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Creating Unforgettable Characters by Sam Blake

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Character
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Sam Blake

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For me, creating characters is one of the most exciting part of the writing process. I write crime, so plot is paramount in the mix, but strong characters who live on long after you’ve put down the book are vital to me too – I want to readers to feel like they know each character personally, that the book in their hand is a window on a real world. Readers are always asking me when there will be another Cat Connolly book (the Cat trilogy is now available in digital worldwide, check it out), but each book brings with it a cast of its own, I’m not always in total control! That said, if you loved Cat, the kick boxing Irish detective with the wild curly hair, you might just catch a glimpse of her in a book about to be released…

But first, back to writing characters…

I often start with the character’s name, which can change or evolve as I get to know them better – names tell you a huge amount about a character’s background, their socio-economic status (think about what the names Wayne and Algernon tell you about where those individuals may have come from), whether they had crazy hippy parents or came from a long line of princes. I try and ensure all my character names are different – both in sound and in initial letters, and make a list of them so I can see if there are any repetitions. I once finished a book to discover that I’d changed a few names along the way and I had ended up with a Bess, Tess and a Jess (and one of them was a dog!) All my books are set in the same world, although in different parts of it, so if you’re a regular reader you will spot characters and locations popping up that you recognise, so keeping a map of all the characters who populate each book is vital! If you’ve read Keep Your Eyes on Me, you’ll discover Lily has a connection to someone in Anna Lockharte’s life (she features in No Turning Back and High Pressure) – but more on her later.

Before I write anything, I think about what age my characters are, where they live, where they went to school, where they work.

What’s their secret? What do they need? What three things can they not leave the house without? Who was their best friend in school – when did they go to school?

So many questions, but as I ask them, the cast within the book begins to take shape and I see interactions between individuals that I didn’t realise were there before.

I always work out how old each character is, then taking the year the book is set in, work out what their date of birth would be. I check out what the hit records were when they were 16 and 18 – or the year they left University. I find out what significant world events took place as they were growing up – will they remember the moon landing, or where they were when Lady Diana’s death was announced? Where were they when their country went into Lockdown?

I make a note of all these details, what they studied in University, who their friends were, what their favourite restaurant /favourite food is. You don’t need to hear any of this in a big biographical chunk, but this detail will trickle through into the story as I write it, filtering through their conversation and actions as the story unfolds.

What are they frightened of? What are their hopes, and most importantly what do they WANT in the story and what’s STOPPING them from getting it?

I think about their world – what sort of car do they drive? In the first of my police procedural trilogy Little Bones, Cat Connolly drives a laser blue mini with stripes on the roof. In The Dark Room, Rachel Lambert, drives a battered old Land Rover that actually belongs to her partner Hunter (and is perfect for transporting their German Shepherd, Jasper, who has a very special role in The Dark Room.)

Building on tiny personal details makes the participants in each story feel alive – I’ve just written a spiderweb book, High Pressure, a story that connects the Cat series with my standalone books – it features Anna Lockharte from No Turning Back and a new character Brioni O’Brien, who you’ll be hearing more of in the next standalone Remember My Name. High Pressure is a bonus book, an exclusive digital release, and was a lot of fun to write. It takes us from London to Wexford in a high pressure, high stakes story.

Sometimes when I finish a book I feel like the character’s stories aren’t quite over, and I wanted to see where Anna Lockharte went next. Then I saw a girl who looked just like Brioni on the Tube in London and the story began to come together.

Brioni was a lot of fun to write – she has neon pink hair cut in a double undercut (shaved up both sides) and a unalome tattoo, a Buddhist tattoo symbolising our journey through life, and significantly for Brioni, harmony coming out of chaos. When we meet Brioni, she’s at Heathrow airport – she’s been mugged in Thailand and is coming back to London to meet with her sister. But her bag has disappeared and she can’t get hold of her sister. Then a bus blows up in central London and her sister’s bag is found close to it…

The more I know about my characters, the richer they will be. I find photos of their houses online and the floorplans from myhome.ie (!) so I can see whether they can see the kitchen from the stairs, or how light the living room is. Locations are as important in my books as the characters, I see them as characters in their own right, and I often use visual prompts to help me describe them if I can’t go and visit. I talk more about location here.

Story comes from conflict, from the characters’ reactions to situations and each other – as Robert McKee puts it so well in his screen writing bible Story. The stakes are always high – before I even start writing, I think about what my characters have to LOSE.

Steven James says that: Four factors are necessary for suspense—reader empathy, reader concern, impending danger and escalating tension.

We create reader empathy by giving the character a desire, wound or internal struggle that readers can identify with. The more they empathize, the closer their connection with the story will be. Once they care about and identify with a character, readers will be invested when they see the character struggling to get what he most desires.

Getting to know new characters is like meeting new people, it can take a while to get their measure, but as a writer, I love listening to people’s stories in real life, so creating my characters’ stories is a pleasure. These characters are going to be my constant companions for almost a year, so I want them to be interesting, the type of people I’d want to have dinner with. I’d LOVE to meet Rachel and Caroline from The Dark Room and find out just how spooky Hare’s Landing really was. Anna Lockharte and Brioni in High Pressure are both fascinating, with totally different backgrounds but a common goal to help Brioni’s sister Marissa – if they can track her down. In Remember My Name, coming in January, we meet Cressida Howard who accidentally overhears a phone conversation that leads to…murder.

High Pressure and Remember My Name are available to pre-order now, with High Pressure released worldwide on 22nd September, and Remember My Name out in Ireland and the UK in January – and don’t forget to look out for a very significant character who makes a fleeting appearance in High Pressure! The Dark Room is out in paperback in November.

© Sam Blake

Read more on my plotting process here.

And more thoughts on location here.

Follow me on social @samblakebooks. Visit www.samblakebooks.com for news and events and get a bonus free short story in audio and text when you subscribe to my newsletter.

About the author

Sam Blake has been writing fiction since her husband set sail across the Atlantic for eight weeks and she had an idea for a book. Her debut novel ‘Little Bones’ (Bonnier 2016) was a runaway bestseller, staying at No 1 in Ireland for four weeks, and remaining in the top 10 for another four. ‘Little Bones’ was nominated for Irish Crime Novel of the Year and launched the bestselling Cat Connolly trilogy.

Sam loves strong female characters, and after the Cat series, began writing psychological thrillers for Corvus Books. ‘Keep Your Eyes On Me’ went straight to No 1 in January 2020 and ‘The Dark Room’ was an Eason Ireland No 1 for three weeks in January 2021. Remember My Name is due out in January 2022 with her spiderweb book, the digital exclusive,  High Pressure coming September 2021.

Sam is originally from St. Albans in Hertfordshire but has lived in Ireland at the foot of the Wicklow mountains for more years that she lived in the UK. She has two teenagers, three cats and lives in a 200-year-old cottage with an occasional poltergeist who moves things at the most inconvenient moments.

Follow her on social @samblakebooks. Visit www.samblakebooks.com for news and events and get a bonus free short story in audio & text when you subscribe to her newsletter.

  • The Dark Room by Sam Blake
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