When you hear the name Sherlock Holmes, what are some of the things you imagine? The distinctive deerstalker hat? The curved pipe, maybe a magnifying glass? It’s a classic image, somewhat created by those who portrayed Holmes on stage. Maybe some remember Holmes playing the violin during periods when a case particularly perplexed him. Or maybe his storing his tobacco in a stocking. Possibly the true fans will remember his use of cocaine.
Nero Wolfe brings to mind a large man with an aversion to women’s tears, his collection of beer bottle caps, enjoyment of fine food, a slight tilting of his head in acknowledgment or emphasis, often saying “Pfui!” when refuting some absurd point, his fondness for yellow pajamas, and of course, orchids.
An affinity for tweed, knitting, and gardening–besides solving crimes–are aspects associated with Jane Marple.
Above is just a sampling of memorable characters. They’re remembered throughout the years because each has one or a series of aspects that distinguish him/her, their own personal ‘quirks.’
In some ways, the creation of characters is easy. You have a private detective who solves crimes. This person has brown hair and brown eyes, and usually wears jeans and a T-shirt. See? Easy. However, this person is pretty bland and not at all memorable. It’s up to the author to add ‘spice’ and ‘life’ to the character. For instance, the detective stands only four feet tall, drives a motor scooter, owns a St. Bernard, likes Chopin, and has an addiction to Snickers. Or maybe the woman has only one hand, is constantly haunted by nightmares of an abusive mother, owns a crossbow, and paints her apartment green.
As long as the author is able to bring the character to life and stay ‘true’ to his/her creation, then maybe people would be interested in reading about this character. It’s up to the author to give a character something to make him/her different from everybody else.
Think about the character envisioned by Andy Breckman and David Hoberman and given life by Tony Shaloub. They created a detective with over-the-top obsessive disorders. Adrian Monk feared milk, wind, sausages, tossed salads, and went so far as to dispose of a single tissue by sealing it in a plastic baggie, then sealing that baggie in another baggie. Somehow, the idiosyncrasies worked and the television character became one of the most loved.
Sometimes, characters are defined by other characters. This is especially true with Stephanie Plum. Yes, she has some quirky aspects to her, but a lot of the humor and ‘character’ comes from Lulu, Maretti, Grandma Mazur, and Ranger.
Authors need to dig deep to find the unique pieces and parts for a characters, whether they want the person to be funny or strictly serious. When writing a story, the characters will often times ‘speak’ and let the author know how to form their personality. Other authors may want to do an intense character outline to define a particular figure in the story. There are many books about developing character, and some may find them useful. What each author must remember, though, is not to be bound and limited by those books. Each must find his or her own path and find whatever works for developing characters.
Who knows, maybe today somebody is creating another memorable character to stand beside Sam Spade, Elvis Cole, Ellery Queen, Perry Mason, and Pronzini’s ‘no name’ detective.