I have always found it interesting which character names I am able to remember, and which ones I am not. For example, I struggle to remember the name of the young boy in the film Up. He is one of the two central characters, I can picture him and hear his voice, yet I draw a blank on his name until Google informs me that it is Russell. On the other hand, I can tell you that the old man and his wife are Carl and Ellie. No question about it, I just know it.
Carl is the other main character, of course, but Ellie is hardly featured in the film at all. And yet I remember her, simply because her character hooked into me through one of the film’s deeply emotional scenes. The scene in question takes place late in the film, when Carl looks through an old photo album Ellie had been filling out before her death. He finds a surprise towards the end of the book, she had left a hidden message for him, urging him to go and find a new adventure. It was, I thought, the most charged moment of the entire film. And so I remember her.
We often speak of a hook relating to the beginning of the story as a whole, but it also applies to a character as well. Writing a bland character with a colorful name isn’t going to be enough, the character also needs to have something about them which makes a strong impression in your mind.
Darth Vader’s memorability is not due to having a unique name and being the “main villain,” but because of his wonderfully haunting portrayal. Black, glossy, half-machine-half-skeleton, with a strained, laborious breath and deep, rich voice. That appearance is so striking and vivid that one can’t help but internalize his image forever. From the very first moment he appears on screen he is like no one else in that move, and remains so throughout the entirety of the saga.
Sherlock Holmes could have just been “that detective with a weird name,” if not for how distinctive Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made his introduction. In that scene Holmes effortlessly dissects even the minutest details of his new acquaintance, John Watson. Yes, that treat was then replicated so frequently that it lost its punch, but the first time you experience it, the effect is so novel and delightful that it will stick with you for a lifetime.
Oedipus has obviously come to be the punchline of an uncomfortable joke, the defining element of an awkward complex. But therein lies the evidence of how strong a hook he was written with. The uncomfortable nature of his relationship to mother and father has immortalized him, making his name long outlive his own story. For the masses have generally forgotten the narrative perfection of his tale’s irony, but the idea of Oedipus continues forever.
The Story of the Character)
Each of these characters becomes an icon of their story because they are, themselves, an entire story on their own. Even without telling the greater narrative of the one ring, I could regale you with the isolated account of Frodo leaving his beloved Shire to enter the wider world. I do not have to explain the international drama between England and France in A Tale of Two Cities to explain the aching beauty of Sydney Carton’s sacrifice. I don’t have to plot out all the twists and turns of Treasure Island to get you to appreciate the excitement of a young boy, Jim Hawkins, finding himself in possession of a Treasure Map.
Frankly these characters are sometimes even bigger than the story that contains them. Most people don’t know how the legend of Robin Hood ends, and those that do find it rather lackluster. But the idea of a brilliant archer traipsing around in a disguise, directly beneath his enemy’s nose, seeking to “rob from the rich to give to the poor” is so strong an image that his ending doesn’t even matter.
Thus these characters are immortal because their moments are immortal. Indeed, a character written well will not only survive longer than the knowledge of their tale, but even the lifespan of entire nations. Many governments have risen and fallen since the introduction of Gilgamesh, Arjuna, Juliet, Snow White, Aladdin, and Hercules, yet they continue to stand through every changing tide.
There is one other key element that defines all of these timeless characters. Each one of them is the definition for some idea or archetype. Robin Hood reinvented what it means to be an ordinary man standing against oppression for what is right. Any character that wishes to be as timeless as he, must reinvent that wheel in a way that somehow rings more true to us than his story does.
Tom Sawyer personifies rowdy youth, Captain Ahab relentless vengeance, and Romeo youthful tragedy. We remember Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde because of how well they speak to our sense of dual nature. William Tell sticks in the mind for the ingeniously cruel situation of only being able to save your son by shooting an apple off of his head.
Each of these characters takes an idea, and wraps it in a new invention: a story. Then, any time we think of that idea, we think of the character, we think of the story, and they become a shorthand for expressing the condition of human life.
With my latest story I have been trying to write an ode to impending doom, to inescapable fate, to incontrovertible destruction. My aim is to write something that captures the essence to such a degree that it redefines the term. I want my characters to live on as the personifications of these ideas. Difficult and arrogant? Absolutely. A story character only ever manages to accomplish this once in a very, very, very long while. But still it is the goal I always try to reach for. Otherwise, my stories and my characters are guaranteed to soon be forgotten.