Characters Behaving Badly

September 2, 2018

 

 

Some writers get along well with their characters. Others just wish they could.

 

I grew very fond of my characters when I was writing Meditating Murder. But every time I read Chapter 2, I knew the feeling was not mutual.

 

If they liked me, would they feign ignorance of the complex backstories I had written for them? Would they move around like unoiled Tinpeople? Would their dialog sound like silent movie text?

 

Clearly, somebody did not understand the situation.

 

Even after I had a fair draft of the whole book and had revised it a dozen times, Ch. 2 still lay flat and lifeless. The effort of fixing those ten pages felt more like manatee wrestling than writing,

 

Finally, I had to admit that I was the one who didn't understand.

The stacks of books I'd read about mystery writing all told me that the important characters—the potential suspects—must be introduced early in the story. And each one should seem capable of murder.

 

So, in Ch. 2, I was trying to make each character unique enough to be remembered and to show that they all had sufficiently strong feelings—anger, fear, envy—to be potential killers.

 

I thought I had done that. I put the characters into an opulent room with instructions to behave uniquely and suspiciously. Instead, they sat around, making boring comments and arguing over trivial things.

 

The breakthrough came when I faced the truth: The characters were in the right place. They just didn't have a reason for being there.

 

To fix the problem, I persuaded each character to answer these questions:

1. Why are you in this room?

2. What are you hiding from the others?

3. What do you want from the others?

 

I didn't force them through deep analysis. Just a sentence or two was enough from each one.  Kassandra, for example, answered #1 like this:

 

I'm in this room to make sure the others are carrying out my plans and to enforce my control over them.

 

This exercise was not easy. But it helped me see where I needed to clarify points in the plot and develop characters more fully.

 

Now I understand that neither fancy furniture nor dramatic action can bring a character to life. Having a real purpose is the only thing that will.

 

 

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