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Anne R. Allen's Blog


My Photo

Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, January 25, 2015

How to Sizzle up your Fiction with Compelling Characters Readers Can't Forget

by Ruth Harris

Good guy/gal or bad guy/gal, the super spy, the nutcase, the grunt who saves his battalion, the alcoholic teacher who can’t save herself but rescues her class from a typhoon, the jihadist with a heart of gold, the whore with a heart of coal, the psychotic, psychopathic, and just plain psychic are the writer’s best friend.

The unforgettable character: he or she (or maybe even it) will energize your book, grab your reader, and jet-propel your plot.

Where do you start looking and where do you find the initial spark of inspiration? The answer is: all around you. 

The passive-aggressive employer, the tyrannical secretary, the not-exactly-honest businessman, the bully who tormented you in mid-school, the mean girl who spread nasty rumors about your best friend. 

Let your imagination go wild

Creating the “perfect” villain can be a form of delicious payback. 

Creating the larger-than-life hero or the dreamboat romantic lead can put all your secret fantasies to work.

But what if you don’t know anyone who belongs in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders) ? What if no one you know appears on a do-not-fly list? What if the brainiac whose algo saves the world wasn’t in your seventh grade math class? What if you don’t live next door to the guy who killed his wife and fed her body through a wood chopper? What if the woman who poisoned her husband with crocodile-bile-laced coffee isn’t in your exercise class?

Google and the internet provide endless sources of inspiration. Personality disorders, murders plain and fancy, angels and devils are lined up waiting to be chosen. They are on forums, they tweet, they share, they comment, they spew their crazed selves on FB. So do Medal of Honor winners, rescuers of abandoned pets, the devoted medics at Doctors Without Borders and the fearless journalists at Journalists Without Borders.

Books, television and the movies are filled with unforgettable characters, and are an unending source of inspiration as we watch or turn the pages with bated breath, waiting to see what amazing feat or dastardly deed they will do next.

  • In Breaking Bad, a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer turns to a life of crime to secure his family's financial future before he dies.
  • Jane Tennison, the DI in television’s Prime Suspect is a “woman of a certain age.” Her love life is on the gritty side, she drinks too much, the men she works with give her a hard time, but she is brilliant and always solves the crime.
  • Tony Soprano, a beleaguered New Jersey crime boss, must deal with two families, his own—and the criminal “family” he heads.
  • Carrie Mathison, the bi-polar CIA agent in Homeland, is on and off her meds and has sex with the suspected terrorist she is supposed to track down.
  • Tom Riley, a sociopath of uncertain sexuality in Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Riley, lies, deceives, and murders without conscience.
  • Mrs. Danvers, the creepy housekeeper with no first name in Rebecca, is dedicated to her dead employer, the first Mrs. Maxim de Winter. She is intimidating, manipulative and willing to drive the second Mrs. DeWinter to suicide.
  • Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, an ex-military policeman, is a hero with no fixed address and almost no possessions except a foldable toothbrush and expired passport.
  • M, as played by Judy Dench, is the head of MI6 and James Bond’s boss. She is blunt, fearless, and does not flinch from ordering 007 to kill when necessary.
  • Rasputin, a failed monk and mystic, was a favorite of the last Czar of Russia and, swept up in the Russian revolution, met a brutal end.
  • Glenn Close, the murderous seductress in Fatal Attraction is psychopathically determined to get what she wants—another woman’s husband.
  • Hannibal Lecter, the twisted psychiatrist in the Silence Of The Lambswas known as Hannibal the Cannibal, a tribute to his culinary propensities.

Don’t overlook the animal kingdom in your search for inspiration for the memorable character.

Comics also contribute their share of outsize heroes and villains.

  • Brainy and brawny Wonder Woman has her Lasso of Truth and her magic weapons.
  • Mild-mannered Clark Kent aka Superman who, uh, you know.
  • Assassin and bounty-hunter Elektra.
  • Bad guys Dr. Doom and Joker.
  • Martial artist and computer genius, Batgirl fights the bad guys—and wins.
The memorable character will do the shocking, the unexpected and, as a consequence, will give your story an immediate jolt of energy. 

