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About the Writer:

Sue Raines is a freelance writer and playwright. Having turned her talents to crime and mystery writing Sue has found a niche in teaching the genre. Other works include articles, book reviews and short stories published in magazines and anthologies. A member of Partners in Crime Sydney, she is also an avid reader of crime and mystery fiction.


Let Your Characters Tell the Story
Sue Raines

As a writer, you need not only create your story but give it life and the illusion of reality. Yes, plot is very important so is location and theme but you do not have a story until you bring it to life with characters.

Real people in a fictitious world.  So real in fact that they and the things they do are believable. Your reader will be anxious to meet and get to know all your characters major and minor, hero and villain and before you allow them to populate your story dear writer, you too must get to know them very well.

To achieve this, I suggest that you create a history card for each character, setting out their description, short, tall, eye color, hair color, age, date of birth, family ties and schooling. You will be amazed how each background will influence their part in your story. Do they have any special talents such as a gift for figures, an interest in local history, a background in the Army, Police or Rescue units? Maybe they were or are still a volunteer fire fighter? Are they an expert with a knife? Or a crack shot with a rifle? Perhaps at one time in their life they worked on a farm and are very practical or in a garage where they learned lots of mechanical tips. Even working as a taxi driver for a short time earned them enough cash to finish their education. Imagine if they had an aunt who is a little eccentric and claims she is a white witch - she certainly is an expert with herbs and knows all about folk lore, plants and gardening.

Each of your characters will be a mixture of many people you know, have researched or created in your mind. To introduce your characters into your story and keep track of them, use your cards. Do not bore your reader with a stiff formal description of the character. Find a subtle way of showing this character to be tall, or to have red hair, a fiery temper, a hatred of cats, or a fear of heights, etc. Showing, not telling is the way writers convey information to their readers, and tricks like using mirrors, shop windows, a child’s comments, scenes or general conversation are a medium for doing this. Some clues to your protagonist’s character traits will also come from the background you have given him or her.

Background will also determine the type of speech and mannerisms each character uses. Do not enter into cute accents or foreign phases to impress upon your reader that you have a true Scottish or French Canadian character, let the character show glimpses of their own background throughout the story and the reader will become entwined in their past.

Naming Your Characters

Fashions in names change and this is all relative to age and fashionable names at the time each of your characters were born. Names and nick-names can tell the reader a lot about your character.

Old-fashioned, very feminine names, such as Mary, Elizabeth, Isabelle and Vivienne generate one image; Ralph, Caleb, Joseph, or Ruth another. Modern names are often taken from TV shows or movies favoured by their fans. Nicknames such as ‘Bluey’ tells us the person has red hair or ‘Shorty’ that they are tall. Both names and traits help your readers ‘see’ the person they are getting to know as the story unfolds.

It is important that when you introduce a character to your reader you give him or her a name almost immediately, thus creating reader interest, and you must also indicate by this introduction the type of feelings you are seeking towards this person in your story. For example;

He stood barring the path, trying hard to maintain his balance, his expression wooden, eyes bleary.

“Peter, you're drunk! Where the hell have you been?” Her voice reflected her shock and embarrassment at the sight of him.

No sounds came, as he struggled to form words in reply. He took one unsteady step towards her and started to sob.

“I’m sorry, so sorry”, muffled words against her coat, he clung to her as she helped him inside the house.

The reader is immediately involved and will want to know more. Why is Peter drunk? Is this a regular occurrence or has something tragic happened. How will this this affect their relationship? These and many other questions arise because you introduced the character Peter at this point and in this manner...Good.

Reading Faces

Part of our research as a writer entails looking for ‘likely characters’ in our everyday life. A woman walking towards you may have a high forehead, eyes set wide apart, a straight strong nose, rather large mouth, firm but full lips and a round chin. Her general appearance gives us the impression that she is in her early thirties. What do these things tell us about her character? A great deal: her high forehead and eyes set apart tell us she is intelligent; looking at her straight nose we know she is firm in her beliefs and convictions. Her large mouth indicates generosity and sympathy. This is a lady who likes admiration and appreciation.

Posture and Habits

Reflect on the people you know. There will be one who always sits and stands erect, never relaxed in their stance, compared to another who will lean against the door post or on furniture whilst talking to you; when they sit, they sprawl and lounge in a most casual manner. Each of these characters needs to be portrayed by showing their individual habits. Our friend with the erect stance will also have neatness and punctuality as traits which can lead to annoying little mannerisms. The more relaxed person is unsure and impulsive, untidy in his habits and careless about other people's emotions. This is only a small sample of what you can do with your observations of the people around you.

Writing crime and mystery allows you to choose a wide variety of characters, but to be realistic you must justify their actions. Is the victim the correct one? Why did you choose this person as a victim above another? If your killing is one of impulse in a fit of rage or in the belief that it was justified, was your character chosen as the murderer capable of committing such a crime? Remember their background. Also look at the physical traits needed to fire a gun (allowing for the recoil) or garotte someone.  Would the old lady even in anger have the strength? How she would obtain the gun and/or the means of garotting her victim? Was she tall enough?

These basic questions will certainly be asked by the reader and if what they see isn’t believable they will put the story down.

Missing Persons

Don’t lose track of your characters throughout the story. It is not uncommon to find that Eddie who was a minor character up to chapter ten just disappears from the pages without explanation. When winding up your climax and ending your story, be particularly mindful that all characters major and minor need to be fully accounted for. Some may move away, some may die, many will be in the story to the last page but at all times they have to have a reason to be there and contribute towards the story as a whole, and to the ending if necessary.

Creating characters can be fun. Enjoy your writing.

Until next time, when we will look at the many ways in which you can commit murder on paper.

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