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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27 Responses to Making Characters Memorable–MWA Symposium Panel

  1. Cat Forsley says:


    • Thanks Catherine! Diana Gabaldon is a really cool speaker. I loved getting to hear her thoughts on the panel. I have her first book on my Kindle, I must read it soon. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      I liked her take on characters too.


  2. Marc Schuster says:

    Great post! My favorite piece of advice: “Being eccentric does not equate with being unique. A unique character is a person. Try to avoid gimmicks.” I think this is important because I constantly hear that a book needs a “hook,” but this also shouldn’t be confused with being gimmicky — particularly with respect to characters. There’s a fine line to be drawn there, and I’m not always sure I know how to draw it!

    • I think that real people are so quirky. Characters can’t just be a everything-but-the-kitchen-sink persona. Piling on eccentricities doesn’t make a character unique. I think the key is to make the character memorable but real. Not quite sure how to do that. Hope I have done it in my books. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Great post (Gabaldon’s books are a good read)
    If the characters are “solid” and well developed, it’s not going to work – found it interesting that the writers do firm up their characters (sketches/ birthdate) so they seem real as they write – but the character reveal their secrets during writing ( that’s like real life humans as you get to know them)
    Interesting definitions of plot.
    Thanks for sharing

    • I’ve been meaning to read Gabaldon’s books. I have one on my Kindle. Must get to it soon.
      I think the thing is not to make characters static. They have to be like people and react in situations. Sometimes you don’t know what they will do until you are writing it. I liked their plot definitions too. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  4. crubin says:

    Great stuff. I love Diana Gabaldon’s comparisons to onions, mushrooms, and hard nuts. I read one of her books once. I really liked it but never continued on in the series. She knows how to weave a good tale.

    • Thanks! I thought that was such a cool comparison I had to write the entire thing out. I am planning to read her first book. It’s languishing on my Kindle. Soon. Now I’m even more excited to read her book!

  5. klynwurth says:

    Kourtney, Thanks for the synopsis, for those of us who can’t get away to conferences. I really appreciate it.

  6. jmmcdowell says:

    My favorite is “Characters animate the book. Plot moves it.” I have a hard time sticking with a book if I can’t connect with the characters. No matter how good the plot or writing is, I need those characters to come to life. Hopefully mine do! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • JM, I have the same problem. But then if I feel like I’m waiting for something to happen, I can only stick around so long too. Characters suck me in from page 1, plot has to keep me going. I hate books where the characters feel like dolls on strings being animated. I can’t enjoy them. LOL. I hope that mine are flesh and blood people too!

  7. Laura says:

    “Diana confessed that she does not outline. She stressed that writers all write differently. โ€œAnything that lets you get words on the page is good.โ€ — I love this! Outlines usually kill it for me. I tried to outline for NaNo 2011 at least, and gah, what a nightmare. I’ve tried it a time or two here and there but it just never seems to work out for me and I always seem to have an easier go at it when I don’t plot things out.

    • Laura, I love that every writer has their own process. In the beginning, it’s cool to hear what others do and experiment with it. But after a few tries we all figure out how we write best. And you are in fantastic company as a non-outliner. Diana Gabaldon. Wow. I tend not to outline but to have notes that I put into a 2 page synopsis before I write. That’s my favorite method. Outlining stifled me too much and made it harder for me to tell the story. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Laura says:

        That’s how I felt too! My story was feeling strangled to the point I finally let it go. I may revisit it again some day but not until I’ve had some time to re-think it.

  8. I love Diana’s take on “anything that gets words on the page,” and Megan’s point about characters animating and plot moving stories along. Thanks for sharing your takeaways with us!

  9. 4amWriter says:

    I love hearing how published writers view writing. I was intrigued to read that it isn’t important for readers to know the character’s worst fear, but that the writer must know it.

    I can’t decide if that takes pressure off, or makes the writing harder–when you don’t have to get that info on the page, but it must be part of the story.

    • Kathryn, in my first draft that info is usually on the page. I find I’m working the story out as I go so lots of back story gets told and things that won’t be in the final draft are there too. Sometimes it’s what you don’t say that matters. You can tell the reader a character is petrified of spiders, but it’s so much more exciting to show the character’s reaction to having to go into the basement where spiders lurk and let the reader infer this might be his his worst fear. I think it’s about making the reader an active participant in the story. I think it’s harder to write it that way, but a better reading experience. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  10. berry says:

    Lots of info. Glad i cant write.

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  12. Love the advice, “try to avoid gimmicks”…I think this gets lost all too often. Excellent post (as always :))

    • Thanks Anne! When I started writing I wanted to throw everything into a character to make them unique not realizing that was well gimmicky. ๐Ÿ™‚ I think they were right on about the goal being to make them feel human and real. ๐Ÿ™‚

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