Charles Foster Kane, Hannibal Lector, Atticus Finch, Red, Ellen Ripley.
You’re probably thinking what do these people have in common. The answer is that they are all unforgettable characters.
They are in movies I can’t pass up when I’m flipping around the channels. They make me stop what I’m doing and watch them. Shawshank Redemption, The Godfather, Silence of the Lamb, Alien, Citizen Kane, To Kill a Mockingbird. The list goes on.
As writers, we have to ask, what makes them unforgettable? What makes them universal? Why do we remember what they say and do? What are their goals, both interior and exterior? Why do we love their strengths and weaknesses? What are their character arcs?
I am fascinated by Michael Corleone’s slide into corruption even as he rises to power. I love how Red in Shawshank Redemption is so strong, but not enough to hope. Ripley’s character in Alien is tough, vulnerable and a survivor rolled into one.
In The Searchers, Ethan Edwards displays an almost psychopathic hatred of Indians, but puts that aside to save his niece. In the end, he remains an outsider.
While brillantly brought to life by wonderful actors, these characters still were born on the page by a writer who forged them out of words. They wrote their dialogue, gave them motivations, strengths and weakness, complexity.
Charles Foster Kane is among the most complex. Enjoying the power of money, but he does not totally understand what money can’t buy. He wants to be loved, but doesn’t know how to give it and may not even love himself.
William ‘Bill the Butcher’ Cutting in Gangs of New York is indeed a butcher of people, but when he blesses the young man who eventually tries to kill him, we feel his vulnerability, fleeting as it is.
My goal as a writer is to create unforgettable characters. One readers will relate to. One they will remember and tell their friends about. A character they wish they knew or one they wouldn’t want to be locked in a room with. One they might quote.
I hope I can accomplish that, and as Andy told Red, “Hope is a good thing.”
For more unforgettable movie characters go to.
-Patricia Santos Marcantonio