Sunday, July 17, 2011

What Makes Characters Memorable by Peggy Webb

Last night I watched an old Clint Eastwood movie with my family -  Every Which Way But Loose.   Eastwood is such a gifted artist that watching his movies is always a pleasure.  He was good as the complex Philo, a guy who hangs out with a baboon.

But it was Ruth Gordon who stole the show. Feisty, salty, and funny, she commanded the screen.  She called herself a “helpless old lady” and proved herself to be anything but.  During the scene where Gordon uses her shotgun to deliver some comeuppance to a rowdy group of bikers, my son said, “She’s just like Mama Hussey.” 

Mama Hussey was my mother. And though she has been dead for more than five years, everybody in the family still tells “Mama Hussey” stories. And, yes, she kept a shotgun under her bed. She knew how to use it, too.  Mama was the picture of a perfect Southern lady, always dressed to the nines, the more jewelry the better.  She loved good books, good movies and a good laugh. But let a stranger show up on her front porch after dark, and he’d find himself looking down the barrel of Mama’s shotgun.

Mama was larger than life. And so was Ruth Gordon’s character in Every Which Way But Loose.  But they had something else in common, too: they both reminded you of someone you know.  They were ordinary, approachable, and likeable, somebody to root for.  Full of spirit and big of heart.  Much like my Pony Jones (The Tender Mercy of Roses by Anna Michaels, 2011).   Pony is the most memorable in a long list of characters I’ve created over a career that spans twenty-six years.

What about memorable bad guys, you ask? Of course, we remember Hannibal as the personification of evil. But it’s not the evil that makes him memorable: it’s his complexity - his relationship with Clarice, his longing for a window, his uncanny ability to get into the minds of the other characters and plant seeds of doubt and discontent.

There is much more to say about memorable characters, but I’ll leave that for another day. Meanwhile, I invite you to tell me about characters you remember, the ones you love to love and the ones you love to hate.

I also invite you to check out the revised e-book edition of Where Dolphins Go,  one of my classic women’s fiction novels. (Available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords.)  Changes I made in the e-book  reflect changes I made to the screenplay after this book was optioned for film.  Enjoy!

Peggy Webb writes mysteries under her own name and literary fiction under her pen name, Anna Michaels. Currently, she is working on her next Southern Cousins Mystery, plotting another book as Anna,  and  bringing back her early romance classics as ebooks. Visit her at and and on Facebook under both names. She’s fond of saying she’s eating for two. Send chocolates.


Louisa said...

Norman Bates is one of my favorite "bad guy" characters. I like that he's such an unlikely murderer!

Peggy Webb said...

You're exactly right, Louisa. He's an unlikely killer and also displays a bizarre and extremely warped psyche. Who can forget his mummified mommy in her rocking chair?

C. Richard Cotton said...

nablaI saw that movie when I was about 9. The mommy mummy scene so shocked me that I couldn't sleep for weeks. Regarding movies, my favorite is Chinatown -- great story woven through actual historic events and I've always thought Hollywood in the 1930s was probably a heck of a place to be. Jack Nicholson's character, J.J. Geddes(?), is one of my most memorable characters.

Peggy Webb said...

I love Chinatown, too, Richard. Writers looking to turn their talents to script would do well to study that screenplay. By the way, I have a vintage evening gown from the 30s. Ivory with gold trim, a long, flowing scarf. It's glamorous in that old Hollywood way. said...

The character who first comes to mind is Judge Deborah Knott. I'm amazed at Maron's ability to create a woman who's kind and loving, yet isn't the stereotypical cute, perfectly mannered, polished, righteous--and hypocritical--Southern lady.

Peggy Webb said...

You are so right, Skipper! Readers love characters with flaws. It makes them seem as if they could be our next door neighbors.

Thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

One of the most complex and surprising characters that came to mind while I was reading your blog was from the Harry Potter series. Severus Snape!!! You as the reader or the movie goer, do not understand him until the end of the series, BUT you have disliked him since you "met" him. I love a character that churns the emotions and makes you want to talk to the book or screen. I have always loved the way you develop your characters. Titus from The Tender Mercy of Roses really speaks to my childhood. He reminds me so must of my grandfather.

Peggy Webb said...

Ah,the Harry Potter cast! Always a goldmine for characters.

I'm very proud of Titus. He's one of those unlikely heroes.

Thanks for posting, Anita!

book writing platform said...

Great post,
I like to read this and got such nice information through this.

Madlyn said...

The dude is totally right, and there is no suspicion.