The best stories are never just about plot; they’re about people – their desires and ambitions, their likes and dislikes, their passions. I write crime fiction, a genre people often assume is predominantly plot-driven. In fact, the opposite is true. Yes, a good crime novel needs a well-crafted story with enough twists and turns to surprise your reader and keep them interested. At its heart, however, crime fiction is about people: fully rounded characters with their own foibles, personalities and motivations.
Character is the starting point with all my books. In the case of my latest novel, The Lucky Eight, it was actually a group of characters that inspired me – eight people who had survived a plane crash. I wanted to explore the unique bond created between these people, and what would happen if one of them harboured a terrible secret.
One of the challenges with The Lucky Eight was having such a big cast of characters. As well as my two main protagonists, the novel has a whole host of secondary characters. I needed to make sure that each one of them was plausible enough for the reader to be interested in them and care about their fate.
Each writer has their own technique for developing their characters. Some create detailed spreadsheets where they keep track of every aspect of their characters’ life stories and personalities. I’ve tried this in the past but it doesn’t work for me. Instead, my characters are already fully formed when they turn up inside my head. They’re like people I know in real life. I don’t keep spreadsheets on my friends so it doesn’t seem ‘real’ to do this for my characters.
Please note I am NOT criticising the spreadsheet approach. It’s simply not for me. All writers approach their craft differently. For example, many of my writing friends are detailed planners. I’m not one of those, although I often wish I was (detailed planning up front is a far more effective way of writing a novel). The problem is, no matter how hard I try to plan in advance, I inevitably default into ‘pantser’ mode – writing without quite knowing where I’m going or how my novel will end.
So, if I don’t have a spreadsheet, how do I keep track of my characters? The easiest answer is that I ‘just do’. However, the more complicated – and honest – answer is that it’s a technique I’ve developed over time.
My first novel, Hunting Shadows, was the start of a series. The central character in those novels is a second-generation Irish detective called Ellen Kelly. From the outset, Ellen felt very real to me. However, as an inexperienced writer embarking on a new series I felt immense pressure to make sure Ellen felt as real to my readers as she did for me.
I shared my concerns with author JJ Marsh who was also writing her first series, featuring police detective Beatrice Stubbs. Together, we worked on developing a list of questions we could use to understand our characters as much as possible. Many authors use character questionnaires but Jill and I wanted a set of questions specifically for our two fictional female detectives.
When we had a set of questions we were happy with, we each answered the entire list in character (me as Ellen, Jill as Beatrice). It was a hugely helpful exercise and really helped me get inside Ellen’s head.
I relied on this questionnaire a lot for my first few novels. Seven novels in and I don’t use it so much. Mainly because I’m now so used to thinking about my characters in this level of detail it’s become second nature to me.
There are two central protagonists in The Lucky Eight: Clodagh Kinsella, one of the survivors of the plane crash; and Detective Inspector Rachel Lewis, who lives in Brighton with her wife. When I was writing both these characters, I didn’t sit down and go through the questionnaire for each of them. However, if you asked me any of the questions for either one of them I’d have the answer right away. I could tell you what Clodagh’s favourite colour is (green), that Rachel’s preferred tipple is German Weissbeir and that neither character can see the point of rugby.
If you’ve ever done a creative writing course, you’ll already be familiar with different techniques you can employ to help develop your characters. The questionnaire that Jill and I developed is one, but there are many others.
Don’t forget, however, there is another important aspect of character development which is less predictable and cannot be taught. This is the way your characters develop when you are writing your story. As fiction writers, creativity is at the very heart of what we do. It’s the magical thing inside us that has driven us to write stories about people who only exist inside our own minds.
When you start writing, you may well find the characters you’ve spent so long developing decide to act in a way you could never have predicted. If that happens, take my advice and let your characters do what they want. It might not be what you’d planned, but you may well find your characters know themselves better than you do – just like every real person you’ve ever met!
Footnote: Jill has further developed this exercise to help her understand how other people see her character. You can find the extended exercise on her blog.
(c) Sheila Bugler
The Lucky Eight is available to buy now on Amazon and from all good bookshops.
About The Lucky Eight:
When the plane crashed, 160 people perished. Now someone is killing off the survivors.
Five years ago, a horrific airline disaster made headlines around the world. On the anniversary of the fatal crash, a number of those who were spared gather to mark the occasion. By morning, Nick Gilbert, a celebrity chef and one of the party, lies dead. Detective Rachel Lewis leads the investigation and within days another survivor is stabbed to death. It seems certain that a killer is targeting the lucky eight.
Clodagh Kinsella recovered from the injuries she sustained in the crash, but lost her sister that day. The bereavement shared by Clodagh and her sister’s husband led them to a romance of their own. Yet lately, Clodagh knows something isn’t right. As the noose tightens on the group and Rachel comes across more questions than answers, it’s only a matter of time before Clodagh will have to face the consequences of a mistake she made before the plane went down…
A tense and gripping crime thriller, perfect for fans of Lesley Kara and Mari Hannah.
Order your copy online here.