Character Traits: An Author's Perspective
Patricia Harrington

Readers want to identify with the protagonist in the story. Equally important, so does the protagonist's creator. One way to do that is for an author to look at his or her own character traits. What ones will work over the long haul to sustain the main character's persona and keep readers coming back?

Most experienced fiction writers know that their lead characters, particularly those in mysteries, embody some aspect of a writer's ego. Of course, most authors are also quick to add that readers shouldn't assume the protagonist is the author in fictionalized form.

Usually readers are given glimpses of the author's personal attributes through the protagonist reacting to situations. Oftentimes a kind of wistfulness on the part of the author shows through. The "I wish I were more like this" quality that results in the creator's protagonist being braver, sexier, smarter . . . well, you get the idea.

This is certainly true for me—and also for my mystery series amateur sleuth Bridget (Bridg) O'Hern, age 48. But it is also true for two other amateur sleuths I have created: Clarabelle Gilley, 74-years young, and Stacie Mercer, 25, who is a paraplegic as the result of a skiing accident. In looking at "myself," I came up with three character traits that I admired or coveted. Unfortunately, I don't have them in abundant supply. In fact, there are days, when I couldn't chase down one of these admirable qualities for love, money or the life of me. So I make do by giving them to Bridget, Clarabelle, and Stacie.

Intuitive Powers

Early negative condition blunted my own powers of intuition. I never developed the ability to speedily assess and compare situations using a combination of the intellectual and visceral. I'm a plodder, not a skilled guesser. But I admire the attribute of intuition. Bridget has this quality in the tradition of early detective intuitionists. In fact, she is a bit fey, a quality inherited from her Irish grandmother. Bring prone to the occasional premonition helps to build foreboding, when not overdone.

Gutsy/In Your Face Toughness

My senior sleuth, who was an army nurse during the Korean War, does not take guff. Not from anyone. I, on the other hand, am congenitally committed to politeness. I'll make peace at all costs. Not Clarabelle. She has backed down colonels, bureaucrats, the police and irascible seniors in the low-income senior residence she runs. While her attitude gets her into scrapes, it also helps her to get out of them. I love it, too, when she takes on men, the young, and the old and in between. Boy, does she know how to deal with them. I’m trying to take lessons from her!

Courage in the Face of Adversity

I suppose, given a lifetime of living, I've had moments of "courage." Not the kind where you face down a mugger, but the kind where you endure through and then overcome the heartache of a seriously ill child or a loved one who betrays you. It takes courage to take on life and live it to the fullest. My youngest sleuth is doing just that–in a wheelchair. Stacie's had her year of grief, mourning the fact that her legs are paralyzed and holing up after her accident to avoid pitying stares. Now she's turned her competitive spirit and her analytical mind to racing in sports-on-wheels events and solving mysteries. Brava, Stacie, say I from the sidelines of my computer keyboard!

Just slipping into these characters' personas is fun for me. I suspect other authors do the same with their creations. Undoubtedly, there is a little of the "Walter Mitty" dreamer in each of us—especially the writer within.

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About the Writer:

Patricia Harrington writes mysteries, children’s fiction and grants for nonprofit agencies. Her Fat Cat and Gray Mouse beginning e-book readers can be found at Her second book Death Comes Too Soon in the Bridget O’Hern series will be out later this year. Her website is www.patriciaharrington, and Pat can be contacted at [email protected]