Welcome to today’s guest blogger, Merrilee Robson whose post focuses on the characters we create…
A magazine editor recently commented that a secondary character in one of my short stories didn’t seem very upset about the death of another character.
My first reaction was, “Well, of course she’s upset. Her best friend just died!”
But I realized that I hadn’t properly developed that character or explained why she was behaving that way. She was an older woman who wasn’t comfortable expressing her feelings and inclined to focus more on practical matters rather than dwelling her own sadness. And she sees what she is doing as a tribute to her friend, even more than if she was sobbing her heart out. But I hadn’t explained that very well. So back to re-writing.
I hope that work will make the readers care more about that character and fear for her when she is in danger.
I’ve just finished reading Roz Watkins’ excellent debut novel, the Devil’s Dice. The climax of the book has Meg Dalton, a detective inspector, trying to save someone from a villain who has already killed twice. The scene is thrilling. But, because the author has slowly revealed her character’s story, we understand how much Meg needs to succeed in her new job, and why she has a fear of heights that is going to make this rescue attempt even more terrifying.
In my first novel, Murder is Uncooperative, Rebecca is a single mom desperate to find a home for her young son and disabled father. She needs to find an apartment that is both wheelchair accessible and affordable in a city with skyrocketing housing costs. So when her new home puts Rebecca and her family in danger, it makes sense for her to use her skills as a reporter to try to find the killer because she really has no other option.
Gail Bowen in Sleuth, her guide to writing mysteries, says, “The sleuth, professional or reluctant, will be surrounded by a gallery of characters, good and bad, different in almost every respect but linked by the fact that, like every other human being, each of them wants something, and the pursuit of that nebulous something drives their actions.”
Here are some questions writers can ask themselves when developing characters. You don’t necessarily need to answer them all, and you don’t need to mention them all in your story, but they’re worth thinking about.
- What does this character want/need most?
- Why do they want it?
- Did something in their past create this need?
- What is preventing them from getting what they want?
- What strengths and weaknesses do they bring to this quest? How does that affect their chances of success?
- Have they tried and failed before?
- What are they pros and cons of the character meeting their need? Could there be problems if they do get what they want?
- How will other people be affected by the resolution of this issue?
Going back to my short story, if I give more thought to some of these questions when I’m revising the story, I hope the editor will find my character’s behaviour more believable.
What about you? As a reader, what do you like to see in a character? If you’re a writer, what are your tips for creating characters readers can root for?
Author’s photo credit-Amber Bishop Photography.
Merrilee Robson is the author of Murder is Uncooperative, a housing co-op mystery, and several short stories. She is a director of Crime Writers of Canada, a member of Sisters in Crime – Canada West, and a board member of the Left Coast Crime convention association for the Whale of a Crime convention in 2019. She lives in Vancouver with her husband and two incorrigible cats.
Visit her at www.merrileerobson.ca.
Twitter: @MerrileeRobson http://twitter.com/MerrileeRobson