Monday, December 31, 2012

Five DON'TS for Creating Characters

By Deborah Sharp

In a couple of months, I'll appear at a one-day conference that focuses on the mechanics of writing mysteries. At Sleuthfest on Saturday (Feb. 16 in Sarasota, Fla.), experienced authors will impart some nuts-and-bolts advice to those still studying the craft. 

These days, my preference is for panels where attendees bring cake and (spiked) punch. Then, the writers gripe about publishing, while skewering authors who've gotten too big for their britches. Still, I haven't forgotten my own eagerness as a writing-conference newbie 
to actually LEARN something. To that end, I've been noodling around with some ideas for a conference panel called What A Character! I'll be seated with some talented folks --  Patrick Kendrick, Diane Stuckart, Julie Compton, and Joanna Campbell Slan -- so I probably won't have to contribute much. Still, I can't spend the whole time stuffing my face with cake and nodding sagely when someone else makes an intelligent point. 

So . . . character. Nothing is more important. You can devise a fabulous plot, full of twists and turns. You can choose a fascinating setting. But if your characters are not interesting, no one will want to read it. No less a star than Michael Connelly says, "The best mysteries are about the mysteries of character.'' Motivation. Inner conflict. The quirks, tics, and failings that make a character human.

Think about some of the most popular characters in mystery fiction: Connelly's Harry Bosch. Lee Child's Jack Reacher. Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum. Readers may not remember the clues and plots of each of these authors' many (many!) books. But the characters? Unforgettable. That's the highest praise an author can receive.

How do writers create characters readers will embrace? Plenty of advice exists in books and on writing sites about what to DO. Basically, it boils down to: Make them real human beings, and then throw a lot of trouble their way. My take is slightly different. What are some common stumbling blocks to building great characters? Here are Five Deadly Sins.

When creating a character, DON'T: 
1. Make her gorgeous, smart, and rich without a single flaw to balance out all that wonderfulness. 
2. Give him long, boring monologues instead of snappy, back-and-forth dialogue. 
3. Make her ''normal,'' as in dull. (In my Mace Bauer Mysteries, the Mama character is just your average, everyday 63-year-old -- except for her serial marriages, bingo addiction, and knack for finding bodies.)
4. Forget the passion. (Something has to get the character's blood boiling.)  
5. Detail the predictable. Yes, a character may get into a car to drive to the store, like we do. But wouldn't it be more interesting if she found a body when she opened the trunk to make room for the groceries? 

How about you? Authors, what tricks do you use to create great characters? Readers, what makes you love (or hate) a character? 


Beth Groundwater said...

I have a character profile that I fill in for each major character in my books. Along with other basics, I answer the following questions:

What is your greatest fear?
Who/what influenced you the most?
How would you like to change?
What is the worst thing you've ever done/biggest regret?
What is your paradox (often called cognitive dissonance by psychologists, where someone holds conflicting beliefs)?
What is your Enneagram type?

These help me dig deeper into the character's personality and mental and emotional state.

Deborah Sharp said...

Excellent, Beth. All great questions for gaining insight. You must feel like you really know your characters by the time you sit down to write.