Quick: How many characters from books can you name?
Time's up! Okay, now, how many characters can you name from books you've actually read?
Of course, almost anyone can name a lot of characters from books and, thanks to movies, you don't even have to have read the books (believe me, I can tell you who the characters from the Twilight series are and I haven't read the books or seen the movies.) But how often do we read books and have very little remembrance of the characters?
When writing in a particular genre like mystery or romance, it's especially important for a writer to create memorable characters. The reason is because each genre has certain characters that must be included in order for the story to fit the genre: a mystery must include a victim (whether they survive to the end of the book or not depends on the kind of mystery), the villain or perpetrator, and the sleuth. Also included must be the secondary characters who may be “red herrings” to lead the sleuth astray of the truth. Since my Black Horse Campground series revolves around mysteries, we'll focus on that genre.
Since all mysteries must necessarily include these characters, there's always a danger of creating “cookie-cutter” characters—characters that look, sound, and act similarly to other characters in other books in the same genre. When I first became interested in becoming a mystery writer, I was 10 or 12 years old and I had been a big fan of Nancy Drew and The Three Investigators. Naturally, my early inclinations were to create sleuths who were bright teenage girls (with their own cars, of course) or young adolescent boys who happened to have access to a vintage limo (okay, THAT would be hard to imitate without giving away the source of inspiration!) But that highlights my point: each of these sleuths had something to make them stick in your mind.
As I got older, I got hooked on reading Agatha Christie mysteries and she has created some of the most memorable sleuths since Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes (that name alone will stick in your mind, never mind all the other traits Holmes has become famous for!) Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot remain in your mind for their unique traits—Poirot's appearance and eccentricities and Miss Marple's “ordinariness”. Those two sleuths are examples of opposite ends of the spectrum of making a character memorable.
The “different”kind of character—there is something about this kind of character that sticks in your mind because of a physical trait that sets them apart from other characters in the story and other characters in other books. Another author who pulled this off is George C. Chesbro, whose PI, Dr. Robert Fredrickson, a.k.a. “Mongo the Magnificent”, is the epitome of different: a retired circus performer who is a university professor along with being a private investigator and also happens to be a dwarf. Not only does a unique character like this stick in the reader's mind, the character is bound to have a circle of friends and other situations that can add complications or opportunities to the character's story. The problem is that utilizing this form of creating a unique character is that the writer runs the risk of creating a caricature instead of a character. Even Agatha Christie grew tired of Hercule Poirot and his eccentricities after a while!
The “ordinary” kind of character—this is the Miss Marple proto-type: an ordinary, every day kind of person who finds him or herself involved in the action of the story. And yet, Miss Marple, because she could be your aunt or grandmother and is generally the kind of little old lady a reader can care about, is a character that sticks in your mind. The danger lies in creating an ordinary character that doesn't do anything, just has things happen to them. An “ordinary” character must, at the very least, have an extraordinary sense of curiosity or justice or something that makes them pursue the mystery... or else they get mixed up in the mystery themselves and have no choice but to act in order to protect themselves or their business or whatever happens to matter to them. And an “ordinary” character doesn't have to be a civilian, like Miss Marple; even a police officer can be an “ordinary” character, just doing his or her job, until something about the case makes it personal. What makes an “ordinary” character stand out is what makes us care about that character.
Not sure who this actress is, but I never could quite see Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple!
In my Black Horse Campground mysteries, the characters are all as “ordinary” as you can get... just small-town folks (including the local law enforcement) who appeal to readers on a personal level. I wanted to create characters who stick in a reader's memory because they have come to genuinely care about the characters and what happens to them. I believe the easiest way for a writer to accomplish this is to make sure that he or she, the writer, cares about the characters.