What Makes Your Hero and Heroine Real and Memorable?

I have written articles and blogs on creating “real” characters for years, but I’ve never been able to pinpoint the answer to an often-asked question: “What is the secret to creating characters that to you and your readers are so real and memorable that you and they both feel these people really lived?” 

I generally get so deeply involved with my characters that when I am writing them, the hero truly feels like my husband and I walk right into the heroine’s shoes. I’ve often commented that I feel Jake Harkner from my Outlaw series standing or sitting right beside me. Certain of my characters are so real to me that I sometimes think I will meet some of them when I die. I feel them with me all the time. Readers and other writers ask me how I reach that point. Soon after I start a book I don’t feel like the author “creating” a story any more. I feel like the spirits of people from the past are telling their stories through me. I don’t see them as author and character. I see them as me and some people I used to know.

And no matter all the ways I’ve tried to explain how I manage to create such characters, I’ve never been able to pinpoint it.

Well … of all things … recently I found the answer in SOAP OPERA DIGEST. I was reading the August 21 edition and came across an article on Eric Braeden, who plays the legendary and very rich Victor Newman (I’ve watched this soap whenever I can for a good 35 years, maybe longer). The article is about a book Mr. Braeden wrote about his life, called I’LL BE DAMNED (which I intend to buy because I really like and respect this man’s personal life and his acting). As the article continues, Mr. Braeden and the interviewer start talking about soaps and what it takes to create iconic soap characters that become “super couples” or in some other way long-term, memorable characters that the show can hardly do without. Victor Newman is one of them, and although he can be ruthless and mean, he has had a long, long relationship with his lovely wife Nikki (a stripper when he met her!) and they became a super couple. Even as they have aged over the years, they remain a favorite couple on the show and even still share romance (much like my Jake and Randy in my Outlaw books). And in spite of Victor’s ruthlessness (again, Jake Harkner can be an extremely ruthless man when someone harms someone he loves), there is something about Victor that fans love – and that Nikki loves – and in return something about Nikki that fans love – and that Victor loves.

Well, after all my searching for the right word that describes WHY these characters are so loveable and memorable and why viewers can’t quite let go of them is … VULNERABILITY. Thank you, Mr. Braeden, for your description of what makes fans empathize and fall in love with certain characters over others. For some reason, I never nailed that word as the one primary necessity in creating memorable characters. The answer came from Mr. Braeden himself. In his words, “Essentially what people react to, I think, is vulnerability in the characters they watch. I don’t care how mean they are, how ruthless they can be or whatever, but there is a vulnerability, and there’s a vulnerability in Victor’s relationship to Nikki and vice versa. I think that is what people respond to. Some actors protect their vulnerability enormously and don’t allow you to get in, and others do.” (I think here Mr. Braeden is saying it’s those actors who expose their characters’ vulnerabilities in a real, empathetic way, who make memorable characters the viewers fall in love with. Thus, some become soap icons, and some don’t.)

As most people know, it’s the actors who seem to BE the character they play who create the biggest icons. Some soap actors get hate mail because the character they play is so mean and devious, while other actors are loved because fans love the character they play. Fans identify the actors with the character they play, forgetting that it’s just acting. And most people empathize with the vulnerability of the characters they love or don’t love. They will put up with and even root for a mean and nasty character if they understand what happened to make that person the way he or she is. In the case of Victor Newman, he was abandoned at an orphanage at a young age and never knew real love growing up. He soon learned he could depend only on himself if he wanted to survive and succeed, and becoming rich helps him feel safe and protected from that world that hurts so much. When you’re rich, no one can get to you.

