Which came first: Plot or character? Hero or Villain? Even as a writer with only one published credit to my name, I’ve been asked these questions more than once. Sometimes the person asking is another writer looking for some idea on how to start their own book. More often, though, the question comes from someone who read Drawn Back, and simply can’t wrap their head around how authors go about the process of making stuff up, especially when it comes to breathing life into characters.
I’m certain that no two writers approach their work in the same way—hell, judging by my own limited experience, no two books are going to follow the exact same roadmap—but here are three rules I tried to follow when it came to developing strong characters for my first two novels:
Rule #1. Everyone is the hero of their own story
Now I realize that this is not a groundbreaking observation. It generally gets trotted out at every writers’ workshop when the topic of character development comes up, especially when discussing the antagonist of the piece. Still, I think that this is an important enough concept to delve into in some detail, if only because so many beginning writers get it wrong. I know I did at first.
The Oxford Dictionary defines a hero as someone who is “admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” It’s a little hard to apply that definition in a mystery where one of your characters is merrily offing people left and right to achieve their own selfish ends. So try this definition instead: in literature, a hero is the main character of the story, overcoming obstacles to achieve their goal … even if their goal is simply survival. Now, that's a definition that can be applied to everyone, can’t it? What differentiates heroes from villains, then, in fiction—and in life—is the nobility of their goals, and the lengths they are willing to go to achieve them.
But here’s the thing; human nature seems to dictate that the more inherently noble the goal, the less likely it is that your protagonist will view her or his own actions as being heroic. On the other hand, the more the character has to rationalize and justify their hurtful actions or selfish goals, the more they are inclined to view themselves as the tragic hero of their own story.
This is true of your primary characters, certainly, but also of your secondary and tertiary characters as well, even if you choose not to explore it with them.
In Drawn Back, I wanted the man behind the murders to be driven as much by his loyalty to someone else as he is by his own selfish goals, because everyone who reads the book has undoubtedly experienced that in their own lives, to a greater or lesser extent. His loyalty to another in the face of obstacles should feel at least a little noble, the lengths he’s willing to go to prove that loyalty—and the people he hurts along the way—far less so. That kind of internal conflict in the reader between empathy and revulsion can create more memorable characters.
Rule #2. Enough with the stereotypes!
I know that stereotypes exist for a reason. Human nature compels us all to organize the world in which we live into easily-understood categories. Where groups of people are involved, this leads to social and racial stereotypes that, admittedly, can be expedient to writers when it comes to having the reader fill in the gaps. But there are inherent dangers with using stereotypes, as well.
The first thing to remember is, stereotypes are generally offensive … at least to the people being stereotyped. Whether you want to call it Political Correctness or a greater awareness and respect for the people around us, people who buy books and go to movies these days are far less tolerant of dated racial and ethnic generalizations than they once were, and rightly so. Thanks to instantaneous access to information from around the world, we have a better understanding of the individuals within disparate groups, and stereotypes cease to feel authentic.
In addition, stereotypes are boring … and boring is a cardinal sin when writing fiction. Readers may quickly recognize the intimidating Italian mobster or the grizzled, tough-as-nails Army sergeant, but it’s because they’ve seen them over and over (and over and over) in movies, television, and novels. So much so, in fact, that they begin to fade into the background almost immediately. Not good if you’re trying to create characters who resonate with the reader.
Rule #3: Don’t be afraid to let the characters drive a little
Confession time: I started writing Drawn Back with the basic plot completely mapped out in my head, beginning to end (and back to the beginning … it was a time travel mystery, after all). If I didn’t yet know all of the inner workings of my primary and secondary characters, I at least knew who was going to do what, and to whom.
Or so I thought. But because I’d tried to follow rules 1 and 2, a few of my characters had other ideas entirely. It’s an interesting experience, having your own creations wrest control away from you. I could give you several examples from that book where I almost felt as though I was simply along for the ride, but here is the one which ultimately convinced me that it was all right to let go:
I was flying along to the climactic finale, where good would triumph and evil would get its due comeuppance (more or less). The words were flowing, and I figured that I would probably be wrapping up the first draft in a day or two. And then … nothing. For two weeks, nothing. You can probably imagine the frustration. Finally, however, I realized what was wrong; I was about to have one of my characters do something to another that would have haunted them for the rest of their fictional life.
When I decided that I just couldn’t pull that literary trigger I backtracked, hoping for some easy solution that wouldn’t require extensive rewrites to an already complex storyline. And that’s when I found Mickey and Lanzo waiting in the wings. Originally throw-away characters, they were a couple of low level racketeers meant only to add some menace to a scene. But because I’d made an effort to avoid stereotypes, they had proven to be too much fun to relegate to the role of mere spear carriers. As the book progressed I’d increased the number of times they’d appeared, weaving them in and out of the last third of the book. And they, in turn, provided an answer to my problem … all without having to rewrite a single word!
Perhaps I simply got lucky, but I think it more likely that my subconscious writer realized my mistake long before I did. Either way, having more fully realized characters—even in tertiary roles—gave me the flexibility I desperately needed to finish the book. My racketeers turned into heroes, at least as far as the writing process was concerned.
Here’s hoping that there are many more Mickeys and Lanzos in the books to follow. I wish you a few of your own.