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‘Ice-pick-sharp, packed with intrigue, action and spine-chilling suspense. Devour will keep you gripped from the very first page’ Kathryn Fox

Creating thrilling characters – my article for The Debut Dagger e-news bulletin

December 6, 2011

Debut Dagger 2012 Competition:

22nd October 2011 – 21st January 2012

Bulletin No. 3 – So who is going to tell your Story?

Right, if you’ve been following these bulletins you have worked out what your story is about, where it starts, and how you’re going to make your reader turn over to Chapter Two. Which brings us to – who is telling your story.

Most books have one character who becomes the central point of the action. Some have two or three; which is fine, but try not to change viewpoint too much in that first, all important, chapter. Concentrate on building up a strong central character that your readers can care about. And on the subject of that central character – if he/she weighs three hundred pounds, has biker tattoos, wears a ponytail, won the all-comers knitting contest, lives with his/her mother, and breeds ferrets – it really isn’t necessary to tell us all that in the first chapter. Keep the story going – you need to persuade the reader to turn to Chapter Two, which they’re unlikely to do if you’ve bogged them down in too many biographical details.

So who is your hero/heroine? Here is advice from two authors on how they created their central character(s).

Firstly Australian author, L.A. Larkin, whose current novel, The Genesis Flaw, has been nominated for four crime writing awards.

The Genesis Flaw

I write thrillers because I love the premise of ordinary, but clever, characters plunged into extraordinary situations. They are faced with an impossible mission. They must foil “evil” –be it preventing a murder, finding an abducted child, or stopping a global disaster–which puts their lives in danger. As Dean Koontz puts it, it’s about characters in “terrible trouble”. But above all, I love the emotional roller-coaster of a thriller: excitement, apprehension, fear, horror, exhilaration, relief. So, in my opinion, central characters should be intriguing and well-rounded enough to generate the kind of emotional connection that ensures a reader will follow them to hell and back.

However, thrillers are typically plot driven. Some hugely successful thriller authors mainly focus on the excitement of the plot, such as Matthew Reilly or Clive Cussler, whilst others place more emphasis on creating complex characters and their journey, such as John le Carré, Harlan Coben and Peter Temple, winner of a Miles Franklin Award and a CWA Gold Dagger. Wherever the balance is struck, though, it’s critical the reader is captivated by a thriller’s hero and villain. The same is equally true of procedural crime fiction: the detective or forensic specialist or private investigator character must be compelling: Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus and Mark Billingham’s Tom Thorne spring to mind.

When I appear at writers’ festivals, I find it fascinating to hear how authors approach character creation. Some write detailed character biographies, even completing a diary to develop a central character’s voice, and by doing so, often discover something unexpected about them. ‘I guess you know I killed my mother,’ the villain says in his diary entry. ‘No’, thinks the author, ‘I didn’t. But I love that idea!’

When I developed the heroine of The Genesis Flaw, Serena Swift; her hacker ally, John Flynn; and the villain, Al R. Bukowski, I spent time on each character’s physiological, sociological and psychological traits. I wanted to ensure that they had the necessary skills and motivations to achieve what they needed to achieve. If Serena was going to outwit the global CEO of one of the world’s most powerful corporations, she had to be corporate savvy, bright enough to learn hacking fast, and brave enough to adopt a fake identity. To create a hacker character who, having turned away from the dark side, is forced to break the law to help Serena, I needed to understand what motivates both malicious ‘black hat’, and defensive ‘white hat’ hackers. So my hacker source took me to a hackers’ convention (yes, they do have them!). As a result, I not only had an insight into what drives their obsession but also learned about key loggers, self-erasing discs and WiFi sniper rifles. In my next thriller, Thirst, set in Antarctica, my hero must not only survive the most hostile environment on the planet, he has to save the life of those he loves and stop a global disaster. He could only credibly do this if I clearly establish early on in the story his resourcefulness and his survival and crevasse rescue skills.

In some procedural crime fiction the perpetrator of the crime is a mystery and only revealed towards the end of the book. In thrillers, the reader can often know more about the villain than the hero. I believe it is important that the villain is not only a worthy adversary but is in a position of power at the start of the story. This might be power to manipulate the police and hire assassins, like my villain in The Genesis Flaw, or have psychological power over his victims and the hero, as in Michael Robotham’s Shatter.

I find that villains are far more believable when they actually believe what they are doing is right. As the author, I need to understand how they developed their particular warped view of life. I also need to understand why my hero or heroine is willing to put their life on the line to follow their quest. In le Carré’s The Constant Gardener it is Sandy Woodrow’s need to know who murdered his wife. In The Genesis Flaw, it is the death of Serena’s father and her belief that a biotech company’s product is responsible. In The Bourne Identity it is Jason’s desperate desire to know who he is.

