Tag Archives: character development

Mystery Genre Workshop Part Two: Mysterious Characters

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When someone mentions “mystery novel” what image comes to mind? The cloaked Sherlock Holmes, the wax mustache of Hercule Poirot, the trenchcoated Columbo, the clever Jessica Fletcher, Clarice Starling’s strength, the gritty Harry Bosch, or— any number of detectives that leap from the pages of our favorite mystery stories.

Why? Simple, the writers and screenwriters made them memorable.

As discussed in the previous article on plot, many writing “experts” debate whether a novel is plot driven or character driven. I believe both must be present. An excellent plot will not save a poorly written character, nor will an excellent character save a poorly written plot. Writers need both.

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Attributes of Mystery Characters

What makes a strong and identifiable protagonist in a mystery story?

The answer is the same components that create any good character. The reader must empathize with your main character’s goal and become vested in the same desire to achieve the goal. The protagonist needs to be multi-dimensional, and that complexity can be obtained by providing the reader with recognizable attributes. Creating a complex and compelling protagonist and applying these traits to secondary characters as well adds depth to the story.

Let’s first talk about characterization, a process that displays the character’s persona.

Developmental Strategies

General Characteristics

  • Physical Description: Convey to your reader only what you want them to see. Do not assign a grocery list of hair color, eye color, height, etc. but weave descriptions into the story. Allow your character to have a flaw—a scar, a crooked eyebrow, an old sports injury that flares up at times. Perfection is not realistic.
  • Personality: Is your character open to experience or resistant, conscientious or untrustworthy, an extrovert or introvert, agreeable or disagreeable, neurotic or even-keeled?
  • Interaction: How do they behave with others? Do they relate to people positively or negatively, or do they feel superior or indifferent? Do they have a sense of humor? Are they at times sarcastic? Are people comfortable in their presence?
  • Mannerisms: Do they gesture when they talk, twirl hair through their fingers? Do they tap a surface with their fingers or a pen? Give your character a quirk. Annoying or appealing, mannerisms add depth.
  • Environment/Culture: Your character’s living conditions reveal a great deal about them. Are they tidy or messy? What kind of car do they drive or food do they prefer? Does your character have a passion for the arts, or sports, or reading or are they committed to their job?
  • Communication: How your character speaks brings them to life. If they have an accent use it (do not overdo jargon) to add depth. Vary their speech pattern from the norm when they are nervous or happy. Include the character’s inner-thoughts to bring intimacy between the character and the reader.
  • Names: A character’s name can be very telling. It can provide insight into their background, profession, or where they come from. Choose names that will provide insight into who the character is. A judge would not likely be called Junior in the courtroom, a prostitute Elizabeth on the streets.

 Sleuth Specific Attributes

While these attributes are also vital to other genres, a detective—professional or amateur—often possesses these traits.

  • Intelligence, excellent deductive reasoning skills.
  • Experienced and knowledgeable, either as a law enforcement professional or in the case of an amateur sleuth a comprehensive knowledge of some component of the crime.
  • Are often loners, misunderstood, not comfortable in social situations, yet only the reader might be aware of this aspect. They often do not trust others.
  • May experience a physical or psychological challenge, an addiction or phobia.
  • Often have an experience in their past that either disrupted their personal life or impacted their career.
  • Has a foil to play off, someone who is their opposite but not necessarily their enemy such as a by the book superior.
  • Possesses a strong sense of justice but doesn’t always play by the rules to achieve their goals.
  • Willing to risk everything to solve the crime even if their reputation is at stake.

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When considering a list of traits such as this, it is evident that creating a compelling character is a complex but worthwhile task. Readers are drawn to a story by the plot, but they return to read an author’s other book or series of books because they identify with the characters within and empathize with their desires. The attributes discussed can be utilized by characters in any genre, and all do not need to be present in every character, but the more complicated—and human—you make your protagonist, the stronger the bond with the reader.

