Why "Sticky Characters" Make a Book Memorable

Illustration for article titled Why Sticky Characters Make a Book Memorable

I've been thinking about the books I enjoy the most and it turns out that all of them have what I'd call "sticky" characters. By that I mean that when I look back on the book, the thing that jumps out at me first is the characters - not the plot, the prose, the theme, the worldbuilding or underlying ideas, but the characters.

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This is perhaps, unsurprising, since it squares with my own sensibilities as a writer. I've long maintained that if a reader comes away from my books talking as an initial matter about anything other than the characters, then I haven't accomplished my goal when it comes to that reader.

Top image: Felix & Gotrek, by Manuel Mesones

Now, it's obviously true that characters are the lens through which any story occurs, so they're always of enormous importance. But when a character strikes me as merely that lens and little else, they feel dull to me, decidedly unsticky. On the other hand, when a fully realized, well rendered character jumps off the page, it feels organic, magical, and such characters stick. And when a book has characters like that, I'll forgive a whole lot of other shortcomings in plot, prose, and so on.

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Quick now - think about the last five books you've read. Can you tell me the names and a bit about two of the characters in the stories?

Of the last five books I've read, only two have had characters that have stuck with me (Conan, from The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, and Felix and Gotrek, from Shamanslayer). Of the other three books I read (and I enjoyed two of those three), I can't even remember the names of any of the characters save one, and only then because his name was the title of the book.

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Don't get me wrong. I like a lot of books that lack sticky characters, but I invariably like books with sticky characters much more. And it's not just the presence or absence of a character arc by which a character starts at point A, is changed by events, and ends up at point B. That's basic blocking and tackling for writers, so it's more than that. The characters that stick for me are those with psychological depth, who are complicated, who demonstrate quirks that all people have to one degree or another, and who resonate emotionally with me (not necessarily because they're similar to me, but because their psychological and emotional state is so well rendered as to make me empathize strongly with them and their plight).

So, given that spiel, please share any recommendations you have for books that have "sticky" characters. I'm always looking for the next thing to read.

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This post by Paul S. Kemp originally appeared on his blog, Paul S. Kemp, Fictioneer.

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DISCUSSION

Let's see. . . Moorcock's Elric jumps to mind. Before him though Thomas Coventant (Stephen R. Donaldson) practically shouts as he is a very very devicive sticky Character.

I will second Joe Abercombie's works. I've finished The First Law and, although I have NO idea where anything is going, all the mains are amazingly clear in my mind.

I will also third or fourth or whatever for Pratchett. Namely Mistress Weatherwax, Vimes. . . hell most of the mains are very sticky (esp Wentworth, he is very very sticky).

But the one that sticks best for me has to be Thomas Covenant. He is the reason for the series, the reason I love it. He is also the reason I love to get people's reactions to it as I haven't really run across any other books that people have such a STRONG love hate relationship with.