Saturday, July 25, 2009

Character is All

Donis today.  I've been following this string on the birth/construction/creation of characters with interest.  It has caused me to ponder on how really important characters are in a mystery.

A murder mystery isn’t really about the murder.  The murder is just a device, a catalyst for the story.  It is the crucible that tests the characters, especially the sleuth - a way to show how he is changed by events.  A mystery novel is chock full of psychology.  It’s a fabulous venue for an author the explore the human psyche - why do people do what they do?  How is it that when presented with identical situations, one person is corrupted and another maintains her integrity; one person is hardly affected by violence and another is changed forever?  Why is one man violent and another kind? Well-written characters can give the reader real insight into human nature, and maybe even into himself.

Mysteries have some of the best characters going.  Creating characters that the reader cares about can actually cover a multitude of sins in the plot.  How many murder mysteries have you read where the detective has an incredible, even unrealistic, stroke of luck which enables him to solve the case? How badly did it bother you? Did it not depend on how successfully the author had pulled you into her world and how willing you were to go along with her?  Walter Mosely said that fiction is a “collusion between the reader and the novel.  Your readers will go along with you, creating a much larger world as they do.”

But that means that the author is really motivated to create intriguing and empathetic characters.  It doesn’t matter if the mystery is solved if the reader doesn’t give a rat’s little heiny.  Just a few weeks ago I mentioned in this blog about a well written and critically acclaimed mystery I had just read in which practically all the characters were so unpleasant that I couldn’t finish the book - because I couldn’t spend one more minute in the company of any of them.

As an author, I want you to feel like my characters are real people, who have lives that matter to you.  I’d like for you to know them, to care about them.  I want you to say, “Oh, no! whatever is she going to do now?”

But how?  That’s your problem as a writer.  How do you make a world and fill it with people that your reader believes in?

The best way to make characters real, in my humble opinion, is to get them up and moving, and let the reader observe and judge for himself.  This is how we get to know people in real life.  We see how they act, how they react, how they behave in different situations.  A real person doesn’t tell us that he’s a liar.  We suspect that he is because when he speaks, he can’t meet our eyes, he shifts nervously in his chair, he covers his mouth.  A voice doesn’t come out of the sky and tell us that she’s naive.  We suspect that she is because she believes what Shifty is telling her. And subsequent events confirm our suspicions.

A character - a person - is a product of her past, her place, her time.  If I don’t know anything about the people I’m reading about, if I don’t have some insight into them, then I don’t much care about what happens to them.  So show me where she lives, what she does, how she talks and relates to her place and situation, and to those around her.  Make me believe.


BIg M blog said...


I appriciate the skills of your blog writing and the time sharing with us.
I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great points on creating strong characters. Thanks for sharing, Donis.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Rick Blechta said...

Hey Big M,

Thanks for leaving the note. It's always nice to find out that people are enjoying what we're writing -- or even just reading it!


Rick Blechta said...

Donis, this is a very good and succinct way of summing up our threads this week.

Vicki Delany said...

Great, Donis. I am going to take a lot of what you said and use it in my workshop. And, let me add, that Donis's characters are just amazing. These are definately people you want to know more about.

Donis Casey said...

Why, thank you all very much.