Making it memorable

In the UK, last night was Bonfire Night. For my international friends, all that means these days is that is an excuse to stand out in the freezing cold and watch fireworks. It’s history is more interesting. It’s proper name – Guy Fawkes Night – is more telling and it is the day the British celebrate that failure of a plot to bring down the government in 1605 by exploding a vast cache of gunpowder underneath the building. It was a catholic plot and, until quite recently, bonfires would include the burning of an effigy of Guy Fawkes and (sorry about this) the Pope. In one or two places, they still do!

So, why am I writing about it, interesting though it is?

What struck me this morning was that the name of Guy Fawkes is still remembered 400 years later. That led me to wondering what it is about some characters that strikes a chord with enough people that they stick in the mind. If asked about the great characters of literature, for example, the same names come up again and again: Hamlet, Elizabeth Bennett, Sherlock Holmes – why do they stand out when Timon, Lady Susan and Professor Challenger do not? That’s not to say that these latter three aren’t great characters and, for some, will be at the top of the list. It is just that some characters always come up as the ‘greats’.

So what is it that makes them persist? And how does a writer like me learn from that to make my own characters just as memorable.

None of them are perfect – Guy Fawkes failed dismally, in fact – and, in fact, most readers find it hard to identify with perfection except, perhaps, in Children’s literature (Mary Poppins was, after all, practically perfect in every way). The flaws make them interesting though and allow us to identify with them – which is certainly important for me when I’m reading. I love that Sherlock Holmes is so clever that he can solve a crime form his armchair – but I love that he is insufferable about it too. I want to understand where a character is coming from and why they act as they do. Otherwise, a story becomes a random sequence of plot points, which isn’t much fun.

Great characters are strong, too, in their own way. Hamlet, despite his doubts, does everything he can to uncover the truth – paying a pretty heavy price for it along the way. We want to see our protagonists taking action and making things happen – we want to celebrate their successes and feel the agonies of their disasters. We certainly make much of poor old Guy Fawkes and his attempts to change the course of history.

But, most of all, I think the critical component of a great character, one that we remember through the ages is that they are well drawn. Good or bad, strong or weak, we, as readers, have a strong and clear impression of who they are. It allows us to be able to understand their actions, know them and love them well and even anticipate their reactions as the plot unfolds. When Darcy proposes to Elizabeth, there is only one possible answer she can give and this is despite the era in which she lived when ‘a good match’ was everything. But we love that she sends him away with a flea in his ear and we cheer her for doing it.

And as for the fireworks? Well, a good character needs a few of those in their life, doesn’t she?!












































































































































































































































































































































































































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