Given my recent “visit” with Nancy Drew, I thought I’d touch upon what makes for robust/vibrant characters—those that are memorable and distinct, those that get readers reading and wanting more.
Here are five all-time favorite books/stories (not in order) that—in addition to delivering engaging plots and storylines—feature strong, captivating characters:
- To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
- The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand)
- Something Wicked this Way Comes (Ray Bradbury)
- Macbeth (Shakespeare)
- Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë)
Mockingbird: “Scout” Finch and brother “Jem” are the two young protagonists. We follow the adventuresome siblings over the course of three years. While engaging in childhood fun and fantasies, the twosome learn that their quaint sleepy town of Maycomb Alabama is anything but. Racism runs rampant and what may prove seemingly innocent—or guilty, as the case may be—turns out to be illuminating, if not maturing. Scout and Jem are believable characters with distinct personalities that take us back to childhood, convincingly reminding us that lessons learned (whether simple or tough) are part and parcel of growing up.
Fountainhead: Protagonist Howard Roark has been said to be Rand’s notion of the “ideal man”. Basically, he’s an idiosyncratic, strong-minded architect whose conception of early 20th-century architecture doesn’t align with the traditional views of peers and professionals. Despite drawing criticism, he remains self-assured, even smug. His conviction is admirable; he’ll stand up for his beliefs regardless of the upshots. That tenacity and resilience make for an outstanding, unforgettable character.
Wicked: Bradbury’s delightfully creepy tale revolves around young teenagers, Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway. Doing what boys do best—having fun and getting into mischief—the duo discover a bizarre traveling carnival and the mysterious Mr. Dark. The aptly named carnival leader possesses frightening powers and a struggle of good versus evil transpires. Polar opposites, Will is calm and level-headed while Jim is brash and rash. Although both have well-defined and notable personalities, Jim leans toward the more dynamic; curiosity and determination know no bounds.
Macbeth: Fiery Lady Macbeth presses hubby, ever-resolute Macbeth, to murder King Duncan. Given the couple’s dark and evil natures, it’s hard to like them, but it’s equally hard to forget them. We’re compelled to follow their exploits: to witness the mayhem they create and to what end, and the outcomes that ensue from selfish, vile deeds.
Wuthering: Orphaned Heathcliff is brought to Wuthering Heights by Mr. Earnshaw. Over the years, the brooding enigmatic character develops a solid relationship with Catherine, the daughter. Unfortunately, she decides to marry his nemesis, Edgar, with “fateful” results. Given Heathcliff’s upbringing—accepted into a wealthy family yet simultaneously “rejected”—we can’t help but feel for him. He’s an odd man out, who fits the image of country squire, but doesn’t. Intense yet vulnerable, Heathcliff remains etched in our minds long after we’ve put down the riveting Gothic-flavored novel.
In terms of contemporary authors, it’s no secret I’m a fan of Jonathan Kellerman and Janet Evanovich, particularly the former’s Alex Delaware series and the latter’s Stephanie Plum’s.
As a child psychologist, Alex assists the police—specifically, good friend LAPD detective Milo Sturgis—with challenging murder cases. When working together, Alex and Milo make for a fine pair—as good friends and dedicated investigators. Alex is focused and intelligent, and is committed to his work (sometimes at personal costs). He has the odd flaw and he does err, which makes him human and likeable. Small wonder the mysteries have remained so popular over the years.
Bounty hunter Stephanie gets involved in some outlandish incidents when attempting to capture her “bounty”. Foil Lula is larger than life (in more ways than one) and together the women engage in bizarre [hysterical] escapades. Both are strong-willed ladies and equally memorable. While being a bounty hunter takes grit, Stephanie is also occasionally hesitant or fearful. Who isn’t when confronted with a weapon-wielding crazy? Lula has locomotive energy and may not always want to partake in a bounty hunt, but she’ll never let her fellow associate and friend down. Sheer lunacy makes for extraordinary situations and continually tests these no-holds-barred protagonists.
So, in a nutshell, what makes for a notable, resilient character? He or she is someone you:
- find intriguing (intriguingly dark, mysterious, fun, zany, eerie, lovable, witty)
- can resonate with / relate to
- root for
- understand (given motivation, goals, internal and external conflicts, need for reprisal, emotions, personality/traits)
- want to see succeed (or possibly fail, given who the character is and what spurs him or her on).
As writers, we have to breathe life into our characters: make them unique, stand out, seem real. We have to take them—and readers—on the ride of their lives . . . be it a smooth sail on a large lake or a rough ride down a turbulent waterway.