How to make your mystery characters come to life
Published: August 22, 2002
|When writing a mystery novel, what do you do when you're having trouble bringing a character to life?|
There's no avoiding it: Mystery novels require careful plotting. Clues must be planted, backstory must be revealed, events must unfold, surprises must occur, suspense and tension must build. This is hard creative work, and if you don't do it well, your mystery novel will surely flop.
But no matter how clever your plot is, you'll write a boring book if you populate it with one-dimensional plot mechanisms--evil villains, world-weary heroes, inscrutable suspects, loyal helpers, jealous rivals, confused witnesses--rather than fully imagined, complex characters.
Remember: The events that unfold in your story happen because your characters cause them to happen. To create a plot that hangs together, you've got to understand why your characters do what they do. That's also the key to making those characters lifelike and fascinating. Characters only come to life when you understand what makes them tick. It's all about motivation.
So once you work out your story line, give your attention to your characters. Create a separate "motivation" page or file for each of them, and for all characters--both major and minor--write out answers to the following four questions:
What do they want? Interesting characters are strongly motivated. They have powerful wants and needs. They're after something they don't have--love, money, security, adventure--and they're willing to take risks to get what they want. Obviously, the sleuth/hero wants to solve the crime, while the villain wants to avoid getting caught. This is the central conflict in all mysteries. Plug in secondary characters with their own strongly felt wants, and you'll have a book populated with active, seeking characters who guarantee the conflict and tension that keep readers turning the pages.
Why do they want what they want? Take it one more step. Don't be glib. OK, your private detective wants to solve crimes because that's his job. But why does he take pride in it? Why does he risk his PI license--or even his life--when the going gets tough? Why does a key witness risk jail time to lie about his boss' wife? Why, for that matter, did the villain commit murder in the first place?
What are their secrets? Everybody has secrets. Protecting an embarrassing or incriminating secret is a powerful motivation. It's one of the things all characters want. It's sometimes worth killing for.
What are their contradictions? A simple trick for creating interesting characters is to cut against stereotype. Surprise your readers. It should go without saying that ethnic, racial, regional and religious stereotypes are both boring and offensive. Similarly, not all hookers have hearts of gold, lawyers don't have to be sleazy, and cops aren't always cynical. Stereotypes are predictable and inherently uninteresting. You can do better: Your auto mechanic collects butterflies, your grandma listens to rap music.
Create these apparent contradictions thoughtfully, as ways of suggesting the depths and complexities of your characters. Don't overdo or exaggerate them, or the contradictions you create will strike your readers as weird, disconnected and arbitrary, and you'll end up with caricatures rather than characters.
After all your creative thinking and planning is done, it's time to find the words to bring these fully imagined characters to life on the page. Now the cardinal rule is: Show, don't tell. Give your characters things to say and do, and let their own words and actions hint at their wants, secrets and contradictions.
So let us meet that white-haired grandma while she's sipping her tea and watching the rappers on MTV. Let us hear her speak. Show us the movie posters on her wall and the music magazines on her coffee table ... and the flowered housedress and fluffy slippers she wears. Then resist the urge to tell us what it all means. We'll get it.
This month's question is answered by mystery writer William G. Tapply.
--Posted Aug. 22, 2002