Characters, whether in a mystery story or other genre, should want something so badly that they will risk all to achieve it. They carry burdens of secrets from their past they don’t want to confront, but those secrets make them vulnerable. When you can create a character that becomes a reflection of the hopes and fears of your reader, then you have achieved your job as a writer.

 

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Deborah Ratliff: We Just Click, Dude!

How a deep connection between characters engages your reader.

 
“What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.”    ― Aristotle

A writer recently posted a question in a group discussion. What causes a reader to return to subsequent novels by an author? He wondered if the author and their writing style was the reason.

I have heard this question many times, and I think that while an author’s style is important to a reader, what brings a reader back repeatedly is how the author crafts characters.

Once at a meeting of a writing group, we were discussing the merits of writing a novel series and what would cause readers to continue to follow the books. A local playwright listened to this discussion before pounding the table. He declared that there was only one reason a reader came back: the characters. Provide a character that a reader can identify with, care about, connect to, and they will respond and read everything you write about that character.

This is true for me personally. The first author and character I became enamored with were John D. McDonald and the infamous Travis McGee. Everything about his books drew me in. The main setting, the coast of South Florida, remains a favorite to this day. Every detail, the ancient Rolls Royce McGee converted into a pick-up truck, the houseboat he won in a poker game, the marina where the boat docked, all characters within the novels. But that alone did not bring me back.

Travis McGee was larger than life. A man of honor with a strong moral center who, while he would bend the rules to accomplish his goals, never lost sight of the truth and what was right. He was reliable, counted on to help people when they had exhausted all other possibilities to undo a wrong. I think we all want that level of stability and strength in our lives.

McDonald didn’t stop with his main character. He created a world of characters that existed from novel to novel. McGee’s best friend, the economist Meyer, was unique, along with a cast of colorful and eccentric characters. From Chookie, who danced at a local club, to The Alabama Tiger, who held a constant floating party on his boat, these characters became old friends. The last Travis McGee novel may have been the saddest book I have ever read. My friends were gone. There would be no new adventures.

However, that instant connection I had with McGee and company will never leave. I read those books over often and feel nostalgia and peace simultaneously. Once you have felt that connection whether in real life or in your imaginary life that feeling will never leave.

The question then becomes this. How do writers craft characters that readers can connect with at the desired level? Let us examine what makes a character memorable.

 

Who is this person?

You must establish your main character as likable and relatable. They do not have to be perfect but do need to have characteristics the reader can identify with, or there will be no connection.

An important consideration is not to stereotype your character. Perfection is not the goal here, realism is. The reader wants to see someone who is strong and heroic but with flaws that they have themselves. Then they can project themselves into the action. Remember, Indiana Jones was afraid of snakes.

Construct your character through show and tell, don’t provide a litany of characteristics. If your character is short (which I identify with) frame the description as “she stretched to reach the top shelf” not she was five-one. The reader will have experienced the reaching or watched someone who did and identify without an exact reference to the character’s height and create an image in their imagination.

Above all, reveal your character’s flaws. Are they afraid of new love because of hurt in the past? Are they devastated or angry because of a tragedy? Did they lose everything and have to start over? Show the fears they feel, the pain and anger. You should also give them a reason for hope—a faith that they will survive and reach their goal. Give them humor and confidence, even if you shake it from time to time. Let them laugh, cry, rant, and fight for what they want. Your reader should be cheering for your character to succeed with every word.

 

What are they seeking?

Establish your MC’s goal as soon as possible. What do they want? Once you have established the task before them, throw obstacles in their way. Create the need for the reader to become engaged in their quest. We have all wanted something we seemingly can’t have, and as problem after problem piles on, we think we will never reach our goal. Let the reader feel that frustration, fear, anger as they fight through the issues keeping them from their goals.

 

Who are their companions?

As with the Travis McGee series, secondary characters are significant to how your reader identifies with your main character and invests in the story. They need to be memorable as well.

I wrote a story where I introduced a character, a bartender in the New Orleans French Quarter, who was meant to be a vehicle for my protagonist to run into her former lover. Within two paragraphs, I had fallen for the bartender, and he morphed into a cousin and best friend of the former lover and became an integral part of the plot. The story became more vibrant with more depth because I added a character who had a vested interest in the outcome.