They live in the “wrong” neighborhood or, like Jack Reacher, have no permanent address at all. They break rules, heads and maybe knees. They drink too much, squander their money and reputations, have sex at the “wrong” time with the “wrong” partners. 

Their willingness to flout convention, break the mold, and break laws gives you the ability to create wow! plot twists and never-saw-it-coming endings.

A Caveat 

But remember: no matter how lurid your character or his outrageous his or her behavior, you must also make your characters believable. Villains can’t be all bad and heroes need to have their flaws. Filling out a character questionnaire will help anchor your character.

Writing a character profile will also help.

Novelist, screenwriter, and game designer, Chuck Wendig spells out 25 essentials for creating a great character. (WARNING: Chuck's post contains profanity and is humorous in tone.) 

Got a great hero? Then you need an equally great villain.

Lindsey Barrett, short story writer and novelist, writing teacher, conference speaker, and member of the National Book Critics Circle, shares tips on crafting memorable characters.

The joy of creating the memorable character is that it’s fun. Lots of fun. Go wild. Go insane. Break every rule and every law, written and unwritten. 

Go ahead. It’s safe here in writers’ world.

What about you, Scriveners? Where do you find your most memorable characters? Do you wreak revenge in your books on toxic bosses, abusive exes and that guy who cut you of on the 101 on-ramp? (I have to admit to killing off some fictionalized toxic people in my life.) What about your heroes? Do they come from real life? Who are your favorite fictional heroes/villains? Have you ever written about a heroic animal? 


A Kiss at Kihali: sweet romance set against the backdrop of African animal rescue

A must-read for animal lovers.

Available at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon CAKoboNOOK, iTunes

Beautiful and inspirational, A KISS AT KIHALI draws on the power of human-animal relationships, the heroic accomplishments of African animal orphanages, and the people, foreign and Kenyan, drawn to careers involving the care and conservation of wild animals. Filled with drama and danger that lead to a happy ending, A KISS AT KIHALI will appeal to readers who love tender romance and who have personally experienced the intense, mystical bond between humans and animals.

"A must-read for anyone who cares about animals and the environment, because what we do to them, we do to ourselves”... bestselling author Sibel Hodge


VIGNETTE WRITERShere's a contest for you! The Vine Leaves Vignette Collection Contest. The prize is for a collection of vignettes and poetry up to 20,000 words. Fee $25.  Prize is $500, publication by Vine Leaves Press (paperback and eBook), 20 copies of the paperback, worldwide distribution, and promotion through the Vine Leaves and staff websites. It will be judged by an editor from Simon and Schuster. Deadline February 28, 2015.

The Playboy College Fiction Contest Prize is $3000 plus publication in Playboy Magazine. You must be enrolled in college to be eligible. Stories up to 5000 words. Deadline February13th, 2015 $5 entry fee for non-subscribers.

Saraband Books prize for a book of poetry or literary fiction. Prize is $2000 and publication. The entry fee is $27. For fiction, submit a manuscript of 150 to 250 pages of stories, novellas, or a short novel For poetry, submit a manuscript of at least 48 pages.  Deadline February 13th, 2015

THE MEADOW NOVELLA PRIZE $15 ENTRY FEE. The winner of the contest will receive $500 and publication in the annual print edition of the journal. Submissions should be between 18,000 and 35,000 words.  Deadline February 1, 2015.

Vestal Review Condensed Classics Anthology Call for submissions to an anthology of world classics condensed to 500 words or fewer. Submissions are still open for the new anthology edited by Mark Budman titled "Condensed to Flash: World Classics." Find specifics here and Scroll down to "Condensed to Flash" and check out the sub guidelines. The payment: $15 and a digital copy for an original story and $5 and a digital copy for a reprint. The deadline: January 31, 2015

Unpublished Literary Fiction Authors looking for a Traditional Career! Tinder Press, a division of Hachette, is going to be open to UNAGENTED SUBMISSIONS for two weeks in March. More information at Tinder Press.