I spend a lot of time working on the introduction of my hero and villain. Not only do I consider how much I initially reveal, but the language I use to describe them. John le Carré’s introduction to Big Melik in A Most Wanted Man had me hooked: ‘A Turkish heavyweight boxing champion sauntering down a Hamburg street with his mother on his arm can scarcely be blamed for failing to notice that he is being shadowed by a skinny boy in a black coat.’ Or the introduction to Jack McEvoy in Michael Connelly’s The Poet: ‘Death is my beat. I make my living from it. I forge my professional reputation on it. I treat it with the passion and precision of an undertaker.’

All characters need their own unique voice. Do they have pet phrases? Do they swear? Do they use technical jargon like my hacker character? I spent time in Antarctica to research Thirst and the ship had a Russian crew. I noted their gruff speech was interspersed with proverbs. As we were crossing the Drake Passage in ten metre swells, I vomited down the side of the ship. Unfortunately, it was the area designated exclusively for the captain’s ‘smoko’. He was furious and swore at me repeatedly in Russian. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to race back to my cabin to note down his swear words for my Russian ship’s engineer character.

However, notwithstanding all my research and planning, when I write, I let the characters lead. I find them doing and saying the most amazing things that I had never thought of. There is a plot twist at the very end of The Genesis Flaw which has shocked my readers and equally surprised me! I have found that if I let the plot go off in an unexpected direction, or a character take some unpremeditated action, it often leads to a far better story. Happy writing!

And secondly Icelandic author, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, whose central character, Attorney, Thora Guðmundsdóttir, has already appeared in four novels.

My Soul to Take

One of the most important aspects of writing a novel is the creation of the central character. He or she will be the one that will tug the story along and the one that the prospective readers will empathize with along the way, the novel’s true VIP. No matter how good the story, without a well written central character the novel will not flourish in the reader‘s mind.

So how does one go about choosing and constructing such a fictive person? Is it best to search the mind‘s database for interesting persons one has met in one‘s lifespan or should one solely depend on imagination‘s creativity? Fortunately the answer to this is not clear cut or simple, to each his own.

Speaking from my own experience one of the first decisions to be made regards the gender of the character. This is a crucial decision as the world treats and greets people in varying ways according their sex. The story itself might in cases require the main character to be of a particular gender which obviously simplifies this decision while sometimes it is based on something as mundane as the gender of the author. The latter applies to my writing as I chose a female protagonist, being more familiar with a female’s perspective than a man’s and thus considering myself likelier to succeed in making her resonate in a plausible way. This is not a given however as many of fiction’s best written characters have been formulated by an author of the opposite sex. So maybe I simply chose the lazy way.

Another factor of great importance is the occupation of the protagonist, something that is partially restricted by the genre involved and in particular by the nature of the novel, namely if it is a stand-alone or the first of a series. As an example, in crime fiction a character that is repeatedly to be involved in solving crime while working as first mate on a submarine for example will stretch the believable to the breaking point. Not all that many professions come in repeated contact with crime, making the list of employment opportunities for crime novel protagonist sadly short. Something that requires authors to use other character traits to define their protagonists and differentiate them from the countless others on offer. This being said it should also be noted that nothing prohibits a writer from selecting a job or station in life for a protagonist that is outside the realm of the familiar, it will however certainly be more challenging a task, but as such probably more rewarding. Also factoring into the decision are things such as familiarity with the occupation or the ease of gaining such familiarity if it is not present. An author that intends to write about a forensics specialist or a police procedural must be knowledgeable about the workings of such jobs or be prepared to gain the knowledge required. Otherwise there will be a lot of skirting around the methodology involved and this will be noticed by some readers if not most.

The Day is Dark

As for persons of flesh and bone, a protagonist or main character is also defined by their age and family situation. An elderly protagonist will act in different ways than a very young one as will one without any family ties as opposed to one with dependents. All can be made interesting and the only pitfall to avoid here is to toe the line between the believable and the incredible. Endless difficulties of severe proportions will not resonate well in a series as luckily life does not throw people one speeding curve ball after another. But despite this the protagonist’s circumstances can be manipulated into producing interesting side stories without them being ridiculous but will require the author to put some effort and heart into working them out onto paper.

There are other aspects of main characters or protagonists that are just as important as the above. What does this person look like? Are they beautiful, plain, ugly or physically deformed? Are they athletic, sloths or possibly handicapped? And what sort of person are they? Cool and detached, warm and kind or even evil? Do they have a history that plagues them or forms in some way or has life treated them with kid gloves? The choices are endless and the possibility of evolving the person from one to the other over the course of the novel or series also exists.

But whatever the author chooses to do regarding this person’s blueprint it is crucial to the successful construction of the character that it be done with thought and care. If you don’t love your protagonist and experience him or her as a real person the reader surely won’t. Steer away from super abilities and never ever give your protagonist two of those. A Miss Universe that also happens to be the world’s foremost computer expert is too much to accept and very difficult to sympathize with, as are other such combinations. Much likelier to succeed is a normal person under exceptional or dramatic circumstances. These characters we can all relate to.

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