Inventing quirky details helps create memorable characters.
If you’re anything like me, when you want to remember someone you’ve just met, you focus on something distinctive about them that will stick in your mind. It may be a hair colour, a speech mannerism, or a habit.
It’s the same with characters in novels. The worst thing is to make them bland. Giving them a memorable characteristic helps them to jump off the page and stay in the reader’s mind long after the novel is finished.
Dickens is superb at this. Who can forget Miss Murdstone from David Copperfield, who had, ‘very heavy eyebrows, nearly meeting over her large nose, as if, being disabled by the wrongs of her sex from wearing whiskers, she had carried them to that account.’ Yet although the description is vivid, it is Miss Murdstone’s possessions that seem to characterise her best. Dickens tells us:
‘[Miss Murdstone] brought with her two uncompromising hard black boxes, with her initials on the lids in hard brass nails. When she paid the coachman she took her money out of a hard steel purse, and she kept the purse in a very jail of a bag which hung upon her arm by a heavy chain, and shut up like a bite. I had never, at that time, seen such a metallic lady altogether as Miss Murdstone was.’
He doesn’t really need the last sentence; the references to the nails on Miss Murdstone’s boxes… her purse… the chain of her bag… already establish her as hard. By the time we read that the bag ‘shut up like a bite,’ we fully understand her ‘metallic’ qualities. Dickens has told us a great deal about her character without directly mentioning her qualities. But it’s these quirky details that help fix her in our minds.
So giving our characters specific, vivid features or possessions will help them to become memorable for our readers. We can learn a lot from Charles Dickens!