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Crafting Memorable Characters: Bringing Life to Your Protagonists and Antagonists

~ Dishari Ghosh

If the names Harry Potter or Gandolf or Juliet were called out, you would immediately have some idea of who they are or what their stories are – regardless of the details or versions. This is the impact that Rowling, Tolkien and Shakespeare have created over the years, by not only engrossing us readers in their narratives but doing so through the medium of extremely memorable characters.

Crafting such memorable characters through whom the story is driven is an art; one that you can master too. Strong stories essentially have the protagonist, the antagonist and the secondary characters, concerning either of the former. [Do bear in mind, sometimes the antagonist is the main character themselves, fighting against their ideals, beliefs, and thoughts]. Each of your characters needs to have full-fledged characteristics similar to that of any human, with backstories, relations, interests, habits, likes, dislikes, quirks, motivations, conflicts and much more.

This applies not just to your protagonist but also to your antagonist, if any. No one is pure evil, there’s humanity and sometimes, the antagonist would perhaps just be someone whose immediate goals and desires do not align with that of the protagonist. Likewise, no one is hundred per cent perfect either and the protagonist must have their flaws. The reader should be able to see both the sides and versions – in how much ever (or little) detail you’d want - of the characters, and why they behave the way they do.

The character’s existence needn’t feel like it’s created solely to write a book, but rather a particular story/portion of someone’s life is being narrated through this novel. Here are some ways to ensure that it does feel that way:

1. Create a Compelling Background for Your Character/s

Like any human, you’d know, including yourself, every character must have a background, regardless of their age or just about any other factors. Rather, these factors end up being the details required to make the character seem quite the way they are.

The main reason why you must have a background is to make your character real, even though they are certainly fictional – in almost all cases and your reader is aware of this too. Despite that, you can have them be someone’s friend, family, partner, colleague or whatever it is that you wish for them to be; it’s all in the crafting.

Avoid writing the story first and then fitting in the background details as per requirements. Rather, sketch out a basic background in the ideation stage itself. That way, the details would not feel forced or odd, and would instead blend in seamlessly. During ideation, think of all the possible ways a human being can exist, jot these down and while finally writing, pick those which are most relevant to the story as well as what seems authentic to your character’s portrayal.

The background will help establish how this particular character belongs. Think of their ethnicity – the country/city they belong to, how that influences them, how the occupations or living status of the family plays a role, the language they are most comfortable with or one that they absolutely cannot make sense of, how their education shaped them, the hobbies they like to indulge in or the career path they have chosen/wish to choose.

What are their political or religious stances, their (or their views on someone’s) sexuality, how they would believe in what a celebrity has to say (or not have such faith at all), do they think mental health is as important as physical health – would they voluntarily choose therapy? Are they afraid of ghosts or do they believe in the existence of aliens?

Just like every other real person, these details will help in differentiating your characters from each other as well as other characters in other novels, especially from the same genre.

2. Picking Out a Name

All your character/s need to have a suitable name for ease, relatability and recognition. Before making this decision, be clear about the era you are writing for. It would be very out of place if your story is set in the 1780s and you are choosing a modern name for your characters or vice-versa. Moreover, you can even invent names regardless of the era, but make sure it looks like it belongs there.

If you are creating fantastical worlds, it would not be odd to have extremely weird or never-heard-before names; they would rather add to the entire setting and can further be associated with your writing, forevermore.

Choose names that could convey the emotions or characteristics of your lead stars. Someone shown to be very courageous, but having a name that essentially means the opposite of it would be quite concerning. Although, such jarring directions can certainly be used to emphasize a point. Like, in case of a war, this person shows their true abilities, and others around them comment on the irony!

Make a list of possible names, figure out their meanings – perhaps in more than one language, practice some dialogues said by them or to them – does it sound right to you? Trust your judgement to proceed with this choice. It first needs to feel right to you, to help you narrate your story the best.

Names which sound comical or have alliterations (Archie Andrews, Severus Snape, Peter Parker) tend to have a ring to them and make them quite memorable as well. Try choosing different letters to begin names with, especially for a big cast – to make each one stand out and not be confused easily with another one unless intended.

3. Physical Looks and Personality

An early, vivid image of how the character looks like and who they are helps readers visualise the rest of the narrative, adding on details as and when they are shared, making them seem real. You needn’t give an inch-by-inch description of the looks, but can skilfully include it in the narrative itself. For a girl of sixteen, her height was above average. Though, it should not come as a surprise, given her parents both tower over others – both literally and metaphorically. Although, what is surprising is her shaved head, with tattoos running down her back. At the age of ten when she lost her sister, she vowed to never follow her path. But, here we are.

