Making a Memorable Character
The simplest way to make a character interesting is to give them more pagetime. Sociologists call it “propinquity”: we like whoever’s nearby. The next way to make a character interesting is to put them in interesting situations. The everyman can be literally any man if the audience is excited about what’s going on around him. But what about a character in isolation? Alone on a dark stage, under a single spotlight, how do they interest us?
The answer is speech.
If you are wise or funny or shocking, we’ll remember you. Tyrion gets a lot of bites at the apple, and he’s funny. Jaime’s similarly quippy, and gets good lines (“There are no men like me. There’s only me.”). Sandor is vulgar, and sometimes has great lines
(bullying a ferryman) Here’s your choice. Gold on the north bank, or steel on the south.
and sometimes less great lines
This cave is dark too, but I’m the terror here. I hope your god’s a sweet one, Dondarrion. You’re going to meet him shortly.
Hodor is memorable through repetition, Olenna is endlessly sassy, Joffrey is a nightmare, Cersei is a sassy nightmare, etc.
But not everybody gets enough dialogue to establish such a persona. Some are silent, or participate in conversations only to set up a more eminent character. A lot of characters must needs be a Narbert, and tee up a square-jawed line for Brienne.
“Lady Brienne is a warrior maid,” confided Septon Meribald, “hunting for the Hound.”
“Aye?” Narbert seemed taken aback. “To what end?”
Brienne touched Oathkeeper’s hilt. “His,” she said.
So how does one make a character like that interesting? (Not Narbert specifically, with a name like that he’s hopeless). Martin knows as much about this as anybody, though apparently he does it unconsciously:
I get reactions to extremely minor characters which surprise me. I’ve had letters from people who tell me that Lord Blackwood is their favorite character. He’s had like three lines, you know?I’ve got him down for 27. One fewer than Balon Greyjoy, surprisingly. I think that’s what is known in the trade as Boba Fett syndrome. A character who hardly appears but has something vaguely cool about him, people make him cool, and of course, Lord Blackwood has a cloak made of raven feathers. That’s his single distinguishing characteristic, but some people think that’s cool enough that he becomes their favorite character.
A cloak of raven’s feathers is one way. Here’s a fuller list:
- Within the limits of the narrative, can this character impact other characters?
- distinguishing physical features
- interesting back story
- nicknames, monikers, AKAs
- catchphrases and speech patterns
- Howland Reed, Rhaegar Targaryen… a gift is never more alluring than while it’s still wrapped
- shocking behavior
- swordfighting ability
- It’s a weird one, and specific to ASOIAF, but maybe it’s not surprising. People like physical prowess, and in Westeros that’s proven with a sword in hand.
Jaime ticks nearly all of the above boxes, but he’s also the fifth most talkative character. To appreciate the effectiveness of these distinguishing characteristics, let’s control for propinquity and see which minor characters make an outsize impression.
Dolorous Edd Tollet: 81 lines of dialogue
Consistent comic relief. When Jon makes him his steward in ADWD, his batting average dips, but amusing always sticks out. And I’ve noticed in other stories that even if the jokes aren’t actually that funny, the simple gesture at light-heartedness goes a long way. A lot of narratives, particularly genre narratives, have such crimped emotional gamuts, and it’s unnatural at any sort of length. Edgar Allen Poe strove for what he called “unity of effect,” and it’s reasonable to sustain dreariness for a twenty page short. But a hundred pages without a joke? No way. (He says, suddenly wondering if there are any jokes in his own manuscript.) So Edd’s one vehicle for it, and sticks out even more because the Wall is so grim. White walkers lend themselves to black humor.
Thoros of Myr: 70
Thoros has two shticks: first, he’s the drunken monk, or the drunken master. Then he’s got the fire thing: the flaming sword, which is a gimmick; and the power of resurrection, which is not.
Do not disparage the two-note character, I barely have two notes on some days.
Jaqen H’ghar: 55
A shapeshifting assassin is obviously going to be a fan favorite. I’ve got some misgivings about shooting for cool characters. By taking that position, a narrative impedes itself from going about the business of literature, which is telling the truth about people. The truth about people is: they aren’t cool. Humanity is not cool. Aching desire, uncertainty, frailty, ignorance – these are the faulty pillars of the human condition. So to keep a character cool, the story must keep its distance, allow this pretense. It’s like an anamorphic illusion: really interesting from a single point of view. Jaqen is a minor character, so it’s not a big problem, but the dumber comic book movies demonstrate the risks of finding your main characters cool.
Walder Frey: 46
He’s got a nickname (the Late Lord Frey), a catchphrase (heh), and great power within the story. Not in an absolute sense – the Freys are a Division II house at best – but at the moment that Robb needs to get an army across the river, the Young Wolf’s fate is in old Walder’s liver-spotted hands. This is why he’s a great character, because a whole plotline rests on his personality.
Walder also behaves shockingly at every level, from the minor (he’s lecherous and pretty crudely proud of that fact) to the major (heck of a wedding planner).
Because of all this, most readers eagerly anticipate his demise, though it will probably be an anticlimax.
