Friday, December 7, 2012

Memorable characters: sometimes less is more

On the hunt again for what makes characters memorable.

So far this year I have read 58 books, and out of curiosity, I scanned down my Goodreads list looking at those 58 titles and tried to remember NAMES of characters from each of those books. It's just a quick test: if I can remember a character's name, it's a sure bet that it was a memorable character to me (not counting sequels).

The results were surprising. Some best-selling books that I really enjoyed, like the Night Circus, and Cinder, didn't pass my quick test for the memorable character list. (Cinder is particularly funny because I didn't remember the main character's name was Cinder, even though the book's name is Cinder!)

In fact, there were only 7 books* that immediately registered names and made me go, "yup. I loved that character and the way he/she did such and such."

From this list of seven, there is a character called the Darkling from a recently published YA fantasy that tied for the top of my list of memorables. He's in the best-selling Shadow and Bone by debut author Leigh Bardugo. Maybe it's because I'm an analyst at my day job, but I immediately had to analyze what made this guy so memorable for me (and for many others... just look at the number of images tagged as "the Darkling" on Google or Tumblr already, and this book has only been out since June! Btw, here's my favorite.)

First, some background on Shadow and Bone:

Set in a fantasy world version of tsarist Russia, Alina is an orphan who inadvertently uses a special power to save her best friend's life. The Darkling, leader of the Grisha, an order of magician-warriors, takes Alina under his wing to employ her power to supposedly re-unite their divided country.

Right away the book establishes the Darkling as the most powerful of the Grisha, the magician-warriors, the only one of the Grisha permitted to wear black. He's also rumored to be "the strongest Darkling in generations." Here's some other striking things about this character:

1) he's mysterious; no one knows how old he is, but he appears young and he has the sex appeal of a dangerous and powerful man. He goes only by his title, and no one knows his name.

2) he has a scary reputation: "the Darkling had once ordered a Corporalki healer to seal a traitor's mouth shut permanently. The man's lips had been grafted together and he had starved to death"

And this:
"So I'm the Darkling's prisoner?"
"You're under his protection."
"What's the difference?"
Ivan's expression was unreadable. "Pray you never find out."
Oh, and this:
"I hope you don't expect fairness from me, Alina. It isn't one of my specialties."

3) He saves Alina's life in a very dramatic and uh, rather uniquely gruesome way (sorry, can't say, spoiler).

4) He wants something very much (again, sorry, spoiler). He has been waiting for it for a very long time. Do not underestimate the power of want in a character. The greater the want, the more extreme it is, the more implications it has, the more compelling it makes the character. This is amplified because we're not sure about his motives, WHY he wants this thing so badly. It could be for the good of the country. Or for his own selfish use.

5) Despite his power, mysterious and fearsome reputation, he has a vulnerability he tries to hide (but Alina catches a glimpse of it. She wonders about it... which makes us wonder about it).

6) He disappears from his court for lengthy periods of time, for mysterious reasons, and returns unexpectedly (or appears in unexpected places), keeping everyone on their toes. Including the reader.

7) The Darkling appears in 12 scenes in the story. Based on the number of chapters and a rough estimate of scenes per chapter, there's about 60 to 70 scenes in this book. He doesn't show up a lot, which makes him all the more memorable when he does show up. Less is more.

I think there's hundreds of ways to make memorable characters, since the other six books accomplished this in very different ways, and obviously some traits will be more memorable to some readers than to others. What would you list for one of your most memorable characters?

* Six other books that passed my remember-the-name test this year: Grave Mercy (Ismae), Seraphina (Orma), the Blue Sword (Corlath), Shatter Me (Juliette), The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Lisbeth), Sabriel (Mogget).


  1. I loved The Blue Sword growing up. I can't tell you how many times I read it. I also enjoyed Shatter Me, but I didn't remember her name. I've heard so much about Shadow and Bone that I'm excited to read it.

  2. One of my most memorable fiction characters is Samuel Vimes of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels - solely because I've fallen in love with him!

    Take care

  3. This novel and character sound great! Your comment about not recalling Cinder's name was very funny. I am beginning to read it. No doubt it has other strengths as a novel.

  4. Elisabeth KauffmanDecember 7, 2012 at 7:16 AM

    Hmmm... I'm going to have to try this test. It's interesting to note that the "uniqueness" of name has nothing to do with memorability.

    I thought the Darkling was FASCINATING... Shadow and Bone was a great book and I'm so glad I came across it in your blog. Thanks for the recommendation!

  5. I still haven't read this book, but I keep hearing great things about it and this character. Gotta pick it up soon!

  6. He sounds like a very interesting character. I think I've seen this book around before, very likely.

  7. Really good point! Sometimes not overdoing it is the key to doing it right. :D

  8. I should totally do this test: I've read 90 books this year (admittedly 1/3 nonfiction), so it'd be interesting to see how many characters stuck with me.

  9. Interesting test. Simple but very revealing. Off to go and try it.


  10. ha! I love your test to see if any characters were memorable.

  11. 90 books! and I was tempted to brag about my 58!

  12. Uniqueness of name - now that's an interesting thought. Harry Potter is a rather ordinary name for a character that is memorable for most of us. Anne Shirley, too.

  13. It certainly does! Names aren't the best test: for instance Cinder's android friend was very memorable to me, but still can't remember her name. Or was it a he??

  14. You keep mentioning Discworld and I keep hanging my head in utter shame to not have ready anything from this famous series yet. But thank you for continuing to remind me!

  15. Oh, another Blue Sword fan! wonderful! what did you love about it that you re-read it?

  16. I think you should mention Corlath in every post. Shadow and Bone just moved higher on my TBR list.

  17. Thanks for making me think about characters in this way. Shadow and Bone was supposed to already be on my TBR list, but somehow wasn't and I've now rectified the situation, thanks to you!



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