Create the friend, the mentor, the grandmother, the housekeeper, whatever character you need to help you present your MC’s human side. Someone who recognizes their flaws and is not afraid to tell them. Someone they can confess their thoughts to, someone they trust. With each interaction between these characters, the reader will become more attached to the main character.

 

What does this effort give you, the author?

Going back to our original question, why do readers return to a writer, they come back because they like the characters.

They “just click” with them. Standalone stories with great characters will bring readers back to an author. A series of novels with the same character succeeds because, while writing style may have allowed them to enjoy the first novel, readers will want to read the second and third and so on because you gave them a character who reflects their desires and one they can identify with time and again.

Never forget how it felt to instantly connect to someone important in your life. A good author will give that incredible emotion to their readers. Those readers will be back for more.

 

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Deborah Ratliff is Southerner with saltwater in her veins and love of writing. A career in science and human resources provided the opportunity to write policies/procedures and training manuals, articles, and newsletters but her lifelong love of mystery novels beckoned. Deborah began writing mysteries and her first novel, Crescent City Lies will be published shortly with a second novel, One of Those Days to follow. Deborah regularly contributes articles on writing to the blog, Writers Unite! and serves as an administrator on the Facebook writing site, Writers Unite! which has 43,000 + members from around the globe.

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Resources:

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/18077-what-is-a-friend-a-single-soul-dwelling-in-two

https://www.goodreads.com/series/52264-travis-mcgee

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082971/

Challenge Your Characters

Some writers love having horrible and hazardous things happen to their characters, while others prefer to keep their characters safe and happy. It can be difficult to cause our characters to hurt or suffer, because we care about them. Our characters become part of us.

However, just as we grow through our own challenges, so do your characters. Without difficulties through which to learn and grow, characters tend to be one-dimensional and fall flat.

One of the best things you can do in your stories is to confront the individuals with various hardships. Present them with adversity which brings out their frustrations, hurts, fears, and insecurities. Because those hard times are what show the growth and strength in your characters and help them evolve. So hit them with whatever helps develop them – don’t be too easy on them.

Challenging the people you write about helps your story in three important ways.

 

  1. It brings out your character’s inner qualities

Your character grows, evolves, and becomes more relatable to the reader through challenges. Facing fears, struggles, or danger helps show what they are made of. It gives them more depth and they become more real and tangible. It helps the reader understand them better, as they see the character’s courage and inner strength. Characters that face adversity are much more interesting than shallow, superficial characters who are never challenged.

This is true for children’s books as well. I have published ten children’s books, all animal stories – and even in those, the main characters face struggles. No matter what your target audience, it is important for your character to face and grow through challenges, even if it’s facing bullies, searching for a lost dog, or helping someone in danger.

 

  1. It keeps the story interesting

Characters who are challenged keep the story engaging for the reader. A story about only happy experiences would be a boring book. It would not be compelling to read about John walking down the street in the sunshine. However, it is a lot more gripping to read about John walking down the street holding divorce papers, while a car is hurtling at him at full speed as John’s knee gives out and he slips in a puddle. Not only do obstacles keep your characters intriguing, but they keep your entire story engaging as well.

It’s also a good idea to let the challenges build in intensity throughout the book. Let the predicaments be smaller at first, and then, through the progression of the story, the difficulties increase until he faces his biggest fear or dilemma. That is what is gripping about books – the build-up of intensity, fear, danger, and adversity. Will they overcome it? Will they succeed? How will they get out of this terrifying scenario? Those are often the most memorable books.

 

  1. It inspires your readers

Seeing how a character faces and overcomes adversity can be inspirational for a reader. We all face challenges in life, and seeing how a character deals with fear, danger, insecurities, setbacks, illness, or whatever it is, can inspire us to deal with similar challenges in our own lives. If your character found the strength to face that disaster, then so can I. It teaches us and helps us find the inner strength to face whatever comes our way.

