Making Characters Memorable–MWA Symposium Panel

Another amazing panel at the MWA Symposium during Edgars Week was moderated by Reed Farrel Coleman and discussed what makes characters memorable. The panelists included: Megan Abbott, Diana Gabaldon, Sara J. Henry, Kelly Ragland, and David Hale Smith.

Diana Gabaldon talked about characters as: onions, mushrooms, and hard nuts. With onions she got the inner self right away, but the character became more layered over time. With mushrooms, they pop up and walk away with scene they are in. Hard nuts are the ones you are stuck with because they are a real historical person or the plot requires them. These are the characters you just live with.

Megan Abbott mentioned how F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda drew sketches of Gatsby because the the editor told Fitzgerald he didn’t see the character. The sketches are credited with helping Fitzgerald nail down Gatsby.

It isn’t important for the reader to know the character’s worst fear. BUT the writer must know it.

There are many ways to flesh out a character, the important thing is to figure out what works for you. For some it’s knowing their birthday. For others it’s having a sketch. Do whatever it takes to make a 3-D character for you and the reader.

Readers want to follow people who are human beings. Make sure it’s not the character’s first day, but his first day with you.

Characters have to feel real and be interesting.

Secrets are important to characters. Diana mentioned that her characters’ secrets are revealed to her over time. They are something she discovers not something she makes up.

Reed spoke of touchstones–not a secret but knowing that the characters have secrets. Things that make you nervous to think about.

Kelly Ragland said that there is no checkilist for what a character has/is/needs. Humans with foibles and secrets. She went on to talk about how plot is fixable, but characters are not. Plot is the mechanics to show the character.

Plot was defined as what characters do because of who they are and what they want.

Diana confessed that she does not outline. She stressed that writers all write differently. “Anything that lets you get words on the page is good.”

Megan put it this way: Characters animate the book. Plot moves it.


Being eccentric does not equate with being unique. A unique character is a person. Try to avoid gimmicks.

On final thought I appreciated: Kelly said that good writers usually have a sense of what is and isn’t working. She reminded us to “listen to that little voice.”



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