What makes a really good character?

I’m not talking “good/evil”, I’m talking memorable. Hannibal Lecter. Ellen Ripley. Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. Sherlock Holmes. Characters that burn themselves into your brain and leave a lasting impression.

What has the author done?

This is something I’ve thought about for a while, and still haven’t gotten a good grasp of. I want my characters to be memorable. We all do.

A really good character inspires a gut level emotion in you. Terror. Awe. Hate. Envy (I was never as smart as Sherlock, but I read and reread those stories, trying to figure out the puzzle.). Sometimes more than one (Awe at Ripley’s courage yet feeling her terror as well.). Somehow the author has reached into your soul, grabbed hold, shaken you around then dropped you, never the same again.

Okay, so how do we do this?

There’s the old saying, “no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader”…which leads me to believe the same goes with any other emotion you want to elicit about a character. How strongly do you feel about your characters? Are they just there to tell a story? What would happen if that character was taken out? Would your story be the same?

I’m an SF geek, so I’ll use the Alien movies as an example. If you’ve never seen them, well, I’ll give a bit of a rundown of the first two, which are sufficient to demonstrate what the authors did. The interesting thing about these four movies is that each is written differently. The first is a horror movie. The second, action-adventure. The third is a drama. The fourth is action-adventure/drama shot in a sometimes surreal art movie sort of way (with a memorable bit part by Brad Dourif, who later played Grima Wormtongue in LOTR). Well worth seeing. Bring a strong stomach.

Single mother Ellen Ripley starts off as the second in command on an ore freighter out in deep space. Her daughter is back home on Earth. Their company wakes them up early and tells them to set down on a planet, where they find a ship, with creatures on it that attack a crew member and implant a little alien inside him. When they bring him aboard the alien bursts out of his chest and goes running through the ship. It ends up killing everyone on board except for Ripley, who overcomes her obvious terror to get her and her cat out of the ship and blow it up, in order to kill the alien aboard.

In the second movie, she is awakened to discover 57 years have passed. Her daughter has grown old and died, she is being prosecuted for destroying company property (the ship), no one believes her story, and she’s suffering from PTSD. Worse yet, the company put a colony of families on the planet they originally set down on, and when they lose contact with the colony, they ask Ripley for help.

The interesting thing at this point is that we know Ripley is tough from the first movie. But James Cameron spends a good part of the second movie showing the aftereffects of the first one. Showing her weakness. The grief, the nightmares, her anger at and distrust of the company (and deservedly so). She hits her all time low.

So when she reluctantly agrees to accompany the space Marines and company representative to the colony (with the understanding that they’re going to kill the aliens) and find everyone dead except one little girl (the age her daughter was in the first movie), her courage is even more evident. It’s obvious why she risks her life to go back and get the little girl when she’s taken by the aliens. We cheer when she grabs the company rep (who had plans to betray all of them) and slams him into the wall. (I’ve had a few bosses I would have loved to do that to.)

Ripley has become one of us. And if she can defeat aliens, perhaps we can too.

Maybe this is part of it. In some way we see the great character as us, who we are or want to be or hope we aren’t (I would hope I’m not like Hannibal…).

Now you might not think these were good examples. But if we want to have great characters then we need to study ones we feel are great and find out what makes them that way.

What are some other great characters, and more importantly, why?