So, I was thinking what is it that makes a character memorable? What is it that authors do that makes us as readers want to stick around for that character’s journey, that makes us keep turning pages, and have an almost visceral reaction at the end of that character’s journey?
The answer I came up with is simple. The author puts that character through hell, literally and figuratively. A memorable character is battered, bloodied (often times literally), knocked down over and over—and yet that character gets up again and again and again. Rather like the country music song with the line that if you’re going through hell, keep on going.
I’ll illustrate with a few of my favorite characters. Look at the journey of Scarlett O’Hara the spoiled rotten princess at the beginning of Gone With The Wind. By the end of the book, she’s been through three husbands; survived a War which defined who we are as a nation; shot, killed, and buried in a shallow grave a Union deserter intent on robbing her and her family of what little they had left after that War; lost a child to a freak accident; lost the woman who truly was her best friend (though Scarlett didn’t have a clue how good Melanie was until it was too late); and sees the only man who could be her equal in all manners walk out on her. It’s only with Rhett walking out on her that Scarlett realizes it isn’t Ashley she wants, it is Rhett. Yet, despite everything that happens to her, Scarlett gets up, lifts her chin, and plunges onward, because in her worldview, tomorrow is another day. Tomorrow is another day to walk out of the hell her creator placed her in.
Another of my favorite characters is Morgaine of the Fairies from The Mist of Avalon. Morgaine is taken from her mother at a young age, to be trained as a Priestess of the Goddess. She lives through the trials of becoming a priestess, accidently sleeps with her own half-brother (Arthur), conceives a child by her half-brother, is forced to give that child up when she develops milk-fever, watches her son be groomed to despise Arthur and ultimately challenge Arthur for his Kingship, and in the end, watches her son and her brother destroy one another in the battle for Camelot and she is helpless to stop their deaths. Yet, she gets up and takes Arthur to Avalon, knowing that is the only way to preserve Arthur’s dream of a peaceful Britannia. The novel ends with Morgaine realizing that all the time she fought against the new religion that Arthur gave homage to was a waste of precious resources and more precious blood. This new religion has not replaced the Goddess in the hearts and minds of Her people. Rather, She has just assumed a new form. Morgaine’s journey through hell has left her physically broken but much wiser.
The last of the memorable characters on this very abbreviated list is Harry Potter. Look at the hell his creator put him through: orphaned, raised by people who—at best neglect him and at worst are downright abusive to him—thrown into an environment where his life is in danger in every single book, and by the end of the series, everything he thought he knew was turned upside down. His dad wasn’t the paragon of virtue Harry wanted to believe he was, his godfather attempted to murder Severus Snape using Remus Lupin in his werewolf form as the murder weapon, his mother was friends with Snape, and everything Snape—the one person that Harry was certain was evil to the core—did to protect Harry, to keep him alive, and insure that Harry could defeat Voldemort was done out of unrequited love for Harry’s mother. Harry even had to make the choice to die and then actually die to be able to defeat Voldemort.
As an author, I have to put my characters through hell. If the characters aren’t going through hell, there isn’t a lot compelling a reader to keep turning the pages. So, I’m driving the bus right into the heart of hell. Hop on. It’s going to be a fun ride. I promise on the other end of the ride, it will all work out fine.