So don’t be afraid to challenge your characters – you create better and more memorable characters, a more fascinating and gripping story, and you can inspire your readers to face the difficulties in their own lives. Don’t hold back – a challenged character is a captivating character that will make your story more powerful and memorable.

And as you create your stories, remember to embrace the challenges in your own writing as well – they help you become a better writer.

Copyright © 2018 Lynn Miclea. All Rights Reserved.

Image found on Google. Credit to unknown artist.


LYNN MICLEA grew up in New York and moved to California while in her twenties. A certified hypnotherapist and Reiki master practitioner with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, she spent many years working in the medical field and in various offices in an administrative capacity.

After retiring, Lynn discovered and developed a passion for writing, and she is now a successful author with many books published and more on the way. Her two memoirs, one of her family’s experience with ALS, and one of her own journey through open-heart surgery, have received numerous five-star reviews.

She also has published ten sweet, exciting, and fun children’s books, which are uplifting, loving, feel-good animal stories, filled with warm humor, and which are about kindness, compassion, helping others, seeing the best in others, and believing in yourself.

She hopes that through her writing, she can help empower others and add more joy and love to the world. She asks everyone to be kind to each other as we all share this journey through life together.

Lynn currently lives in the Los Angeles area with her husband and two dogs.

Learn more about Lynn at her amazon author page here.

And please visit her website at www.lynnmiclea.com for more information on her books.

 

 

WRITING YOUR FIRST NOVEL PART Five: Creating Unforgettable Characters

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”
― Ray BradburyZen in the Art of Writing

 

A playwright in a local writing group I attend posed an interesting question. He wanted to know what the group thought attracted readers to read the same authors repeatedly. The consensus reached was that we return to our favorite authors because they give us characters we identify with, cheer for and care about.

Think about a series of books you are fond of and consider what brings you back every time that author publishes a new novel. I’m certain the genre is appealing and likely the author writes well and is entertaining, but many authors are as well. I think one of the main reasons we favor certain authors is the characters they create.

Harry Bosch, Jack Ryan, Kay Scarpetta, Sherlock Holmes, Dirk Pitt, Eve Dallas, Travis McGee.

These characters and countless others are part of our lexicon. They become important to us and remain with us long after we have read the first or the last novel of the series. My father handed me my first John D. McDonald book featuring the character Travis McGee when I was sixteen, telling me I would learn about life from McDonald’s words. I cannot tell you how many times I have read each of the twenty-one novels in the Travis McGee series over the years. A self-identified beach bum and salvage operator, McGee was more than that. He was a believer in justice, respected women, hated drugs and drug dealers, greed, and corruption. A modern-day Robin Hood who helped those who could not fight the system, a characteristic of many of the characters we embrace.

As a mystery writer, many of the names I have listed above are old friends, and while I do realize they are not real, their familiarity from novel to novel allows that suspension of belief we need to immerse ourselves in fiction. These authors make their characters unforgettable and so should we.

First Impressions

The first time we meet anyone we form an immediate impression, despite knowing we should not judge a person until we get to know them better. But we do, and your reader will form an opinion of your characters when they first meet.

As we discussed in Part Four of our series, “Plotting Your Story,” you should introduce your main character, or protagonist, as soon as possible in your first chapter. If you want the reader to become engaged in the story and read until the end, then make your protagonist compelling. Give your readers a reason to like the character, to feel empathy for them, for their plight.

You should introduce your main character quickly and important supporting characters within the first chapter, even if only by name, not appearance. Your protagonist should be alluded to even if not present in the first chapter. Let your readers see who they are rooting for and who they are not.

 

Types of Characters in a Story:

 

The Protagonist

Your story revolves around this character and your readers’ interest will, as well. As we discussed, you must define them clearly and quickly. This character is your story, he/she must define the plot and be the focus of the central action of the story. The conflict that exists in the story is what this character must face and ultimately make a choice on how to deal with. Put you protagonist in peril throughout the story to involve the reader in their plight.

