There are only two more days before Camp NaNo. [Technically, only a day and a half.] Can you feel the tension? All that nervous excitement waiting to spill on the page? Good. We’re going to harness that energy and focus on developing your characters today.
I love sketching characters, and it’s probably my favorite thing of novel planning, which is why I leave it for the end so it doesn’t eclipse all the other stuff I need to address. At the end of this post, I’ll also include genre-specific tips for creating characters for mystery writers since that’s one of the primary genres I write.
Over the past few years, I’ve been collecting tips and tricks from different places – books, blogs, podcasts – and creating a sort of personal checklist. Unfortunately, I committed a cardinal sin and didn’t write down where I acquired all this lovely information. So, all this came from different sources. If you see something either you’ve written or you recognize, let me know and I’ll properly source it. Thanks!
I start with a basic list of things to think about. I fill out one of these for each main character, including protagonists, antagonists, mentors, and power players). I’ll also fill out one for those minor characters who have a larger role and more impact in the story [or series].
- Goals, motivation, conflict – both inner and outer.
- Strengths and how to balance and layer them.
- Weaknesses and character flaws.
- Physical appearance tips here, here, and here.
- Important relationships and how they affect the character.
- Home environment.
- Preferred method of travel [car, bus, walk, motorcycle, space hopping?].
- Backstory as it relates to the story/situation.
- Things in their backpack, car, pockets, purse, wallet, or anything else they carry with them.
- Habits, mannerisms, quirks, catch phrases.
- Mental health, outlook of life, emotions.
- Everything else, including telling the story from the each character’s POV. Remember, everybody is the main character of their own lives.
After I have a basic framework, I can dive deeper. Since I write mystery, I’m going into more specific details on how to create characters for various roles.
The sleuth: The story revolves around this person, so it’s safe to say we need to know everything there is to know about him or her.
- Who is the sleuth, and why are they getting involved in THIS PARTICULAR case? Are they a suspect? Is their best friend the victim? Why do they personally get involved?
- How does the sleuth become privy to important crime details, such as who suspects are? Unless your sleuth is also a private investigator or cop, they’re going to get their hands dirty. In cozies, there’s less emphasis on the forensics.
- What are the sleuth’s special talents? What makes them a good sleuth?
- How will the sleuth interview suspects to glean information about and solve the mystery?
- How do other characters, especially law enforcement, react to the sleuth?
- Who’s the sleuth’s sidekick? Who do they talk to about the case?
- What does the sleuth do when they’re not out solving crime?
The suspects. Some suspects are genuinely nice people, but remember, there’s a murderer in their midst. It’s equally as important to learn about your suspects.
- How many suspects will there be? The sweet spot for a full novel is five. To spice it up, kill one in the course of the story, but make sure it isn’t the actual guilty person.
- How will the suspects be introduced to the reader? What will alert the sleuth [and reader] that the characters are suspects?
- How will they be interviewed by the sleuth?
- What are the suspects’ motivations? Make them varied.
- What are the suspects’ alibis? Throw in a few that aren’t air tight, but show how, later, their alibis check out. Except the murderer’s of course.
The victim. I said the story revolves around the sleuth, but, really, without the victim the sleuth wouldn’t need to go sleuthing, especially in the case of the amateur sleuth in cozies. Let’s find out why the victim is the victim.
- Is the victim alive in the beginning of the story, or is the body found right away?
- Who is the victim? What’s their story as it relates to this story?
- How does the victim know the sleuth? [In cozies, it’s never random.]
- How does the victim know each of the suspects? What’s their relationship to each other? What’s the victim’s side of the conflict with each of them?
- What’s the victim’s personality? [Even though they will die, I still do a full character sketch using the questions above.]
- How does the victim die? Where did the murder take place? Why is this significant? [It always is.]
The sidekick. Robin to Batman. Dr. Watson to Sherlock. Sidekicks are the unsung heroes of the literary world, so let your sleuth’s sidekick sing by giving them a purpose. Here are a few purposes for them. Choose one or many.
- Foils sleuth. [Make things unintentionally difficult.]
- Calls sleuth out on their BS.
- Gives sleuth clarity – in life, in the case.
- Creates secondary tension in the story.
- Forces sleuth to face themselves and their fears.
- Helps sleuth see past themselves and at a larger world.
- Provides a secondary POV and subplot material.
- Gives the sleuths a backstory.
- Keep the sleuth likeable and relateable, especially a recluse sleuth.
- Be the sleuth’s saving grace and rescuer.
Now, you have an accurate portrayal of all the major players in the story. You know how they relate with each other and the roles they’ll play in the story. If you need to, go back and tweak your plot synopsis and summaries from previous days. Often, characters act in unexpected ways. They seem to take over, and we should let them. They drive the story; it’s theirs after all. If, when writing the plot synopsis, we expect a character to act in a certain way, but after interviewing them it’s clear they would never act in this manner, instead of forcing something and it coming off as fake, allow the character to be authentic to themselves and rework the plot.
You just might surprise yourself.