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Blogger Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I always do a character profile, but a character questionnaire would be really helpful.
While mine don't have many quirks, they do end up with a lot of flaws.
And of course, movies give me inspiration for characters. Verbal the cripple in The Usual Suspects was great - never saw the twist coming.

January 25, 2015 at 10:07 AM  
Blogger mindprinter said...

I thought sure I'd beat Alex to the punch. Oh, well, gotta get up earlier in the AM in future. Terrific post, Ruth. Love the capsule descriptions of famous book characters. What great models there for writing short descriptions of our characters with all the defining details. Kind of like a character logline. BTW, Your description of Tom Ripley reminded me that Highsmith's "Two Faces of January" is just out on DVD. Talk about interesting characters. She really brought out the darkness in them and the film is great fun. Bookmarking for sure! Paul

January 25, 2015 at 10:31 AM  
Blogger Wm. L. Hahn said...

Great article Ruth- I especially enjoyed your foray into comic book heroes and villains, of course. They're close to the heroic fantasy I love. I have the advantage of extensive "notes" on most of my main characters, and certainly that's helpful when you try to envision a scene, carry your readers through it.

January 25, 2015 at 10:33 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Hi Alex—Flaws do a lot of the work to carry a story! Couldn't agreement more about the movies. The heroes—and the villains—grab our attention and keep it. Note that just this weekend American Sniper with a larger-than-life MC is blowing away movie gross records. Lesson learned!

January 25, 2015 at 10:43 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Hi Paul, Set your alarm! ;-) Thanks for the kind words and for the reminder about the Highsmith DVD. She was brilliant with dark, compelling characters.

I note that TCM is showing Downhill Racer later this week. Robert Redford plays a young, adrift skiing champion. I haven't seen it in ages and look forward to another look at a different kind of compelling character.

January 25, 2015 at 10:48 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Hi Wm. L.! :-) Thanks! I wanted to point out that the search for great characters shouldn't end with human characters. A writer shouldn't stop with the usual suspects but should expand the search in ever-outward ripples for just the right twist or defining detail.

January 25, 2015 at 10:52 AM  
Blogger CS Perryess said...

Excellent post, plus there are all those wacky & half-wacky people we've met in life -- often a magnifying glass focused on a remarkable trait can help define a character. Thanks for all the fine advice.

January 25, 2015 at 10:54 AM  
Blogger Linda Maye Adams said...

Blogger ate my comment again ...

I've never found character profiles that helpful. To me, they're just a disconnected set of questions that don't do much of anything. Whatever I know about the characters comes out in the story. I don't base them on anyone I know -- don't need to. I just toss them into the story, and they happen. I try very hard not to think about a "flaw" or a character arc because that will wreck the story.

January 25, 2015 at 10:56 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Hi CS, Thanks and thanks for the reminder of the whacks and half-whack around us. They *are* inspiring—if not maddening. ;-)

January 25, 2015 at 11:02 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Hi Linda, Bad, bad Blogger! I definitely hear what you're saying. My characters come to me and do their thing. Lots of times I just need to get out of the way! No profile or questionnaire needed although I know lots of writers swear by them.

January 25, 2015 at 11:05 AM  
Blogger mindprinter said...

Thanks, for the reminder, Ruth. Think he was pretty unsympathetic in Downhill if I'm remembering the film correctly. I'll definitely tape it.

January 25, 2015 at 11:32 AM  
Blogger Roland D. Yeomans said...

Dreams often come to my rescue. I had a dream of a Texas Ranger in 1890's Egypt being told: "You are no longer in Texas, Cowboy." And my character, Sam McCord was born. Reflective questions sometimes help me, too. I once asked: "What if an agnostic faced off against Lucifer but his mindset wouldn't allow him to admit it?" And so FRENCH QUARTER NOCTURNE was born.

