before the writer has even mentioned the character’s mouth. Are we to believe the words are spoken through their nostrils? Certainly not. The measly one or two lines you take to inform the reader of the character’s mouth will pay off handsomely for your credibility when the character speaks. Please ignore this advice if your character is a mute.

7(ish). Last word/advice

For earlier articles from my writing self-help series, available in spoken word version only, call reverse charge to the Belconnen “Blind Beggars Inn” and ask for the drooling hobo in the corner with the Masters degree.


L. Gilbert Heedyn formerly and currently lives in Canberra, Australia, famous for its many roundabouts, picturesque man-made lakes, and in the early ’90s, having the fifth biggest mall in the southern hemisphere. The above work is an affectionate tribute to all the contradictory, clichéd, self-evident writing advice articles he has ever read in writing magazines. Gilbert collects dwarves in his spare time, paints them blue and looks at them till they start to move again. When not dwarf-rustling, he can be found on his balcony offering career advice to innocents. Gilbert has hundreds of soon-to-be published works pending decisions by the courts on certain matters relating to “little people” abduction.

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