 

The Antagonist

The villain is the foil for your protagonist and the source of their conflict. Introduce the antagonist early as you would your protagonist. However, you may introduce their evil deeds first and, dependent on the genre you are writing in, have them appear in the story or reveal their identity as the antagonist at an appropriate time.

 

Secondary Characters

All character’s other than your protagonist and antagonist fall into this category. These characters can play a pivotal role in the story or serve a role in a transitional scene, a clerk or service technician, a doctor, any role you need. The role of side-kick falls into this category, and these characters need development to convey the level of importance they carry in a story. Keep in mind, even the most mundane of characters is an opportunity to enrich your story. A taxi driver might appear briefly in one scene, but you have the choice to make that character memorable.

 

“There are no hundred percent heroes.” — Travis McGee, Cinnamon Skin, 1982, by John D. MacDonald

Making Your Characters Unforgettable:

  • Appearance: As you write your characters, no doubt you will know exactly what they look like. The question is how much of that description do you impart to your readers. There are two schools of thought, describe your characters the way you want your reader to see them or allow your reader to imagine them as they choose. Whatever you decide, do not throw out an ingredient list identifying characteristics. Incorporate those characteristics into dialogue or the character’s internal dialogue as your story unfolds. If you do intend on revealing hair color or any other feature, do so within the first chapter. If you tell your reader in chapter five, your character is a brunette, and your reader thinks redhead, their connection with the character could be destroyed.
  • Background: Your characters origins, place of birth, ethnic background, ancestry, education, career choices, sports participation, hobbies, etc. can all play a role in their development. What did their parents do for a living, what unusual events occurred to impact their lives, what childhood pets did they have, all impact who they are.
  • Communication: How do they interact with people? Is he friendly, curt, argumentative? Do they have an accent, special words, or phrases that they use that shows their personality and makes them unique? What does their voice sound like? What is their internal thought processes?
  • Relationships: How do they interact with family and friends? Do they make friends easily, are they awkward in social situations? Do they genuinely like people, are they shy?
  • Goals: Decide what do your characters want. What are the goals, desires, need that you should address in your novel to move the story to its conclusion. Stories are based on conflict, and you need to show how that conflict interferes with their goals and how to resolve the issue.
  • Flaws: Do remember that your characters do not need to be perfect. While Hollywood prescribes that all characters must be handsome or beautiful, the fact is real life doesn’t look like that. Give your MC a scar, have them throw a temper tantrum, have them drink too much or hate dogs or apple pie. Let them complain about their weight or their cousins. Make them real people.

 

There are some things to avoid.

  • All those classic boys/girls next door, the dumb sidekick, the brave solitary cowboy, doting mothers, rough Marine drill sergeants, all those stereotypes we have come to expect, don’t use them. Do not write the expected, give your reader a character that is unique.
  • Do not create simple characters. Give them dimension. You have a cast of characters that should be interesting. While you will focus on developing your main characters and those secondary characters that are important to the story arc, don’t forget to humanize your minor characters. Make them stand out, give them a funny line or a unique attribute. If you cannot make them real, don’t use them as placeholders to take you to the next scene, cut them from the story.

 

How do you create these characters?

“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”

― William Faulkner

Story coaches and experts will tell you that writing a character biography down to shoe size and favorite dessert along with a list of books they’re read is the only way to properly develop your characters. There are numerous character development sheet templates available online if you choose to microscopically dissect their personalities. There are some authors who write a multi-page biography before they commence writing their novel.

Then there are writers like me. I think of my story arc, imagine the character, give them a name and start typing. They will tell me their likes and dislikes as we experience the story together.

Again, as in all things writing related, choose what works for you. The main thing is to remember to create multidimensional main and secondary characters that enrich your stories and propel the plot to its conclusion.

 

“I will go to my grave in a state of abject endless fascination that we all have the capacity to become emotionally involved with a personality that doesn’t exist.”

― Berkeley Breathed

 

Resources:

https://www.mysteryscenemag.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3055:are-travis-mcgee-and-john-d-macdonald-still-relevent-&catid=54:reviews&Itemid=187

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/characters