The critical aspect of any book, plot aside, is the characters. For a book to succeed, its characters must be either a) likeable, b) memorable, or c) both.
Not only is the character's personality important, but also his or her name. Take the obvious Hannibal Lecter. Not a particularly likeable character, but definitely memorable. Read The Silence of the Lambs and you will never forget him. Thomas Harris could have, I suppose, named his character John Davis, but would that have had the same effect? Hannibal rhymes with cannibal; Hannibal was also a fierce warrior. Lecter? Say it out loud. It has a clean, slashing sound. On another level, maybe we want to equate it to the church lector, the person who delivers the word of….Hannibal?
Harris' second character is Clarice Starling. Clarice is a fantasy name, one a writer might give to a fairy princess, yet it derives from the Latin claritia or fame. It can also mean illustrious. So we have an illustrious fantasy paired with a plain, common bird, the starling.
Names are important for our characters, but what about their physical traits. Some authors describe their characters in great detail, while others leave much to the reader's imagination. I'm sure that if Sue Grafton asked her readers to send in a photo of what Kinsey Milhouse looks like, there would be a wide diversity.
To continue with Harris' characters -- I just finished rereading the book -- Harris gives us a a lot of detail without actually saying much.
Dr. Lecter's eyes are maroon and they reflect the light in pinpoints of red. Sometimes the points of light seem to fly like sparks to his center.
….Dr. Lector wore the white asylum pajamas in his white cell. The only colors in the cell were his hair and eyes and his red mouth, in a face so long out of the sun it leached into the surrounding whiteness; his features seemed suspended above the collar of his shirt.
Those two short paragraphs paint a vivid picture. Each reader may see the picture slightly differently, but each will have a distinct image of Hannibal as they read Harris' book.
Most writers I've asked tell me that their characters take on a life of their own, and it is only at that point that the character becomes successful -- when the writer no longer controls what his character says or does.
Obviously we have to start somewhere, though, and the easiest place is with a character profile where we flesh out both our protagonist and antagonist (yes, we need both or there's no story). Start with the easy stuff: name, age, sex, profession, marital status, height, weight, ethnic background, religion, education, occupation. Then move on to more individual traits: taste in clothes, mannerisms, favourite foods, pet peeves. These are the details which will make the character come alive, take on a life of his/her own, and become memorable -- if we, as writers, have done our job properly.
So here goes. My protagonist is a thirty-year-old woman who grew up competiting for attention with three older brothers. She is well educated (Princeton MBA) and was on the fast track for partnership in a top notch NYC consulting firm -- until she ditched it all to be her own boss and start a catering firm, much to the horror of her slightly retro parents. She's engaged to an "entrepreneur" and struggling to keep a new business afloat while planning a wedding only eight months away. Her mother is helping with the planning, although help is probably not the word the bride-to-be would use. Her name is Kensing Delaney. She's five foot two inches tall, weights exactly one hundred and one pounds, and her copper hair and thick dusting of freckles leave little doubt as to her ethnic origins.
Kensing is a family name, my grandmother's maiden name. So even though I've been warned that it is very similar to Kinsey, I'm sticking with it (for now). Delaney is an Irish surname derived from the Gaelic Ó Dubhshláine. It's clean, short, and recognizable.
So there's my embryonic protagonist. I know she'll change, grow, morph, but that's okay. In the immortal words of Alison Willcocks:
If you love something, set it free.
If it comes back to you, it's yours.
I can only hope Kensing comes back to me as a fully developed amateur sleuth, ready to take on mystery after mystery.