Of course, then I had to backtrack and create the character needed: a form of literary reverse-engineering, right? A great post as always, Ruth!

January 25, 2015 at 12:21 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Paul, My memory, too. Gene Hackman played his coach! Haven't seen it in ages so curious as to how I'll react. I always associate DR with The Candidate. Another film in which RR played an unsympathetic character.

January 25, 2015 at 12:26 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Roland, Hi & thanks! Interesting dreams of yours for sure! Your mention of Lucifer reminds me of the devil & Saddam as an hilariously mismatched gay couple in South Park, a brilliant twist by Matt Stone & Trey Parker.

January 25, 2015 at 12:38 PM  
Blogger Julie Valerie said...

Really enjoyed this blog post - great tips for creating compelling characters. Love the sources for inspiration and the reminder to make your characters believable. Thanks, Ruth!

January 25, 2015 at 12:44 PM  
Blogger Melodie Campbell said...

Another great post, Ruth! I'll point my class to it this week. And yes, I love creating villains. Particularly, sympathetic villains. Many are darned attractive, but still so bad for us.

January 25, 2015 at 1:07 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Hi Julie and thank you! Nothing quite as creepy or compelling as an appealing villain. The young, attractive, sympathetic perv in The Missing is a great example.

January 25, 2015 at 1:21 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Hi Melodie! Thanks for the welcome flattery! :-) In my reply to Julie just above I refer to a recent sympathetic perv. He suffers from his compulsion and consequently is a memorable character.

January 25, 2015 at 1:23 PM  
OpenID bridgetwhelan.com said...

I use animals in a character creating exercise and ask students to choose an animal, any animal, and find out about its social habits and traits. (I put a limit to the research otherwise precious writing time could be wasted.)

For instance, all you need to know about a polar bear is that it’s a good parent with great physical strength and a filthy temper while a zebra is gregarious, unpredictable and hard to tame.

Then I suggest that they turn their animal into a human being and write a character study, which includes physical description and an event that reveals their personality.

Thye will have to decide just how much of the animal to feed into the character study - the end result should be a believable, memorable character. I can see the polar bear as a gangster, a controlling mother or a neighbour from hell. He or she doesn’t have to eat walrus as well or have white hair. Zebra could be a crazy disco dancer, the best friend at school or a talented artist without a stripe in sight.

Interesting relationships could form - how about a male zebra and female polar bear? There would be enough conflict and sparks flying without making one of them eat the other.

January 25, 2015 at 1:33 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

bridgetwhelan.com—Thanks for a brilliant suggestion! Much appreciated.

January 25, 2015 at 1:37 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Linda--People tell me if you sign in to Google first, before you make your comment, it's less likely to disappear. I know that happens to me with WordPress. If I'm not signed in, Wordpress eats my comment while signing me in. So it goes through the second time around, but I've had to rewrite it.

January 25, 2015 at 1:41 PM  
Blogger Linda Maye Adams said...

I'm always logged into Google. Still eats my comment anyway.

January 25, 2015 at 2:35 PM  
Blogger Claude Forthomme said...

A male zebra and a female polar bear? That's truly a wild suggestion! I was thinking, Ruth, what good pointers you were giving us - and really, considering that all those goodies are coming from you, let me say that I'm not surprised, I so enjoyed your Decades novels, full of great characters!

But I think that if some aspiring writer turns to TV or any of the "classics" (like Superman), there is a risk of developing cliché characters. In short, one needs to move away from "Breaking Bad" and the like, and that's not always easy...So back to the bear and the zebra: here, at least, it's not likely to be cliché!

January 25, 2015 at 3:09 PM  
OpenID Rita said...

Hi Ruth,
Great post, but I don’t agree that a villain can’t be all bad. I think this very fact makes the story more compelling. Evil does exist. Think of Amy in Gone Girl. The fact that she was so twisted and evil make the story riveting.

