I'm a writer because I have stage fright.
What is it that makes characters memorable? I was wondering this when watching Peaky Blinders, reading Braggsville, and playing Dragon Age: Inquisition (not all at the same time, but sometimes two at a time). What is (or are) the magic ingredient(s) to making a character real?
It’s actually simple, and yet difficult. Let’s start with Morrigan, from the Dragon Age series. She knows a bit about magic.
“A man will always believe two things about a woman; one, that she is weak and two, that she finds him attractive.” —Morrigan from Dragon Age: Origins
Morrigan doesn’t fit the usual stereotypes about “dangerous women.” She’s not sexy for your pleasure. She doesn’t care what you think. She doesn’t manipulate you with her feminine wiles (but she does manipulate you with her intelligence).
The truth is, Morrigan is as complex and as prickly as a rose. She comes off as selfish, greedy, and uncaring. She’s unapologetic about her dark, brooding nature and about her forbidden magic. More often than not, her words sting.
Later, though, one will learn—after wading through tricky and intelligent dialogue and two games—that Morrigan cares a great deal about certain things. Her humanity shines through, despite her efforts to hide the light, and players can empathize with her because of this.
So what is it that makes Morrigan a favorite character? Maybe it is the fact that she DID break stereotypes. She rarely flirts. She is unapologetic and authoritative. She goes after what she wants and is ambitious and clever. It takes a great deal of effort and time to romance her—and even then, things are rocky. She becomes a mother to complete an ancient ritual—not because she’s affectionate and loving (see below).
You get the point. Yet, at times, she shows unexpected selflessness, candor, and empathy. She’s not one-sided.
Another character that is complex is Thomas Shelby from the Peaky Blinders. There are a lot of things about the series that I don’t like (such as the exorbitant amount of sex and the extremely graphic violence), but one thing I do like is Thomas Shelby’s character.
A gangster boss from Birmingham, Shelby is a little fish in a big ocean. He rules a narrow strip of land and wishes to expand—to become a legitimate businessman. He has a family he loves, he’s a war veteran who suffers from PTSD, and he’s unwittingly become the enemy of a ruthless cop. His ambition lands him in trouble quite often, which leads to surprising surrenders. Despite temporary defeats, Shelby pushes onward, unafraid of the consequences.
Like Morrigan, he is unapologetically himself. This gives us a complex character that is human. He shows emotion in his own way. He is not necessarily likable, but he’s not a complete and utter villain. Like us, he is both good and bad.
[I would comment on the characters in Braggsville, but honestly I’m not far enough into the story to make an accurate assessment.]
Anyway, my point is that main characters are memorable if they are multidimensional. Having an all good or an all bad character is boring and unrealistic. I would even argue that if you give a main character a single redeeming or unlikable quality that they are still somewhat boring. Humans experience a range of emotions that help us connect to others. So if you’re a writer, like me, we have to be brave and explore those emotions to make timeless characters.