Gregor Clegane: 17 lines
He’s physically noteworthy, frequently talked about, has a memorable nickname,
plays a big part in a main character’s backstory, and participates in one of wildest scenes in the series. Yet he’s hardly on the page. Here’s everything he’s said thus far, sorted by length:
- Shut UP!
- SHUT UP!
- My sword.
- Some dead man.
- Leave the body for the wolves.
- You’ll lead us to these others.
- Be quiet. Shut your bloody mouth.
- Did you come to talk or to fight?
- You talk too much. You make my head hurt.
- And your outriders? They saw nothing? They gave you no warning?
- Any man runs, I’ll cut him down myself. Imp! Take the left. Hold the river. If you can.
- They make such splendid targets. That one, he’ll draw the eyes of every bowman on the field.
- Elia of Dorne. I killed her screaming whelp. Then I raped her. Then I smashed her fucking head in. Like this.
- You’re traitors and rebels, so thank your gods that Lord Tywin’s giving you this chance. It’s more than you’d get from the outlaws. Obey, serve, and live.
- A man who sees nothing has no use for his eyes. Cut them out and give them to your next outrider. Tell him you hope that four eyes might see better than two … and if not, the man after him will have six.
(And he’ll probably never speak another line in the series, unless he calls the coin toss at the Cleganebowl.)
Gregor is the best example of establishing a character through something other than pagetime and dialogue.
Gerold Dayne: 16
I don’t have any opinion on Dayne, but he gets a fair amount of interest for someone with so few lines. Clearly good characters have a halo effect. The readers that care about Darkstar (cool nickname… check??) probably care about him because of his connection to Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning. This Dayne, perhaps because of his cooler nickname and status as a swordfighter, placed 25th on Tower of the Hand’s top characters list – and he’s been dead for years when our story picks up! Some of that regard is reflected onto Darkstar, though it may have converted to derision in the process. Still, we’re not worried about likeable, just memorable.
Sidenote on Darkstar:
Oh … and George doesn’t seem to have known that Darkstar isn’t very popular. ;) He thought that a “bad boy” character would go over well, since people seem to love the Hound and even Theon Greyjoy so very much.
The easiest way to figure out if a character in ASOIAF is generic is to ask yourself: Is this person more memorable on the show? If so, then what’s on the page that interests you, and only the attachment of a real human face and body can change that. Davos Seaworth, played well by Liam Cunningham on the show, is a perfect example, and our first.
Davos Seaworth: 390 lines of dialogue
He’s got a distinguishing feature, his stumped fingers, and a good nickname (The Onion Knight). But Davos exists to hem and haw as Mel and Stannis spiral further into their folie à deux. Not a lot of mystery to the guy, nor pathos. He’s got dead sons, but I take Wyman Manderly and Arnold Karstark’s dead sons more seriously.
Kevan Lannister: 198
Kevan has to be pretty steady to function as the barometer for Cersei’s escalating paranoia. Dumping wine on the head of steadfast old Kevan highlights how nuts she’s gotten. Still doesn’t make Kevan any more interesting. I’m scrolling through his dialogue now, and he mostly delivers news. He’s got one monologue about Tywin, and at another point says to Cersei, “Aye, and from what I saw of Joffrey, you are as unfit a mother as you are a ruler.”
He talks with Tyrion, but can you remember anything they said?
Victarion Greyjoy: 147
The Iron Captain has the cool moniker and recently gained a distinguishing physical characteristic – a charred, potentially magical hand – but he doesn’t get anybody to interact with. His chapters are mostly soliloquies, with or without an audience, depending on the presence or the tongueless woman he keeps in his cabin. Martin pragmatically mutes his beasts of burden (Hodor) and his sounding boards (“the dusky woman”). Saves time coming up with a psychology for these folk, but Victarion’s intrigue suffers as a result.
Edmure Tully: 125
Edmure is incredibly vanilla. His purpose is to be a solid C- at everything he tries, from commanding Riverrun to setting his father’s funeral pyre ablaze. He could use a hideous injury, or maybe some fucked up family history. (His kin, Brynden Blackfish and Lysa, both make much stronger impressions thanks to their more involved relationships with Cat. Blackfish also gets points for the cool name and obvious respect among his enemies, plus the hints about his sexuality. Lysa’s hysteria is so annoying it’s memorable, plus she breast-feeds a kindergartner.)
Hizdahr zo Loraq: 93
His Beige Magnificence. He flatters like Xaro on an off day and talks a lot about opening up the fighting pits. For me, the most distinctive thing he has done is insisting on his style when Barristan breaks into his chambers for a midnight interrogation.“Ser Barristan.” Hizdahr yawned again. “What hour is it? Is there news of my sweet queen?”
“None, Your Grace.”
Hizdahr sighed. “‘Your Magnificence,’ please. Though at his hour, ‘Your Sleepiness’ would be more apt.” Otherwise, he’s there to look drab next to Daario. Hizdahr’s a good example of a tough problem: he’s boring by design. Dany’s whole arc in ADWD is about doing what’s appealing versus doing what’s right. For that to be a hard choice, the right thing must be dull. But should we bother with plots that depends on boring components?
You may have noticed that many of these characters are doomed to dullness by their function in the story. With a characterization style like Martin’s, that is heavy on foils, the crazier characters will be paired with more stolid types.