There is an age old debate about whether great crime is plot or character driven. Plot is essential, but without great characters and conflict between those characters, there is no story, no plot. Great characters are the life blood of great fiction. Earlier this month I had the pleasure of chatting to the incredible Sophie Hannah at the Red Line Book Festival – in the second half of the event Louise Phillips, Patricia Gibney and Cormac O’Keefe joined us and we had a great discussion about what makes a strong character. Arlene Hunt is running a workshop about this very subject at the forthcoming Murder One festival and will be getting into much more detail, giving solid tips on creating this vital part of every story, whether participants are writing crime or not (but Arlene writes some great baddies!)
Plots are about characters, characters who we empathise with, who we root for, who have a lot to lose. Without good characters who are strong, believable and empathetic, your will struggle to hold your reader. Even the worst baddie has a weak point, a point that makes them vulnerable and human.
To really get a grasp of your characters, you need to understand their personalities, their likes and dislikes, who they’re going to fall in love with, who they hate – and why.
Robert McKee in his amazing book STORY talks about plot being generated by the character’s reactions to events. Story is about conflict and about change – if the characters do not change in some way as a result of the story, there is no story. Conflict gives us energy, it gives the characters problems to solve, it hooks us in and is core to any book. And crime readers are an intelligent bunch, they love a challenge, are the type of readers who enjoy cross word puzzles, who can spot a forensic error a mile off – they know their stuff and expect high standards.
But conflict, in any story, is more than literal – a character’s internal conflict, their personality, their reactions, are key to keeping a reader hooked. It’s vital that, as a reader, you are interested enough to want to read on, and only three dimensional complex characters will achieve that. Everyone has hopes and fears and things they’d rather people didn’t know, they are interesting. Fictional characters must be just the same.
Motivation is key to creating character. Understanding why a character acts in a certain way, understanding the events that have occurred in their past that make them who they are. Think about your own life – how have your experiences shaped the person you are? How did the school you went to influence your future, how did the people you made friends with help you to make sense of the world. Are you still friends with them? Have you fallen out? Why? Think about the key plot point in your story. How will your character react to the situation, and why do they behave this way?
You need to get to know your characters better than you know your best friend – and unless you like the characters you write, you won’t be interested in what happens to them.
Think about the connections between the different players in your story that you might not have realised when you started. You will see conflict and potential points of confrontation that will give your story substance – remember there is no plot without conflict. Through detailing your characters, you will discover their story.
“I intend all my characters must escape from impossible situations; if they are not in trouble, then as a writer, I am.” ― Cleveland W. Gibson
Story boards can be very useful when you are creating characters – find pictures of them to help you visualise them. Storyboards are invaluable if you need to leave your story for a few days – all those people will be waiting for you when you get back.
Making your characters memorable
Repeat character names often to secure them in the reader’s mind. You might be writing a scene where two people are talking, and you’ve introduced them both at the start, but imagine if your reader puts your book down to answer the phone or (God forbid!) go to sleep. When they pick it up again, will they remember who is speaking? Will they be able to work it out what is happening in your scene without flicking back to the beginning of the chapter?
Give each character something special that sets them apart from the crowd, makes them distinctive. When you introduce them, introduce this characteristic at the same time so it is fixed in the reader’s mind. It could be an accent, a missing limb, bright red lipstick, a moustache or a cigarette, anything the reader can use to distinguish this character from others. Make sure the characteristic you have chosen tells us something about the character themselves and is consistent with the profile you have created for them. Does your character always drink black coffee? What does that tell the reader about them? Do they drive a Mini or a Mercedes?
To ensure your characters are memorable make sure their names are all different, including their initials – if you’ve a Jack and a John the reader will forget who is who, will mix them up and struggle with your story. Try to avoid using the same initials or names that sound the same.
Define your character’s goals.
Every character needs something hard to get, needs to have obstacles to overcome to reach his/her goals. Every character needs to change during the course of the story.
List the obstacles that prevent the main characters from getting what they want. These could be psychological, physical or emotional. This sets up the plot and creates the tension.
How many characters should there be in your story?
Try not to confuse the reader with too many characters – there is only so much space in a book to fully develop a character – if you have too many they will all suffer. Think about your story – each character should serve a purpose. Each character needs be an integral part of the whole structure, so that if he or she is removed the structure collapses. If you can take away a character without it having a significant effect on the plot, that character is superfluous.
If you a planning a series character, don’t forget to create a character bible – Arlene Hunt will be giving you much more information on this, and on defining and refining your characters in her Murder One workshop on Friday 2nd November – book in now!
(c) Sam Blake
About No Turning Back by Sam Blake:
No Turning Back, the third in the Cat Connolly series is out in paperback on 1st November, and it’s got a brand new cover!
Even perfect families have secrets . . .
Orla and Conor Quinn are the perfect power couple: smart, successful and glamorous. But then the unthinkable happens. Their only son, Tom, is the victim of a deliberate hit-and-run.
Detective Garda Cathy Connolly has just left Tom’s parents when she is called to the discovery of another body, this time in Dillon’s Park, not far from where Tom Quinn was found. What led shy student Lauren O’Reilly to apparently take her own life? She was a friend of Tom’s and they both died on the same night – are their deaths connected and if so, how?
As Cathy delves deeper, she uncovers links to the Dark Web and a catalogue of cold cases, realising that those involved each have their own reasons for hiding things from the police. But events are about to get a lot more frightening . . .