January 25, 2015 at 4:02 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Hi Claude! Thanks for your very kind words! A zebra and polar bear combo lean toward the black and white. Not good for fiction where we should be all about nuance. ;-)

Seriously, My intention is to indicate where writers can look for examples or inspiration. Not copycatting. Not cliché. Never, never cliché!

January 25, 2015 at 4:41 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Hi Rita, Thanks for the kind words. I don't agree that Amy is all bad. At first, we see her as the attractive, appealing woman the hero falls in love with and who was the inspiration for her parents' fictional creation. It's the slow revelation of her psychosis that make Gone Girl so compelling. As is the realization that what looks good, isn't. Not necessarily. Something we all discover as we grow and learn.

January 25, 2015 at 4:50 PM  
Blogger Tam Francis said...

Great timely post! Thank you. I'm working on edits based on agent feedback and it's very character driven. Hurrah for this post. The 25 Things a Great Character needs is a wonderful funny informative link. Thank you! Off to read the other.

~ Tam Francis ~

January 25, 2015 at 4:54 PM  
Blogger Sasha A. Palmer said...

It was an enjoyable ride of a post, Ruth! All those 'characters', human and almost human :-)

I've got a question about one of the Opportunity Alerts: Tinder Press offer. The Passive Voice also posted this info, and the comments were overwhelmingly negative. Some commenters assumed that self-published authors were not eligible, which is not the case; but still the general idea was - it's suspicious, stay clear of this deal.

I don't have anything ready to submit to Tinder Press, I'm just trying to figure out what's going on. It's not easy. :-)

It would be great to hear what you, Anne, and other writers who post in this thread think about this Tinder initiative.

Thank you very much for your help.

January 25, 2015 at 5:12 PM  
Blogger Leanne Dyck said...

Villains think of themselves as the "good" and they think their actions are justified.
Heroes aren't saints.
Thanks for interesting article, Ruth.

January 25, 2015 at 5:29 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Sasha--The people on The Passive Voice are 100% against any kind of traditional publishing. Especially the Big Five. They'd tell you if Random Penguin offered you 8 figures for a first novel, you should turn it down in favor of writing a novel a week for the rest of your life. They have a political agenda not everybody shares. :-) And they hate anything literary. There is some good information there, but you need to take it all with a grain of salt.

January 25, 2015 at 6:59 PM  
Blogger Sasha A. Palmer said...

8 figures for a first novel vs. writing a novel a week for the rest of your life...tough choice... :-)
I enjoy reading The Passive Voice, but the comments do puzzle me sometimes.
Thanks, Anne.

January 25, 2015 at 7:26 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Sasha--8 figures and a chateau in France would not get some of those people to allow anybody to accept a trad pub contract. Unless it got offered to them. :-) The Passive Guy is brilliant and has great advice, but he attracts some lock-step anti-publisher fanatics who can't see past their own need for control. I always read the posts, but generally avoid the comments.

January 25, 2015 at 8:01 PM  
Blogger Joanne Lowery said...

Have not used a heroic animal but I have exploited a smart-assed Saddlebred who is addicted to peach sweet tea. Thanks Anne for sizzling up the bloggosphere.

January 25, 2015 at 9:00 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Joanne--The sizzle this week is all Ruth's! An animal with addiction issues is good, too. :-)

January 25, 2015 at 9:15 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Hi Tam—Thanks for the flattering words. Glad the post was helpful.

January 26, 2015 at 4:05 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Sasha, Thanks!

January 26, 2015 at 4:06 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Hi Joanne—Thanks for your comment. Listen to Anne. She knows what she's talking about. Addicted animals? WTG! But now what? Do they go to rehab? Do they trash their stalls? Do they become pushers and get other animals hooked? Do politicians pass laws making peach sweet tea illegal? Lots to consider. :-)

January 26, 2015 at 4:08 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Leanne—Very well stated! Thank you. :-)

January 26, 2015 at 4:16 AM  
Blogger Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

Great list of unique characters and what makes us love them. One of my favorite animated characters is Megamind. I watch that movie over and over again.