Revealing and interweaving bits and pieces like this can not only help your reader visualise but also keep them hooked, without having to read through pages and pages of dull descriptions with no action or thought to support them.

Next up, give distinct personality traits to your characters – both the protagonist as well as the antagonist. Some of these could include loyalty, honesty, ambition, humility, curiosity, and being resourceful. Do keep in mind to give your characters flaws or negative traits; make them greedy, stubborn, stingy, manipulative, obsessive or spoilt. You can certainly choose which traits would make them a well-rounded figure, and how much positivity or negativity you would want to include; try and find the balance, emphasize with actions or let other characters/situations bring these qualities to the forefront.

These traits would help in justifying comments, actions, viewpoints etc throughout the story and move it in the required direction, on the whole.

4. Habits & Interests

It is interesting to see different personas take up shape through the course of the novel. Make your characters realistic by adding varied details to them, including habits, interests, quirks, likes and dislikes. It helps your reader form a connection or relate more with them; which can go like Oh, she is a fan of Brooklyn Nine-Nine too! or they prefer pouring milk first and then adding their cereal – so unlike me!

Try and give different qualities to all your characters, let them bond over similarities or bicker over their differences. Let them stumble upon each other over an extra foamy, extra sugary coffee or snicker when someone missing a favourite lyric at the top of their voice – these would add depth and detail to your characters and story, rather than making them flat.

Have a list of possible habits, quirks, interests and anything else at all ready, possibly during the ideation process itself. Just like other details of the characters, reveal them slowly, throughout the novel – in solitude, with others, over discussions, through thoughts or actions. However, do make sure to keep track of these and avoid contradicting your writing – unless it is woven into the story that particular way.

Some habits could include having food or drinks in a particular style, wearing certain kinds of clothes, keeping their space (un/)organised, babbling when anxious, preferring to write rather than type, clapping loudly when excited, constantly playing with whatever is within reach and such – improvise as per what seems fitting for your characters.

Similarly, let each of them have their quirks, which could be something like having loud, earth-shattering sneezes, always writing with a green pen, trying absurd food combinations, practising playing an instrument in the air, preferring a particular version of their name rather than the actual one, clenching hands randomly. These would help make your characters animate, but don’t overload either!

On the same note, add dislikes and likes to your characters. Books, songs, slow-walking/talking, rains, earphones, travelling, accents, scented candles, adventure sports, theme parks, tarot reading – let them have opinions, let them indulge in it or run in the opposite direction just from the name. The readers love to know these details. If something is particularly striking, have it on the cover or for chapter headings – it adds a whole different element to the reading experience.

Some interests and likes can also transform into educational or career choices. Weave through these and add layers to how they came to these choices, did they face difficulties or was it an easy path for them? Enhance this by adding how their studies or profession impacts them, what sort of commitment is required, do they enjoy being in this field or was different from what they imagined. Contradictions are an intriguing addition especially if you are working with two different timelines, adding conflict and a tug of heart and mind, amongst other factors.

5. Motivation & Conflict

As your story progresses, there must be a conflict on the horizon waiting to occur – the climax. Your readers will be hooked to reach this point, keep it interesting, keep it tight. You can even keep dropping hints throughout – foreshadowing subtly, to eventually reach this segment. Ideally, there must be a conflict because of either intrinsic or extrinsic factors, wherein a certain path would be chosen or after unravelling here, things will get resolved in conclusion.

For your characters to face these conflicts and overcome them, there needs to be growth in them – in terms of decisions they make or actions they choose, evolving them essentially. Readers like to see a well-developed character arc.

Friends have a huge fight and stop talking to each other (conflict) and they realise that it was all a misunderstanding, all because someone else was jealous of their closeness (evolution of their beliefs, resulting in resolution) – external factors which resulted in conflict. The internal factor could go something like having to choose between a high-paying job, but in another continent, or a low salary, at home, looking after a sick parent (conflict is internal) and the resolution could involve a change of heart and going for the well-paid job, abroad (a change or evolution in the character is present). Even though, most stories go for positive changes or endings, several go for negative ones as well. It would depend on you which path you’d rather choose. All through your story, however, you must cite and declare the motivational factors behind the choices and decisions one makes or is forced to make – be it through their backstory or the current scenario.

These are just some ways to make your characters memorable. You can experiment with different formats, newer versions and let your imagination run wild. You never know, you might be creating the next big name in the bookish community – for years to remember! Although, even if that does not happen, you can always use these tips to create a robust character, forming stronger bonds and connections with the reader.


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