What’s more important in writing a novel: the character or the story?
As a thriller author I get asked that question often, and my answer is always the same: create a great character and the rest of the book will follow.
The best example of this might be the legendary Philip Marlowe books written by Raymond Chandler, generally acclaimed to be the greatest ever in the mystery genre. The Philip Marlowe character of the hard-boiled LA private investigator and Chandler’s descriptions of that sun-drenched city where Marlowe worked are classics. “He wrote like a slumming angel,” someone once said in hailing Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels.
But the blunt truth is (and I know this sounds like heresy to say this!) most of Chandler’s actual stories are confusing and convoluted and they don’t always make a lot of sense. Still, that doesn’t matter. Philip Marlowe is what the Chandler books are all about, the story just goes along for the ride.
Then there’s maybe the most popular thriller author around today, Lee Child. He sells millions of books with his Jack Reacher stories. But a lot of other authors write great stories too, even though they are not as popular as Child. The difference is that Child created Jack Reacher, the ultimate action hero we eagerly follow no matter how far-fetched or unrealistic the plot might be.
Think of all the great series characters you love – Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder, Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum and on and on. It’s those characters that we love and keep coming back for, even more than the crime or the story they’re chasing.
I know as a reader that if I’m reading a book with a pretty good story, but a character I find boring or uninteresting, I probably won’t finish the book. But if the author hooks me with a fascinating character, I’m willing to put up with any shortcoming in the story and see where the character takes me.
The same is true for TV characters too. Take a beloved show like Columbo, for example. Think about it: the story premise is really pretty uninspiring. There’s a murder at the beginning of the show, the viewers know exactly who did it and why – and the rest of the 90 minutes or so is simple a lone detective solving the case. But the difference is that character is Columbo – who seemingly at first bumbles his way through the investigation, but in reality delights us by outsmarting even the cleverest criminals in the end. Once again, it’s not the story – it’s the character.
So what makes a great character? There is no set formula, but there a few things that the most popular ones seem to have in common. They are 1) likable 2) honest, 3) tough (not always physically, but still strong) and – perhaps most importantly of all – they are flawed. No one likes a perfect character, we want to be able to relate to them and watch them overcome their problems – just like all of us do in real life.
My own current character is Abby Pearce, a homicide detective in a small town on Martha’s Vineyard.
Abby is smart, good-looking, dedicated, funny and has a strong moral commitment to always do the right thing in seeking justice.
But Abby is a long way from perfect.
She has a drinking problem, one that’s a bit different from many of the men you’ve read about in previous detective stories: her drinking is rooted in a traumatic rape experience she had when she was a teenager growing up on the Vineyard that she’s never been able to completely put behind her.
She also has trouble dealing with her parents, her boss, her ex-husband and the new men in her love life.
All of this is what I focused the most on when I started writing the books – getting the Abby Pearce character right, and then letting the story flow from that. Which is what happens many times with a good character. The character winds up taking you places in the story that you didn’t even realize you were going to go too.
One of the reviews for SILENT ISLAND – the latest Abby Pearce thriller – said: “I was so engrossed that I felt that I was also on the island and trailing Det. Abby Pearce on her hunt for the killer or killers.” Guess what? I felt that way at times too when I was writing the book. So I knew I was doing something right!
Character or story?
No question about it.
Get the character right – and then the character will help you tell a great story.
(c) Dana Perry
About Silent Island:
Nancy Lavelle lies still on the floor. With her eyes looking towards her children’s rooms, her hands are clasped in prayer, as if the last thing she wished for was her children to be saved…
When Detective Abby Pearce is called to the Beach House, a holiday home in the most affluent part of Martha’s Vineyard, she finds five bodies. An entire family has been killed in a frenzied attack… all except one. Fifteen-year-old Karin is the only survivor. Sitting in the house, surrounded by her family, she stares into the distance and doesn’t say a word.
When Karin’s grandparents fly in to take her home, Abby’s investigation takes a shocking turn. Taking one look at the traumatised girl, they recoil—the girl curled up in a hospital bed isn’t their granddaughter. So who is she? And where is the real Karin Lavelle?
Abby fears the missing girl is in serious danger, and with local residents worried that the killer is still on the island and the press questioning her every move, she’s under pressure to solve both crimes fast. But when she uncovers a link between Thomas Lavelle’s New York office and her previous job at the NYPD, she begins to fear that these brutal murders are a sign… and that she’s next. Can she find the killer before another life is taken, or is she walking into a trap?
This fast-paced thriller is perfect for fans of Lisa Regan, Kendra Elliot and Mary Burton, but be warned—you won’t want to put it down!
Order your copy online here.