I have sometimes mentioned that deep down inside my character, Jake Harkner, desperately wants to be loved, and needing that love is his vulnerability. Miranda loves him beyond measure, in spite of his ruthless past and mean nature – because she understands the deep-seeded reasons for his behavior. He experienced a terribly brutal childhood, to the extent that he ended up killing his own father. Seeing his mother and little brother murdered by the man (when Jake was too little to stop him) left Jake with a desperate need to protect those he loves later in life – the family that his beloved Miranda has given him. In return, Miranda’s vulnerability is needing the wonderful feeling of safety she realizes when Jake is by her side. She was afraid and alone when she met him and he helped her go west to find a brother. On the way, Miranda grew to depend on Jake’s strength and his ability with fists in guns to protect her. Jake in turn found a woman with a big heart who was willing to forgive his past and love him in spite of it … and the longer he helped her on her journey, the more that need to protect grew in his soul, as did Miranda’s need to FEEL that safety and protection.

So yes, I have referred to vulnerability as a necessary tool to memorable characters, but something about the way Mr. Braeden put it seemed to make it even more clear. I never thought of vulnerability as possibly the one and only characteristic that brings our characters to life to the point of falling in love with them, caring about them, and in the long run hating to ever leave them (which is why I’ve written several series stories and trilogies).

When I think about it, some of my characters are far more vulnerable to loving and needing to be loved than others; and it’s those who were the most vulnerable and with the most tragic (and believably so) pasts that became the most real to me and to my readers – and the ones of whom I had the hardest time letting go.

The biggest clue to creating genuine empathy on the part of your readers is to make whatever tragedy your characters have experienced real and believable; and the characters’ words and actions and decisions throughout the story should relate to whatever it is that happened to them. And think about what that character’s vulnerability would be due to his or her past.

We are talking psychology here, and I don’t think you need a PhD to understand natural human nature and what makes our characters tick. Ask yourself what YOU would do and think and say if you’d experienced something like what your character(s) experienced. Human nature is human nature, so don’t be intimidated by not having a college degree in psychology. Most people have a pretty basic understanding of tragedy and disappointment and what that can do to a person.

This takes me to my own additional clue to creating real characters. Besides vulnerability, you need (as the author) to BE THAT CHARACTER in your heart. You are not TELLING the story. You are letting it happen through the CHARACTERS and they are using you to reveal their story. You must REMOVE YOURSELF from the story as the omniscient author. Readers should not “see” the author telling the story. They should see and hear only the characters, much like you would in a movie. You must tell your story totally through your characters’ words and actions and thoughts. The story belongs to the CHARACTERS, not to you, the author. You are simply the vessel through which your characters open themselves to your readers.

I try for total reality in my books, and in doing so, in my first 7-book series I ended up deciding the hero had to die toward the end. By then I and my readers were so attached, that the hero’s death was incredibly traumatic and tragic. I almost chickened out, but I knew this was the only way a man like Zeke Monroe should die – in battle. He had crippling arthritis by the last book and I was not going to let him die that way. I sobbed when I wrote his death, and balled for the next couple of chapters when Abbie learned about his death. I felt like I’d lost my own husband. I still cry every time I re-read that part of the series. But in the end, I have a beautiful, dreamy scene wherein the heroine also dies and she walks through the light to find Zeke, young and strong and handsome again, as she is young and beautiful again. It’s a lovely ending that helped me and my readers accept what had to be.

Still, I now have readers so attached to outlaw/lawman Jake Harkner in my Outlaw books that they are begging me not to kill the man off. He has become as real to them as someone living next door – or perhaps their own husband – and they can’t stand the thought of losing him to death. That’s when you know you have created a memorable character who has become totally real to your readers. I can’t promise Jake won’t die, because he ages with each book and he, too, is a man who definitely cannot be allowed to just die in bed from old age. No way. Jake Harkner needs to go down with guns blazing! I want to write a fifth book, and I know what will happen, but I haven’t decided if it will go as far as a final gunfight. I will make up my mind as I write the story. I never plan that far ahead.

At any rate, that comment from Eric Braeden about what makes a memorable character just nailed it for me. As I said, I have used the word vulnerability, but always with other explanations for memorable characters. I never thought of it as the one, primary necessity for memorable characters. For some reason, the way he put it just made it so clear to me.

So in my estimation, if you want to create a character or characters your readers will attach to and remember for years after they finish your book, think about that character’s vulnerability … and come up with a strong, believable reason for it. Human kind understands that and will empathize with it.

Happy writing!


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