Ready to build a brand new character?

For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to alternate gender pronouns in order to avoid the cumbersome “he or she”.

First, is the character male or female? What does he or she look like?

Second, what kind of book does your character inhabit? Is the tone serious or light? Is it a cozy, hard-boiled, noir, or something in between? Is your character a professional detective (P.I. or police officer?) or an amateur? If the character is an amateur, what is his or her primary profession? (Does he even have a primary profession? Maybe he’s homeless and unemployed. Maybe she’s an independently wealthy dilettante.) If she’s an amateur sleuth, how does she keep getting involved with these murder investigations? And what is it about her that makes her want to?

How did your character choose his profession? How does she feel about her job?

You will notice that each choice you make narrows the possibilities of future choices. If your character is a female tightrope walker, she’s unlikely to also be clumsy–or if she is, you will need to explain why she chose such an unlikely profession and how she manages to a) keep her job and b) avoid being splattered all over ring three. If your character is an asthmatic attorney who is allergic to everything and has the athletic ability of a jellyfish, he is unlikely to choose backpacking in the wilderness as his favorite hobby. He may may force himself to go, to prove something to himself or to someone else. (An overbearing father? An overachieving, athletic brother? Or worse, an overachieving, athletic sister? Maybe he’s trying to impress a woman?). But he will probably hate every minute of it, at least, at first. And what about his allergies? How does he keep from dying of asthma or a bee sting a hundred miles from nowhere?

By eliminating choices or making (and explaining) unlikely ones, you begin to get a clearer picture of the character.

Remember to keep the tone of the book in mind. In the Kit Cohen series, which is much lighter than the Jared mysteries, I had intended for Kit to have suffered a miscarriage shortly after her husband left her for another woman (who was also carrying his child). That was too much dark baggage for the heroine of a light-hearted series. I kept the divorce, but decided the miscarriage was too much for this particular story. Instead, Kit is currently childless because, “He never wanted to have children. At least, he never wanted to have children with me.” Still a serious situation; she is somewhat saddened by it, but it’s not so overpowering that it ruins the tone of the story. In this new scenario, Kit and her ex can be friends (or at least have a civil relationship), and she is still young enough to have children later if she wants.

All right. You know your character’s gender and profession, and you know how he came to choose that profession. Are you ready to name him? Sometimes a name will just come to you. Sometimes it doesn’t. Skim a few baby name books or browse through the phone book. If you use the phone book, remember to mix and match. If you name your hard-drinking, chauvinistic detective Hubert Saltzwanger, and there is a real Hubert Saltzwanger in your town, you’re just asking for problems. Better go with Hubert Fizbing or Alex (or Andrea) Saltzwanger. (Incidentally, a name like Hubert Saltzwanger is probably better suited to a humorous novel than a serious one, at least as a main character.)

What are her hobbies and interests?

Some of these should be useful in solving mysteries, even it’s not immediately obvious how they would be. For example, if she’s an expert in beadwork, might she notice if a supposedly wealthy suspect is wearing a necklace made of cheap imitation glass beads, rather than the expensive crystal beads one would expect? If she’s a hunter, might she be able to read tracks? (Maybe she grew up duck hunting with her father, and he taught her various woodcrafts.)

Does he carry a gun? Does he study martial arts? Is she an expert with a bow? Does he despise firearms and refuse to carry one? How will he defend himself? Kit has never used a weapon and never wants to. When a fight erupts and her date is being strangled, she breaks up the fight by dumping a pitcher of ice water down the aggressor’s collar.

Does she have pets? If not, why not? If she does have pets, what are they, and why did she choose them? What are their names?

How about family? Is he married? Divorced? Widowed? If he’s divorced, what kind of relationship does he have with his ex-wife? Why did they divorce? If he’s married, what is his relationship with his wife like? Is it comfortable, tempestuous, or strained? If it’s a troubled marriage, how did it get that way? How does he deal with it? How does she? Are there children? And what is his relationship with them? Is he a serial monogamist, a playboy, or is he celibate? Or gay? If he’s single, is he in a serious relationship, or is he looking for one, or does he play the field and like it that way?

Are you beginning to see any patterns? What are this characters strengths? What are his flaws or weaknesses?

Where does she live? Who are her friends? Does she have a support network? If so, who are they? If not, why not?

How does she interact with other people?

Is he charming and personable, or is he a curmudgeon?

Do you feel like you’re getting to know this person? Keep asking yourself questions until you understand your character. Most bookstores carry “All about me” books, books full of questions about a person’s history, likes, dislikes, etc. These are excellent sources for character development. You don’t have to answer every question, just choose the most useful ones. Or, use the character questionnaire that follows this lesson.

I like to answer the questions in the character’s voice, but feel free to answer in third person, if you’re more comfortable with that. (If it says, “What was your worst birthday experience?” you could say something like, “On Ronald’s fourteenth birthday, the head cheerleader, on whom he had a huge crush, sent him a perfumed note asking him to meet her behind the bleachers, and when he got there, the entire cheerleading squad was there laughing at him.” Or, “I remember in the ninth grade, I had this huge crush on the head cheerleader. Her name was Allison. Allison Linley. On my fourteenth birthday, as we were leaving homeroom, she slipped a note into my sweaty palm. The note smelled like flowers. ‘Meet me behind the bleachers after fourth period,’ it said. I couldn’t believe it. I practically floated down to the football field that afternoon. Never mind that I’d be late for Mrs. Pinchley’s Algebra class and would probably have to write ‘I will not skip class’ nine thousand times. I was in love. When I got there, she was standing beside the concession stand. The rest of the cheerleading squad was gathered around her, and they were all laughing and pointing at me. ‘Oh, Ronald,’ Allison said. ‘You’re such a dork.’ I’ve never asked a woman out that I didn’t think about that day and break out in a cold sweat.”)

Now, go have some fun with this. When you’ve found your protagonist, come back for Lesson 4. See you there!