Writing Unforgettable Characters

As If I Were a RiverThis is a guest post by Amanda Saint, author of “As If I Were a River”.

Amanda Saint is a novelist, short story writer and features journalist. She also runs her own creative writing business, Retreat West, which she started in 2012.

Amanda’s debut novel, As If I Were A River, tells the story of three generations of women in one family and how the decisions they make reverberate through the years. It starts on the night that the young of the women, Kate’s husband goes missing.  It was longlisted for the Not the Booker Prize and a Netgalley Top 10 Book of the Month.

Her short stories have been published in paperback anthologies and literary magazines; appeared on the Fish Flash Fiction prize longlist and the Ink Tears Short Story competition longlist; and won the Editor’s Choice competition at 101 Words.

Website: http://amandasaint.net

Amanda Saint


As a reader I return to some books time and time again and although the beauty of the prose, the story line and the setting all have something to do with this, it’s the characters that really draw me back to their world. Writing unforgettable characters is a hard task to master and maybe it’s because I’m drawn to character-led, rather than plot-led, novels that this is what I’m working hard at achieving with my own writing.

In order to create my own memorable characters, I’ve looked back at some of those that have had the most impact on me and why.

Alice in After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell

When I first read this book I was in my late 20s working in a similar job to Alice and, like her, had just fallen in love and got married. So everything about who she was and her story resonated with me. It’s such a great mix of joy and sadness – I sobbed (on the bus and scared the man next to me!), laughed out loud, and was filled with hope because of the theme of the redemptive power of love that runs through it all. Alice has stayed with me because she was very real, complex and messy and her story showed how easy it is to get lost in grief but also that there is a path back to happiness if you choose to follow it.

Jimmy in Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

In the first book of the MaddAddam trilogy we meet Jimmy as an adult living in a near future world that is nothing like the one we live in now. During the course of the book we go backwards and forwards in time to also spend time with him as a child, teenager and young adult, and his voice at all stages is very authentic. He’s one of those characters who your feelings for change often, and just like the people I care about in real life sometimes I was rooting for him, other times getting really annoyed with him and wishing he would sort himself out. He’s maddening, funny, sad and loveable and he’s all of those things because of the voice he tells his story in.

Dolores in She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb

Delusional, obsessive, surly and sometimes alarming but also self-deprecating, funny, endearing and really easy to relate to, Dolores has been a part of my life for years. I revisit her every now and then and always find myself drawn straight back in by her amazing voice and the combination of naiveté, fear and attitude that make her so real.

Rachel in Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes

Sad, mad, bad and really funny, Rachel is living a wild life in New York that leads to her ending up in rehab, which is nothing like the glamourous spa experience she’d been imagining. Her lack of self-awareness followed by self-realisation as the story unfolds is brilliantly done and every now and then I love a romantic happy ending, and Rachel’s story certainly delivers on that. What makes her unforgettable? The voice, the complexity of her character, and the fact that she almost never loses sight of the absurdity of it all.

Benny in The Tax Collector by Peter Carey

Benny is the youngest member of the completely dysfunctional Catchpole family, who all live together on the family’s car lot. When the tax office sends an auditor around family secrets come to the fore, as do Benny’s serious mental health problems. Although he is delusional and psychotic, he’s aspirational and vulnerable and you can’t help but like him. Benny is a character that stays in your mind long after the book has ended.

Anne in The Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann

When I was a fifteen-year-old girl and first read this iconic novel, Anne gave me hope that there was life beyond a small town for everyone that went out there and got one. She also taught me that I would never ever let a man treat me like Leon treats her. Thanks Anne – a brilliant life lesson that came just at the right time! Her voice is the perfect progression from small town awe and naivety on arrival in the big city to jaded cynicism by the time the novel ends.

Adam in The Imposter by Damon Galgut

Adam runs away to live in remote village after getting sacked from his job determined that he will take the opportunity to become the poet he always wanted to be. But life in the country is anything but quiet and he gets embroiled in a love triangle with an old school friend and his wife. All the way through the story, Adam’s voice is so plaintive and confused. He really can’t figure out why his life keeps being so difficult.

Adah in The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

There are five brilliant female characters in this story but it was Adah that really stood out for me. Twin to Leah, she couldn’t be more different. Brooding and sarcastic, she’s also bright, witty and funny. She was born with hemiplegia, a disease that left her weaker on one side, and this has made her determined to be stronger than her sisters in every other way. But they don’t know this as she doesn’t really speak. So when the family first arrive in the Congo, it’s only the reader who knows what she really thinks of them and of her father’s mad idea to try and convert the locals to Christianity.

Which characters have you never forgotten?

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