News & Views

The Clue to Character

Where would a story be without a character? Character is the engine that drives the narrative, and creating a character is a magical process. Imagine having the omnipotent power to mold a person on the page. Not only do you get to conjure up the character’s physical attributes and such details as a birthdate, but you also have the opportunity to develop his or her personality.

Evil or noble? Intelligent or foolish? Witty or dull? Take a smidgen of this and add a pinch of that, and, voilà, a person starts to emerge. For a character to be believable, the reader must be given intimate insight into the character’s thoughts and emotions, likes and dislikes. The reader has to understand the motives behind why a character reacts a certain way. Of course, for a character to be fully formed, the author must imbue her or him with both admirable qualities and flaws. After all, in real life nobody is perfect. So too must it be on the written page. Once the author is satisfied with the character sketch, then the real fun begins: unfurling the imagination to weave the tale.

When writing a mystery series, the essential component is a sleuth to solve the crime. Here, the author is presented with two possibilities: professional detective or amateur sleuth. It all circles back to character and the story that the author has in mind for him or her. For my series, I chose the amateur sleuth. My protagonists are journalist Emmeline Kirby and jewel thief Gregory Longdon.

Why a journalist? A journalist is inherently curious about many subjects. His or her job is to ask questions to uncover the truth and ensure transparency. Naturally, a journalist would be intrigued by crime, especially murder. The determination to find answers and see that justice is served are all important.

Now, how does a jewel thief fit into the model of a sleuth? Aren’t lying and evading the law a thief's modus operandi? Isn't this in stark contrast to a journalist's reverence for the truth and justice? Most definitely. That's exactly the point. A portrait in contrasts. Who better than someone on the wrong side of the law to discern the twisted workings of a fellow criminal's mind? A thief immediately recognizes things that the honest person would never even contemplate. In Gregory’s case, he has a certain code of honor. Murder is an offensive transgression. A line that should never be crossed. Thus, I have two diametrically opposed sleuths who are of one mind when it comes to the taking of a human life: the culprit must pay for the crime, otherwise chaos would reign in the world.

To round out my ensemble, I have Chief Inspector Oliver Burnell and Sergeant Jack Finch of Scotland Yard. They represent the law in all its gravitas. While their job is to hunt down criminals, sometimes the law’s constraints chafe and make their task more difficult. That’s why I have Gregory. He is Burnell’s nemesis. They have an adversarial, cat-and-mouse relationship. As a thief, Gregory has more flexibility to maneuver and never misses an opportunity to needle the chief inspector. Burnell, for his part, has been thwarted in his many attempts at catching Gregory red-handed. Will he ever succeed? The jury is out on that question.

There are myriad things to consider when delving into the essence of what makes a captivating and appealing character. The author must much achieve a delicate balance of shadow and light, intrigue and clarity, to give the story meaty substance and an air of authenticity. It’s an ongoing challenge, but one that you as a writer have to explore in every book as you seek to make readers truly care about your characters. Once readers make an emotional connection, you have them hooked because that means they want to know the story behind the character.

—Daniella Bernett

Daniella Bernett is the research manager for a nationally prominent engineering, architectural and construction management firm. Lead Me into Danger and Deadly Legacy are the first two books in her Emmeline Kirby-Gregory Longdon mystery series. She also is the author of two poetry collections, Timeless Allure and Silken Reflections. From Beyond the Grave, the third book in her series, will be released this month.

16 Responses

  1. I totally agree with you, particularly about the importance of having contrasting characters that help round one another out. It’s the interactions between characters that really help show (rather than tell) readers who a character is.

    I’ll also say, one writing exercise I’ve found to be immensely helpful is that I sit down and write short stories (that never see the light of day) with new characters I’m thinking about using. This not only helps establish a backstory for them, but it also lets me get to know them and flesh them out before I try and introduce them to the world.

    In short: great article!

    • Sullivan,

      I’m glad that you enjoyed my article. As you noted, the interplay between characters is critical. Each one has to be different, as in life, so that the reader can understand his or her motivation, as well as to heighten the interplay and propel the story forward.

      Your technique of writing a short story is a great way “to fit the bones” of the character together.

  2. Wes says:

    Nice article! I completely agree about the importance of character, and place it as being just as important as a good plot. For me, as an author, those two components being in place usually drives the story itself (and sometimes drives ME!). I think the mistake a lot of aspiring mystery writers make is emphasizing plot (plan the murder and how it’s solved, for example) over character development. The questions you ask here, and the insight you offer, is invaluable. Again, nicely done!

    • Wes,

      I’m pleased that you found my article valuable. I tried to convey what I thought had to be of the essence: without a character or small group of characters there would be no story. Situations arise because of the way the character acts or reacts, which in itself can lead to all sorts of delicious twists and turns. It’s always the WHY that keeps the reader flipping pages.

      I wish you success with your writing.

    • I agree, Wes. My characters drive the plot. I threw a character in as a filler in my first mystery and she kind of took over. She became the alter ego and a highly egotistical Jimminy Cricket for my protagonist, Donna Leigh, the menopausal ad agency owner/amateur sleuth. Now Clovis Cordoba Seville is my absolute favorite character in my three book series.

  3. Gloria and Tom says:

    Daniella,
    You have given insight into the creation of characters while also providing a glimpse of your main characters. We truly enjoyed this article and look forward to your third in this series. May there be many more.
    Gloria and Tom

  4. Diane Lynch says:

    That is the well defined character. You get attatched to them while you’re reading. When the book is finished it’s almost like you’ve lost some friends. Then you have to start over and hope the bunch in the new book fills the spot left from your last books attatchments.

    • Diane,

      I love it when readers talk about my characters as if they are old friends. When readers feel so comfortable that they scream at my characters, “You idiot. Why did you do that?” That means I’ve succeeded in my job as a writer. Although my characters have been conjured from the ether of my mind, they are so believable that I’ve made the emotional connection with my reader.

  5. Oh yes! Creating characters is a magical and fun process. I’m sure my characters think I’m a nosy nag, insisting that they answer a million question, from their most mundane likes and dislikes to their deepest fears. A majority of this never ends up in my stories but serves to bring the characters to life for me and hopefully for the reader. Your characters certainly sound intriguing and I love the inherent tension in their chosen career paths! Looking forward to getting to know them.

  6. The fun part about writing a series is watching your characters evolve as they deal with unfolding situations and a range of criminal opponents.
    Enjoyed your insights into character.

    • Peter,

      I’m glad that you found my article interesting. Isn’t delightful when your characters tug you into dangerous situations and you, as the writer, have to figure out a way to get them out of trouble so that their adventures can continue another day? For me, it never ceases to be a pleasure.

  7. Dan Strack says:

    Your analysis reveals why your mystery novels are so gosh-darned intriguing! You bring the heart of a poet and the mind of a rationalist to your work. I’m looking forward with great anticipation to “From Beyond the Grave!”

  8. What a great article, Danielle. I have struggled with my first mystery and am still working towards its completion–someday! I think I have dwelled more on the plot advancement and characters have been coming in second. Now I realize my biggest mistake. Also, I have written too much in my first draft and I’m considering dividing it into 2 books (yes, I’ve written that much!). I will pay more attention to my character development after reading what you have posted. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. (And I love the background of your photo. Brings back memories of my visit to London in 2016). Patricia

    • Patricia,

      I’m glad my article was helpful. I wish you success with your mystery. Whatever you do, never give up. I struggled for a long time to get published. You have to keep fighting for your dream because if you stop no one else will.

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