Characters need marrow in the bones, not just flesh over them.

hemingwayIf ever there is a time for NOT explicitly telling, it’s when creating strong fictional characters. There’s an art to it. I’ve come across a Hemingway quote that goes a long way toward explaining what this means, if not exactly how to do it. I’ve never liked the idea of preparing character cheat-sheets: those lists of biographical data intended to bring a character to life, but manage only to make cardboard cut-out characters. I get it that there must be depth to a character, but the character him/herself need bring him/herself to the page through the process.

This quote speaks to me in a language I can understand.

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.—Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

Mona L S Baisch

What goes into making a memorable character?

My contest entry: Strangest place you've seen the new Barbara Rogan book, "A Dangerous Fiction."

My contest entry: Strangest place you’ve seen the new Barbara Rogan book, “A Dangerous Fiction.”

I suppose the main point about making a memorable character is that the character must be, well, memorable.

Easier said than done; precisely because almost everything has been done, already written, already imagined. Right?


Characters drawn from real life probably won’t make the cut when it comes to making a character memorable. There has to be something quirky, kinky, unthinkable or thought about in a new dimension. A character has to be, well, memorable.

What to do, what to do:

Be specific. Make the toenails pink, and maybe one of them is bruised. How did it get bruised. A dancer? A fight? A mean sister that stomped on a toe. Whatever is unique must be a tie in to the story line. Specificity must be two-fold: be very detailed–those pink toenails are sparkly or chipping or bleeding (I like chipping best); but the detail must also relate in some important way to your story or to developing your character.

I have to care one way or another.  If the toe has been stomped, I have to be more than annoyed with the sibling that did it; I have to feel something visceral because I’m setting up a dynamic between characters. If I have a toe dancer, someone who lives with damaged feet, that has to be important. Obviously a fight has more ramifications than a bruised toe, so there has to be a reason for its significance, and . . .

Make the reason over-the-top, not usual. Your character has to be believable, but must cut a wide swath in some way–be audacious or the opposite; be too good to be true or the opposite; be unbelievably lucky or the opposite . . . has to be memorable.

The time to set the scene and pull your reader into the story is when you first set your characters up on the page.

It really is all about character. It’s nice that there’s a pet store, or a forest, or a car wreck–but only if we care. We only care really about character. Obviously your character doesn’t have to be a person; it could be a dog or a horse, or a hobbit.


I’m thinking about character right now because I’m almost through reading the second book in a row by Barbara Rogan. I don’t know why Barbara isn’t on the best seller list. She’s fantastic. And the main reasons (two of them) that her books are so good are that her characters are wonderful, and her story line takes you to places you absolutely know that she knows; and they’re so different from anything that I would write.

Write about what you know. Obviously, this often seen admonishment must be true.


Mona L Spaulding Baisch