January 26, 2015 at 7:37 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Susan—Thanks for taking the time to comment and for the addition of another fab character!

January 26, 2015 at 10:08 AM  
OpenID rolandclarke.com said...

Great post and one I'll have to return to as a reminder. Trying to write a character profile fore a detective with a Goth image - used photo of Abi from NCIS as inspiration. Also look into personality types, and working out a character's astrology adds to package. And those last comments are making me think about pets with attitude.

January 26, 2015 at 10:15 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Roland—Thanks for the lovely compliment *and* for the excellent suggestions. :-) Pets with attitude is a fun idea, isn't it?

January 26, 2015 at 1:34 PM  
Blogger dolorah said...

I love researching character profiles. I do use the DSM for my villains and some of my more colorful characteers. And names; I research name meanings and insure some of that leaks into my characters. It is fun to write intriguing characters, but can be hard work to get it all right.

January 26, 2015 at 8:05 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

dolorah—Sounds like you have an excellent approach and, yes, it is hard work. Writing is. Hard work, that is. :-)

January 27, 2015 at 5:48 AM  
Blogger Bernardo Montes de Oca said...

Worst of all: when you enlisted your possible characters, I knew most of them, ha ha. For me, there are two great sources for characters: my travels throughout the world (due to business) and people at my office. They are just such an eclectic mix of individuals that each provides something, a trait, a tic, a gesture, an accent, to my writing. Also I found that my friends (without their knowledge) have influenced my characters greatly!

January 27, 2015 at 2:18 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Hi Bernardo—"Worst" or Best? I'd say"best" because that eclectic mix and their quirks are just the inspirations we need! ;-)

January 27, 2015 at 2:36 PM  
Blogger Julie Musil said...

Ooooh, what a fun post! I tell ya, the book I'm working on now has two points of view...the protagonist, and the villain. At first I was so nervous about writing from a villain's pov, but wow, it's been a cool experience. Writing the "good side" of the villain--what makes him do what he does--was an excellent learning experience.

January 28, 2015 at 9:21 AM  
Blogger Bernardo Montes de Oca said...

Good point! I just love analyzing people. There's a lot of richness in every individual that surrounds us.

January 28, 2015 at 9:24 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Hi Julie, Thanks for the kind words. After all, if we can't have fun, then where are? Certainly writing the upside of the villain is an excellent definition of "fun." Glad you're enjoying your walk on the dark side. ;-)

January 28, 2015 at 9:53 AM  
Blogger Deb Atwood said...

Great post. I bopped over to Chuck Wendig's piece via your link--so funny and so true. Glad you offered the link. I must admit I once put the worst thing anyone ever said to me in a character's mouth. It felt good.

I nominated you for the One Lovely Blog Award (as you so cleverly discovered!): http://peninherhand.com/one-lovely-blog-award/ Congratulations and thank you for all your informative articles!

January 28, 2015 at 3:58 PM  
Blogger LD Masterson said...

I'm just at the character building stage for a new book so this was great timing. I'll be hanging on to the post for a while. Thanks.

January 28, 2015 at 6:51 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

LD—Hi and thanks. Hope the post helps as you build your characters!

January 29, 2015 at 8:46 AM  
Blogger Rosalind Minett said...

Your great examples impress with often extreme behaviour or decision-making. Another source of milder but no less memorable characters comes from the plays by Alan Ayckbourn. These impress because they are like people we've met, which enhances the humour.

I think the self-obsessed women of different ages in Me-Time Tales remind readers of women they know. I hope so.

I've tried to make even child characters memorable. Hopefully with success.
(e.g. in A Relative Invasion)

February 10, 2015 at 12:58 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Rosalind—Thanks for the kind words. You're right: memorable does not have to mean extreme or Over The Top. Relatable can do the job very well.

February 10, 2015 at 10:40 AM  

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