How to Create a Memorable Character in 30 Seconds

It’s Cinco de Mayo. Like St. Patricks Day and Oktoberfest, it is celebrated by more people outside the country of origin of the holidays than those within. Cinco de Mayo really took off as a day of celebration as the result of intense promotion by beer breweries who began to promote the holiday in the 1980’s.

By now the more astute among you will have discerned where I am heading. Breweries are the source of some of the best commercials we’re privileged to see but my personal favorite is directly connected to this Mexican holiday and a Mexican beer, Dos Equis.

Who is it?

The most interesting man in the world.

In 30 seconds, the creators of this character have imprinted a legendary character on the minds of millions of viewers (and sold millions more bottles of beer). So, how did they do it and what does it mean for writers of fiction? How do you create a memorable character.

  1. The nuances that make up a character, memorable or not, can be neither haphazard nor incidental. No one knew that the world’s most interesting man would catch on and become so successful. They didn’t over-expect and they didn’t overthink the part. But we should not imply from this that they did not give the role/character careful consideration or that they were in any way haphazard about their intentions. When David Suchet spoke to interviewers about his wildly popular portrayal of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, he revealed how he studied the books to learn every aspect of the character. Great and memorable characters are not two-dimensional neither are they hollow three dimensional ones. They promise layers of color and deliver on that promise.
  2. Memorable characters are those we could emulate; perhaps even secretly admire to be like. Jonathan Goldsmith, who plays the part of the world’s most interesting man, says that when he responded to the casting call he entered a room filled with actors all looking like Juan Valdez. Yet the producers picked him, a man in his late 60’s, over all the others because he would not represent a threat to those consumers for whom the advertising campaign would be targeted. Since the primary beer buyer in the US is typically young and male, an older actor playing the role of someone who would be so revered that, as one ad said, “if he were to pat you one your back, you would list it on your resume’.” No indeed, the world’s most interesting man would be someone that viewers would aspire to be, a blend of James Bond and Ernest Hemingway. Memorable characters are either those was can admire, those we can be like, or both.
  3. Memorable characters are almost caricatures (I said almost.) Pushing the edge of reality is one thing, being preposterous is another. Even super-heroes must somehow somewhere have the ring of possibility. It’s a fine line authors must walk, but it must be done. Unless the intent is buffoonery and spoof, plausibility must shape the circumstances and responses in which the character appears. I am a consummate fan of James Bond and the movies have not portrayed him nearly as well as do the books. On the page, Bond is brooding, troubled, even psychopathic at times. On the screen he is more of an adventurer. First coined in 1817 by the poet and aesthetic philosopherSamuel Taylor Coleridge suggested that if a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative. The world’s most interesting man does that…and does it very, very well. (For some of the best attributions to the interesting man, check out the list here.) While memorable characters cannot carry the day for an indifferent story, they are most certainly part of every great one.
  4. Memorable characters almost always have a catch phrase, some expression they employ that becomes an identifying and unique brand for them. When you hear “shaken not stirred” who do you immediately connect it to? If I point to my temple and say I must “exercise the little gray cells” whose face do you see? When someone says “Go ahead, make my day” do you look around for Dirty Harry Calahan? I really don’t have to say it here but I will. When it is suggested to “stay thirsty my friends” how readily does the salt and pepper bearded face of the world’s most interesting man appear?
  5. Creating memorable characters demands thought, insight, and intent. The creators of all memorable characters reveal that their memorable characters came to life because they considered first what image they wanted to portray in order to lead viewers and readers to a certain conclusion which would then in turn do what? That’s right, those characters would sell a product. Be it beer or be they books, a memorable character exists for one overarching reason, the benefit of their creator. That’s you.

The characters in your stories may never achieve the renown of the world’s most interesting man, but they will need to be interesting. A few weeks ago I was invited to speak at a local book club. About a dozen or so people gather once a month to discuss the book they’ve all read since their last meeting. The first questioned asked of me about “Shadows at Moonrise Bay” was “Are you writing a series and if you are, will Pedro Wong be in it? We just love Pedro.” Since Pedro is the detective I created for the series I was in no small measure reassured and motivated to learn that my intention to create an interesting character that identifies a brand was working.  (He is soon to reappear in his next case “Shadows at Cane Flats”.)

Memorable characters probably come to life earlier and easier for your readers than they do for you. Consumers of books often take the characters more seriously than do the writers of books. This is a very good thing and a very revealing one. The time, attention, and detail we put into our characters pays very big dividends. Dame Agatha grew to despise Hercule Poirot and his peculiar ways. But she made him that way and she lives on because he never did. When she killed him off the public outcry was so intense she had to figure out a way to bring him back.

So take a lesson from that. The surest way to enjoy longevity as a writer, to be remembered as the source of insight and entertainment is to create interesting characters. They sell books because, like the most interesting man in the world, they make people thirsty for more.

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