When my kids were younger, they were addicted to the British TV show, Bob the Builder. Strangely (or perhaps not so strangely), their favorite characters were not Bob, or his partner Wendy - it was Scoop, the yellow loader, and Dizzy, the orange concrete mixer, who captured their imagination. On one memorable occasion when, in a misguided attempt at bonding, my husband wrongly identified a machine, my then three year old piped up, "Papa, you know nothing. That is Lofty, not Roley. Roley says 'Rock and roll'!!!"
The creators of the show knew a thing or two about creating memorable characters. Not only were the machines all different, they had different colors, and distinct personalities. You could argue that the characterizations were rather simplistic - Lofty the hesitant blue crane, Roley the cool green roadroller, Muck the impetuous green bulldozer, Dizzy the baby of the lot and Scoop the leader of the gang. But the key to creating memorable characters for children is to bring on the differences.
Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Minnie Mouse, Daisy Duck, Goofy, Pluto - even a kid can tell them apart. And kids are supposed to tell them apart. Archie Andrews the carrot top, Jughead Jones with the crown hat, Betty Cooper with her blond ponytail, Veronica Lodge with her slick black hair, Big Moose, and Reggie Mantle with his shiny black hair - there is no way you can get them mixed up.
But what if your audience is slightly older than children? Do you still concentrate on the physical and obvious personality differences?
Yes, and No. Think J.K. Rowling, a lady who has captured the imagination of billions with her memorable characters.
Harry Potter - untidy black hair, green eyes, lightning bolt-shaped scar on forehead
Ron Weasley - bright red hair, freckles, tall and gangly
Hermione Granger - bushy brown hair, brown eyes, large teeth
Hard to get them mixed up. Now double the number -
Three girls - one blond, one brunette, one red-haired
Three boys - one blond, one black haired, one red-haired
Still easy to keep apart for the simple reason they are physically so diverse. If you increase the number to include the entire Dumbledore's Army, you find that you can still keep the characters apart - the Houses the students belong to slot them to some extent, and the uniqueness is nailed down by providing one or two physical characteristics that keep them apart - Susan Bones and her blond plait and famous Aunt anyone?
But what if the characters are not too different? What if they look alike and behave alike? What if they are twins? Identical twins? Twins so similar in looks and temperament that even their mother cannot always tell them apart? What if they are Greg and Forge?
Fred and George Weasley are so unique they cannot be mistaken for anyone else. They look alike, think alike, act alike, even play in the same position in Quidditch. Or do they? Hasn't Fred always been the more impetuous one, and George the slightly calmer one? Hasn't it always been Fred who threw the first punch when it came to defending Harry Potter. Could George have come up with the memorable line, "Oi! Angelina! Do you want to come to the ball with me?"
Much as you did not want to think about it, wasn't it always obvious that the only Weasley kid who would not come out alive from the 'Final Battle' would be Fred? Fred could not have been left behind to mourn George; six books were spent preparing us for the inevitability of George having to come to terms with the loss of his twin.
Is there a lesson in it for all of us? Yes, of course. Characters make or break a book. People rarely re-read a book for the plot, but they always re-read a book for the characters. And the key to writing memorable characters is making sure they can be told apart, and then allowing them to grow.