Creating a Killer Cast of Characters by Marnie Riches

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Character
Marnie Riches credit Phil Tragen

Marnie Riches

An aspect of my writing that reviewers of The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die and advance reviewers of The Girl Who Broke the Rules consistently comment on, is the way in which I keep a large cast of complex characters under control throughout the course of the story. The George McKenzie series is very much character-led, so I decided it might be interesting to share my recommended techniques for drawing great characters.

When you’re chewing over an idea for a new novel, very often, a main protagonist is the first thing to pop into your head – perhaps inspired by the people around you or characters you admire in other books. I remember reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo years ago, thinking I’d like to write a character as quirky and powerful as Salander one day. So, I set about creating my own heroine – more closely aligned with my own experiences in life as a woman. George is academically accomplished but has grown up, surrounded by crime and poverty, lending her the edge of the truly street-wise. The same is true of me. Easy peasy, then. But what about George’s family background as a mixed-race South East London girl of Jamaican descent? My background is Celtic and Eastern European – descended from minority ethnic migrants on one side, but not Black British. How do I then depict George’s heritage faithfully? And what about Paul van den Bergen? He’s a Dutch man, after all, and I am not. This is where your research comes in. If you fail to research your characters’ backgrounds and don’t give enough thought to what their hobbies might be, what their psychological quirks are, why they might have certain foibles, what their favourite food/music/books/films are, how they speak, what they might laugh at or be disgusted by, what their political/religious beliefs are…if you overlook all of those humdrum details, your characters will not stand up to scrutiny and your story will fail.

Silent DeadGolden rule – all story comes from character. Flat characters make for flat stories.

During a TV script-writing course I attended a few years ago, I was told by my teacher to draw up a grid, showing how my cast of characters interacted with each other. Who hated whom and why. Who was an ally? Who was a foe? Characters’ behaviour towards each other should be consistent throughout a novel, following and being true to the developmental arc for each individual. So, if van den Bergen wrestles increasingly with the bittersweet memory of his father in The Girl Who Broke the Rules, it stands to reason that his relationships with the people around him might become fraught, influencing his personal choices and professional conduct. And if George is four years older in The Girl Who Broke the Rules than she was in The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die, the dynamics of her relationships will necessarily change – not always for the better – as maturity and experience have changed her as a person. I’ve heard it said by many an established author and it is true: an engaging story will have you chasing your characters up trees and then throwing rocks at them. Dramatic tension, whether it comes from strife between characters or simply practical difficulties faced by your hero/heroine, propels your story forwards. No tension, no story!

Golden rule – Adversity is good. Send your characters on a trying and varied journey.

Many writers say their main characters just started speaking to them in a particular voice one day, and thereafter, the way in which the novel unfolded was dictated by the character, rather than the author! That’s a wonderful place to be in if you are writing in the first person, from the point of view of your main protagonist. But what about if you have a close, third person narrator and a roving POV, as in my series? Your narrative voice might differ slightly for each individual. Mine does. So, before you start to pen your magnum opus, make sure your narrative voice sits well with the character you are following, (unless you have an unreliable narrator, which is a different kettle of fish, entirely). If you are writing historical fiction about a midwife from 1950’s County Cork and intend it to be a first person POV, think twice before you let a contemporary male narrator creep in half-way though. And if your story is a crime novel, set on the meaner streets of Belfast or Dublin, don’t use a narrative voice that would be better suited to a Jane Austen novel (Believe me, I’ve seen this done when I’ve judged fiction competitions. It doesn’t work unless it’s a comedy with a hilarious twist lurking near the end!).

Golden rule – if you’re writing in the first person, ensure your narrative voice fits with your main protagonist’s world view.

More to the point, though, the actual voice of your characters – their speech – has to ring true. Dialogue is often one of the first disciplines fledgling writers fall down on. My advice is always to sit and listen to the way people speak in real life. Aim to reproduce the rhythms of their speech faithfully, rather than trying to transcribe heavy regional accents or dialogue. The only author I’ve come across who reproduced dialect brilliantly is Irvine Welsh in Trainspotting. If you can’t do it like him – with humour and authenticity – don’t bother trying. Another author, reputed to be exceedingly clever with dialogue, was Elmore Leonard. Look to the writing of authors like Dennis Lehane, who writes crime fiction but who was also a script-writer on HBO’s hugely successful cop series, The Wire. Top film and TV writers often represent the gold standard of written dialogue, so look online for scripts. Study the way in which the writers have told a story through the spoken word and how they have subtly stylised the speech of each character to mark them out as discernible individuals. Read your own dialogue out loud. Does it sound right? Reading aloud is a great way of sifting out shoddy passages that you might otherwise overlook. And remember, never use heavy exposition in dialogue, or I’ll come and beat you up for it!

Golden rule – get your dialogue right.

Now, go! Breathe life into your characters and let them help tell your wonderful stories!

(c) Marnie Riches

Author photograph (c) Phil Tragen

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About The Silent Dead:

Silent DeadShe was lying as if asleep on the wooden kitchen floor, beneath the fridge covered with a child’s colourful crayon drawings. But her frozen expression showed she would never wake again…

When Detective Jackie Cooke is called out to the scene, she’s expecting a routine check. The bottle of pills on the kitchen table, next to the note with the single word SORRY written in a shaky hand, make it seem obvious what’s happened. But Jackie is shocked when she recognises her old schoolfriend Claire – and she is convinced Claire would never take her own life.

Determined to dig deeper, Jackie soon discovers evidence that proves her right: a roll of notes has been thrust down the victim’s throat. And when she finds another woman killed in the same way, she realises someone may be targeting lonely single mothers. As Jackie talks to Claire’s distraught children, one of them too young to understand his mummy is never coming home, she vows to find answers.

Both victims were in touch with someone calling himself Nice Guy – could he be the killer? Pursuing every clue, Jackie is sure she’s found a match in dead-eyed Tyler, part of a dark world of men intent on silencing women for daring to reject them. But just as she makes the arrest, another single mother is found dead – a woman who never dated at all.

Forced to re-evaluate every lead she has, with her boss pressuring her to make a case against the obvious suspect, Jackie knows she is running out of time before another innocent woman is murdered. And, as a single mother herself, she cannot help but wonder if she is in the killer’s sights. Can she uncover his true motivation and put an end to his deadly game… or will he find her first?

A completely unputdownable crime thriller that will have you reading long into the night. Perfect for fans of Kendra Elliott, Rachel McLean and Val McDermid.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Marnie Riches grew up on a rough estate in north Manchester. Exchanging the spires of nearby Strangeways prison for those of Cambridge University, she gained a Masters in German & Dutch. She has been a punk, a trainee rock star, a pretend artist and professional fundraiser.

Her best-selling, award-winning George McKenzie crime thrillers were inspired by her own time spent in The Netherlands. Dubbed the Martina Cole of the North, she has also authored a series about Manchester’s notorious gangland as well as two books in a mini-series featuring quirky northern PI Bev Saunders.

Detective Jackson Cooke is Marnie’s latest heroine to root for, as she hunts down one of the most brutal killers the north west has ever seen at devastating personal cost.

When she isn’t writing gritty, twisty crime thrillers, Marnie also regularly appears on BBC Radio Manchester, commenting on social media trends and discussing the world of crime fiction. She is a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Salford University’s Doctoral School and a tutor for the Faber Novel Writing Course.

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