Creating unique characters is something every fiction author has to focus on because it can make the difference in writing a book that resonates with the audience, and that means sales.
I love the Lee Child Jack Reacher novels because the character stands up for justice in a cruel world in every book, and I am also trying to create a memorable heroine in my own Morgan Sierra in the ARKANE thrillers. But what is it about characters that keep us coming back and how can we achieve the same affect in our novels? Today, guest author Jen Blood shares some tips.
From television to movie franchises to fiction in every genre imaginable, the world loves a good series.
Plot is certainly part of it, but, with rare exceptions, we can just as easily see the same story played out in a standalone feature. The reason we keep coming back to the series – whatever medium it may be – is because of the characters. We want to know how they’re doing, where they’ll end up, who they’ll hop into bed with next. We want to see them conquer the bad guy… Or get conquered doing it. We become invested in them; they become like better looking, cooler versions of ourselves, our friends, and our family.
As a writer, the question of how to craft the perfect serial character may seem on its surface to be no different than how to craft any great character: Just come up with a general background, give them great hair and a few charming quirks and… Voila, you’ve got yourself a bonafide hero – someone the world will love to come home to, time and again.
Not so fast.
Because there are things like character arc, consistency, story arc, believability, and the matter of maintaining interest over the long term, creating a great serial character is a whole different ballgame. Here, then, are five steps to creating a character who will stand the test of time.
(1) Know Your Character.
Before you publish that first book, I think it’s always a good idea to know your main character(s) inside and out. What color is her hair? Eyes? What’s her birthday? Birth sign? Does your hero believe in God? Why or why not? Maybe a lot of this will never come up in the first book – in fact, you may never explore some of it over the course of the series. But you need to know, one way or the other, so that you don’t put your foot in it in book four by talking about how your hero has been an atheist since age five only to have it pointed out by fans that he was a devout Catholic in book one.
To help me in crafting my Erin Solomon mysteries, I keep a file readily accessible with all of my characters’ vital stats and what I’ve actually mentioned in each novel, so that I can maintain consistency throughout the series. Nothing pulls a reader out of the story faster than realizing the author doesn’t actually know her own characters.
(2) No One Lives in a Vacuum.
In other words, the events in your novels should have some impact on the characters. To me, there’s nothing worse than a character who never learns from his mistakes, never draws from past experience, and doesn’t seem in the least changed by the events in their past. Particularly if you’re writing a mystery, thriller, or adventure series, those events are pretty significant. Stuff is blowing up, people are dying, treasures are lost, prisoners escape… This is bound to have some effect on your protagonist. We are the sum of our experiences – our characters are no different.
In Dennis Lehane’s award-winning Patrick Kenzie/Angie Gennaro P.I. series, the last novel in the series – Moonlight Mile – deals specifically with the events in the fourth novel, Gone Baby Gone, and the fallout from that case twelve years later. Beyond that, it explores the impact such close contact with violence and a hardened criminal element has had on Patrick and Angie as they now strive to be loving parents in a world in which they’ve seen the absolute worst.
You don’t have to go that deep, obviously, but if in book one your character loses his dad in a fire, and then five books later must pull someone from a burning building, don’t miss the opportunity to draw on that experience. It will make your characters richer and that much easier for readers to invest in as the story progresses.
(3) Be aware of your character’s journey.
I’m referring here to your character’s arc – the way that he or she changes and grows (or fails to) from story to story. This may be within a single novel or the entire series. The nature of writing means that our characters are always surprising us – insisting on going left when we really, really wanted them to go right, which means that a character’s arc may well shift from what you originally thought it would be when you first set out to write the series. But if your character is making the same journey and struggling with the same issues (and making no real progress) in every single novel, it’s bound to get old. Likewise, it’s to your benefit to move the journey at a believable pace, rather than leaping from Point A to Point X in a single story.
Let’s say your main character is a buttoned-down executive assistant afraid of her own shadow in the first novel. Rather than having her evolve into a flaxen-haired vixen who can kill a man with her stiletto by the end of the first book, try to think in baby steps: She lets her hair down by the end of the first book. Fires a gun for the first time. By the fifth book, she can totally be a flaxen-haired vixen killing men with her stilettos, and your readers will love her (and you) because they’ve been along for the ride; they’ve seen that evolution.
(4) Use action to define your character.
In plot-driven work, it can be very tricky balancing a complex character with a dynamic storyline. Who wants to talk about how you feel about your mother when there’s a bomb about to go off in the middle of Times Square? The best mainstream writers out there, for my money, understand how to do both at the same time – How someone deals with a bomb that’s about to go off in the middle of Times Square says a lot about that person, after all.
Take for instance a scene in Nevada Barr’s Deep South, the eighth book in Barr’s bestselling Anna Pigeon series. Anna is a forest ranger forever stumbling onto nefarious plots in national parks around the U.S. In Deep South, she’s in the middle of an investigation into the murder of a young girl when someone locks an alligator in her carport. The scene that follows is terrifying and action-packed, not so much because Anna is in danger, but because the alligator gets hold of her dog. The scene ends with, “ ‘You’ll live,’ she hissed to the gator. ‘Unless my dog dies.’ Even as she said it she knew she would wreak no vengeance on the alligator. It had merely been doing what alligators do, without conscience, without malice, without blame.”
In that three-page scene, the reader learns more about who Anna is – her bravery and her fears, her blind devotion to those she loves, and even her feelings on wildlife in general – than any full chapter expounding on her virtues could ever tell. By integrating character with action, Barr makes the reader that much more invested in the outcome of the scene, and gives us just a little more insight into who Anna is as a person.
(5) Study the Masters.
In the case of character development over the long term, I honestly think that one of the best things a writer can do is… Watch TV. Really. When television is done well, it provides a rare opportunity to explore and develop characters in a way no other medium can. Even serialized novels are limited, by their very nature – there’s only so much material we authors can come up with in a limited time frame, after all. TV, on the other hand, follows the same character for between six and twenty-two (depending on the network) episodes a season, for up to ten or more seasons. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Doctor Who, Dexter, 24, Prime Suspect… These are all examples of shows where the plot never suffers for the complexity of its characters. The same goes for the great serial mystery novels, of course: Jeffery Deaver, James Lee Burke, J.D. Robb, John Sandford, Nevada Barr, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly…
Read a few books in a series (ideally from the beginning) and watch the way that these writers develop their characters over time.
To me, there is no greater pleasure than finding a series that has a well-thought-out plot, great writing, and characters with whom I can’t wait to spend an evening – or, in some cases, a whole weekend.
I’d love to hear which characters you find yourself returning to again and again, and why. What keeps you coming back? Please leave a comment below.
Jen Blood is a freelance journalist, reviewer, and editor, and author of the critically-acclaimed Erin Solomon mysteries All the Blue-Eyed Angels and Sins of the Father. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing/Popular Fiction from the University of Southern Maine, and does seminars and one-on-one tutorials on writing, social media, and online marketing for authors. Jen also runs the website http://bloodwrites.com, which features reviews, interviews, excerpts, and writing-related posts for readers and writers of the mystery,suspense, and thriller genres.
On October 15th, Jen will be releasing a collection of short stories on Amazon with four other authors of serial mysteries called Serial Sleuths, Volume I: Haunted. The stories feature each author's serialized characters in ghostly or paranormal mysteries, to celebrate the Halloween season. All five authors featured in the collection have agreed to donate 100% of their profits to the non-profit organization Doctors Without Borders. To learn more, visit http://erinsolomon.com/serial-
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