Writing Lesson #2—Writing your character's stories.

Unfortunately, there are no plot supermarkets, and even the best of ideas is seldom an entire book-length plot. What we find, in general, is a bit or a piece. A story starter.

How, then, do we expand this and fill in the missing parts?

If we've found an event that holds our interest or intrigues us, then we move to the other half of the equation—the people to whom this situation might happen. Your characters.

In a news story about these people, we might find facts about them, but journalistic facts are not enough for our purposes. Mysteries need to dig deeper in order to present why and how these people became perpetrators, victims and sleuths, and also in order to let readers live the story rather than merely observe it from outside.

Fiction is larger than life, so we constantly up the ante, make things more challenging for our characters. Therefore, even if you have a good story idea, in order to make the sleuth's involvement dramatic, think about what in his personality might make this situation even more challenging than it already is. Is there bothersome unfinished business in his past? Is there a physical or psychological impediment that needs to be conquered?

Events happen to people and people affect events. The two are intertwined.

So if instead of becoming inspired by events, your springboard is a person—someone seen or overheard or read about who puzzles, intrigues or even horrifies you, then start thinking about why you're captivated by him. Imagine how he got to the point at which he intrigued you, point and why he became who he is. It's possible that his backstory is your story.

Important note: Always remember you are writing fiction. Use your imagination. Even if a real person triggered your interest, don't try to replicate the actual facts. You can't, and they will ultimately take revenge by constricting you and making your writing less interesting. Change whatever's changeable about the original model until you have a living breathing character of your own.

The factors that make us who we are will affect how your character behaves, reacts, speaks, and what he knows. So for all your important players, consider:

Vital statistics: place and date of birth, educational level, state of health.

Physical features: height, weight, features, coloring, mannerisms of speech or gesture.

Background: Where and how was he raised? What sort of people were his parents? Is he fighting his background or trying to reproduce it? Are/were there siblings? Are they close?

Personality: Cheerful or depressed, talkative or silent, adventurous or cautious, self confident or insecure, tidy or sloppy—and so on and so forth.

Intellect: How does he feel about his abilities? His education?

Occupation: What does he do and how does he feel about it? What real or imagined dangers are attached to it?

Political and religious beliefs: What are they and how important are they to this person?

Special talents or skills: These may help the sleuth or villain accomplish his goals.

Life souvenirs: Events, objects, friendships and memories that travel with him. What does he hold onto?

Lifestyle: A typical day's routine, breakfast through bedtime.

Leisure activities and interests:TV shows, reading material, theater, music, sports—as observer or participant.

Self-made environs: What does the character's home, office, desk, car trunk, refrigerator, medicine cabinet, purse look like?

Love-life: What's the status quo and how does the character feel about it?

Fears and desires: What does he want—aside from committing or solving this crime? Is something in his personality in conflict with his ability to realize these dreams? This can be anything from a story-making, tension inducing phobia (think Vertigo) to a fear of appearing foolish that dictates how brave or inquisitive he'll be.

Get to know your people. Learn their stories, and they'll tell you who they've alienated in the past because of that history—who, in fact, might have wanted them dead. They'll tell you what issues and topics might become part of your mystery because those issues and topics interest them. They'll suggest other important characters in their lives, people who will help flesh out your story still more.

Next time, we'll discuss the pros and cons of making your sleuth a professional, a semi-professional, or an amateur.

On to Lesson 3!

Adapted from: You Can Write a Mystery, by Gillian Roberts.


© Gillian Roberts.