Monday, September 22, 2008

True Love

  1. I spent this past weekend co-teaching a mystery writing conference with Hallie Ephron and SW Hubbard. Over lunch, one of the students confided that she’d met her husband on She’d gone into the experience with a very clear idea about what it would take for her to fall in love—in fact she made a list. And in just over a year, she met and married her prince.

    My teaching this weekend was focused on character development, so I had a good opportunity to explore what makes me fall in love—with characters, that is. I thought I’d share my list:

    1. In the case of an amateur sleuth, the character simply must have a believable and powerful stake for getting involved in crime-solving. Mere nosiness doesn’t cut it for me. Because I’m a terrible chicken in the face of physical danger, I want to buy the sleuth's reasons for refusing to call the cops and thereby putting herself in jeopardy. In ASKING FOR MURDER, for example, psychologist Rebecca Butterman is propelled to protect her threatened friend and fellow therapist, all while honoring her patients’ confidences.

    2. Give me a character with a complex backstory. Show me how the family dynamics shaped this personality (I can't help it, I'm a shrink!). A specific emotional trauma often helps drive a character forward (take Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, who found his murdered prostitute mother.) But a fearsome family history will do the job too. Backstory—and the motivations that emerge from it—should support the character’s “stake” in solving the mystery.

    3. The character of my dreams should be appealing enough that I’m willing to stick with her for 300-odd pages, through thick and thin. My favorite example might be Lisa
    newly minted district court justice, Cate Fante. Scottoline takes only two pages to wind us into Cate’s world so tightly, that when it all unravels through her own recklessness, I was more than willing to follow.

    4. Give me an “R”! Give me an “O”! Give me an “M”! Give me an “A”…you see where I’m going. I like a little romance with my murder! I don’t care if it’s unrequited or
    unfulfilled, but there’s nothing like a little sexual tension on the side. Julia Spencer-Fleming has dragged me through six installments of the forbidden love between her detective and her priest—and I adored almost every page.

    5. Show me the character’s authentic experience rather than jamming her into a plot. (And oh have I wrestled with this one myself!) Imagine your character in the middle of the chaos you've created and then follow her lead--what would SHE feel, think, and say? (Rather than what does MY plot need…) Arthur Plotnick talks about using “stage business” (actions, gestures, and thoughts) to reveal characters’ nuances—this takes a character a distance from the author telling the tale. Read Arnaldur Indridason’s gloomy Icelandic police procedurals to see how effortlessly he carries the reader into his haunted detective’s life.

    And now the doctor is in, waiting to hear from you. Who are your favorite characters and why did you fall in love?

    Roberta Isleib’s third advice column mystery, ASKING FOR MURDER (Berkley,) features Dr. Rebecca Butterman: advice columnist, psychotherapist, great friend, talented cook, tortured soul. Roberta is a clinical psychologist, the Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity nominated author of eight mysteries, and the president of Sisters in Crime. Visit her website to read more.


Chris Redding said...

My favorite character is from Sanctuary by Nora Roberts. Nathan Delaney is a such a real person to me.
His actions are so true to him and if I knew him I'd like him to be in love with me. He's a determined alpha male, but he wants to do the right thing in falling in love wiht the heroine so he goes to the doctor to make sure he isn't nuts.
Love him.

Anonymous said...

There is a series of childhood books I frequently read and re-read about a family called the Malones. When I started writing, I began to realize that they weren't, how do I put this, very well-written. Yet, I still go back to them again and again.

Why? Because the characters feel like real people who you actually KNOW. So, from time to time, I have to get back together with them or I miss them!

Thanks for your blog, Roberta. Welcome to Working Stiffs.

Don't you think being a psychologist is a great prep. for being a writer? I'm a professional counselor, myself, and think understanding people's motivations is essential to getting to the next level in writing.

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

those are two wonderful examples, thanks Chris and Tory! And yes, I do think being a psychologist is great background for being a writer. I only wish I'd been a lawyer, a detective, a medical examiner, and a private investigator too:)

Joyce Tremel said...

Thanks for visiting today, Roberta!
I really enjoy the Rebecca Butterman books. She's a great character.

I have to agree with you about Julia Spencer-Fleming's books. I LOVE them. She does a wonderful job of making the reader feel the unrequited love between Russ and Clare. They seem like real people to me.

And that's the whole idea, isn't it? We have to make the reader FEEL.

Roberta, I'd like to add that you've been a great Sisters in Crime president. You and the other board members have really done a lot in the past year to propel the organization forward. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Folks: I have to offer a plug here for the retreat Roberta led this last weekend. Her talent and insight combined with Hallie's and Susan's made for great synergy. This was a "working" retreat rather than a conference. Look for it next year- definitely worth the trip to scenic Connecticut. Sorry for the off-topic posting, I couldn't resist putting in my pitch. Cassy Pickard

Morgan Mandel said...

