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Characters (Made Up Mayhem #4)

Strong characters are key to strong fiction.

We could never learn to be brave and patient, if there were only joy in the world. Helen Keller

Developing strong characters for your suspense novel is vitally important. I won’t spend reading time with characters I don’t like, or who don’t act in ways that make sense.

When you see someone going into the slightly open door of their apartment, are you thinking, how brave or how stupid? I’m thinking, how stupid. I want characters that are smart. That doesn’t mean they need to know everything, but they do need to have common sense.

There are a variety of methods for creating characters, and about a million books out there on the subject. Some writers have to know everything they can about their characters before they can start writing about them.

Others create on the fly, working on them as they come up in the story. My method is a mix of both of those methods, culled from two books that are essential to my process:

  • GMC:  Goal, Motivation and Conflict (1996) by Debra Dixon, Gryphon Books
  • Playwriting : The Structure of Action, Revised and Expanded Edition (Paperback)by Sam Smiley, Norman Bert (Contributor)

This will be a huge shock, but Dixon’s book is about goal, motivation, and conflict. Okay, not rocket science, but a great resource if you’re having trouble creating problems that affect both your character’s public and private lives.

The book helps you identify your main characters goals, internal and external motivation, and the conflicts between the characters. For instance, in Byte Me, Phoebe is a thief. Jake is a US Marshal who has been assigned to track down her and her partner-in-crime. As he gets closer to Phoebe, he is attracted to her—and finds he is protecting a murderer. This puts his desire to do the right thing and protect the innocent in conflict with reality because the murderer appears to be law-abiding.

Your characters can be made even more interesting by giving them internal goals that conflict with their external goals. Phoebe wants revenge on the man who killed her sister. That’s an external goal. But she also wants a normal life and increasingly a future with Jake. So that puts what she wants inside, in direct conflict with her need to stop the bad guy.

The Smiley book was hard to find, but has been updated and released and is available to a variety of online bookstores. I wrote an article about how I use this book and I’m linking to it here:

Getting The Wood Out

There are other books on characters out there and we all need to find the ones that “speak” to us and our personal process. If you’ve got a problem, keep researching until you find your answers—but don’t forget to look in places other than writing how-to books. Like I said before, I’ve found lots of help and inspiration from script and playwriting books.

I’ve also learned about character from watching television and movies and from reading other authors’ books. Just be sure you learn from others and don’t “borrow” (i.e. plagiarize) others. There have been some high profile scandals in the past few years involving plagiarizing, though some have been astonishingly hesitant to call this spade a spade.

Personally, I don’t understand how anyone can get pleasure from getting published on someone else’s talent. I want my book to be my work.

And to keep from being accused of plagiarism, keep a few copies of your work in process, with dates recorded. Hey, we all hope to be that famous!

© 1998-2018 All rights reserved. Pauline Baird Jones.