- 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 Match.com. 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
Scottoline’s 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 http://www.robertaisleib.com to read more.