I like a little romance in my mysteries also. When I write, it slips in automatically, since I not only belong to MWMWA, but also Chicago-North RWA.

Morgan Mandel

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Sorry Roberta, when you started with the R - O - M ... I was thenking Tony Romo, the Dallas Cowboys QB. I guess I got too involved in the Sunday night football game.

I used to be a lot less demanding of my characters. Now since I'm writing I look for realism. I'm more into Thrillers and Suspense and I've actually just picked up Lee Child's first Reacher novel and while I'm half way through The Killing Floor, I'm really not vested in Reacher yet.

To me, it seems that in Thrillers especially it takes more time to get into characters.

Anonymous said...

Tory, the Beany Malone books were favorites of mine, also! I have looked for them, but have never found one anywhere. Until today, when your post inspired me to find them":

The library bookmobile came to our street once a week in the summer, and the driver made sure that at least one of the series titles was on board for me.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Roberta!

One of my favorite characters is Jaine Austen from Laura Levine's hilarious novels. Jaine is witty, funny and so true to life. No matter what the plot is, I know I'm going to have fun while reading any of these books.

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Thanks Joyce--it's been a wonderful year with Sisters in Crime. I know the organization will get stronger and stronger--in this climate, writers and readers need all the support and advocacy we can drum up.

thanks Cassy for the Seascape plug--we had a wonderful weekend. Such fun to get an opportunity to read about budding characters in depth!

Wilfred, sorry to lead you into football rather than romance--never even crossed my mind. That's a good question about characters in thrillers. If I were to go out on a limb, I'd say they are less well developed in thrillers than mysteries. But would love to hear all your thoughts about that...

Annette said...

Welcome to Working Stiffs, Roberta!

My favorite character is Laura Lippman's Tess Monaghan. I just want to hang out with her.

Anonymous said...

Realistic characters -- everybody in the Harry Potter books! OK, they use wands and ride thestrals and mix up potions, but each and every one of the multitude of characters in the series seems real -- a distinct person acting upon believable motivations. J.K. Rowling is my idol.

Holly Jahangiri said...

Claire and Jamie Fraser, of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series; I'm still stunned at Gabaldon's ability to hold my interest through roughly 6,000 pages of a continuing saga... ;)

The best characters take on a life of their own; readers come to accept them as "real." (Maybe too much so, sometimes; see Stephen King's Misery...a friend of mine was sure she was the model for the lead in that, since she'd gone through a book signing line about six times, saying each time, "Mr. King, I'm your biggest fan!")

When I'm writing, it only works if the characters take over and start yanking my pen around the page - not the other way around.

Hallie Ephron said...

I'm VERY fond of Rebecca Butterman, because she's all those things...complex and smart and imperfect. I also loved Roberta's Cassie Burdett the golfer.

I'm also a major fan of Denise Meehan's scrapping Irish reporter Paddy Meehan, and Cornelia Reeds' "failed debutante" Madeline Dare, and Linda Barnes's red-headed cabbie, Carlotta Calyle, and Gillian Roberts "Amanda Pepper".

From the "olden days" I confess that I love Miss Marple and Dorothy Sayers' Harriet Vane.

John said...

I agree with Halle-Dr. Rebecca Butterman is a great character! I also love Mary Higgins Clark's Alvirah Meehan, Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta, and the infamous Nancy Drew. (And about a million others!) Oh, and I have to agree with my new friend Cassy-Seascape was great!


Anonymous said...

I'll post a word for old school and vote for Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. I never get tired of going back and dipping into the Lord Peter series. The supporting characters like Bunter, the Dowager Duchess and the Honorable Freddie are outstanding. A bit dated, perhaps, but still charming to read.

Helen Ginger said...

I read probably 90% mysteries (using that as a broad category to include cozies, suspense, thrillers, etc.). But the characters who really grabbed me were in The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. I wanted to find out what happened to them and felt pain when bad things happened. And, even though I knew they could not be in the sequel, World Without End, I missed them.

Maryannwrites said...

One of my favorite characters is Francie Nolan from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I first read this book as a young girl -- okay I dated myself :-) but I recently borrowed a copy from my daughter to read the book again. Francie has characteristics that endear her to readers almost immediately, and she has that complicated backstory that you said you like, Roberta.

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Thanks again to the working stiffs for inviting me to visit--and for all your comments about favorite characters!

Dani said...

I love the new cozy mystery trend toward just a little bit of romance. Nothing hardcore... I'm trying to read Nora Roberts, but eek... a bit much for me. ;) If I don't find out if there's a relationship with Rebecca and Meigs before long... don't keep us waiting, please! When's the next book coming out? Serious fans need to know!

Stop by for Roberta's blog book tour how-tos tomorrow at