When writing a novel and even more so if you intend to make it into a series, you need to know the character as well as you know yourself. If not better.

Crime writer Sheila Bugler and I worked together on developing a list of questions to dig deeper than hair colour and speech tics to fully flesh out our main characters. (Note: there are hundreds of character questionnaires out there, lots of which may well be more pertinent to your own writing.)

However, Sheila and I were both embarking on a crime series, so we fine-tuned the questions to glean the maximum from our very different female detectives. When we’d finished, we sat down and answered in character. It was probably the most useful exercise I’ve ever done.

Later I began to realise how other characters see my MC doesn’t always reflect her true personality. Logical – none of us is consistent or 100% honest. So I developed a second exercise which helped me place her in any given environment. I found these two exercises so beneficial to my work, I thought I’d share them with you.

Have a lovely weekend.

Exercise A: From the Inside

  1. Are you typically (insert nationality)?
  2. What makes you easy/hard to get along with?
  3. Describe your earliest memory.
  4. Where do you get your information from? Be specific – TV? Which channel? Gossip? Whose word do you trust?
  5. Who or what is the love of your life?
  6. Who is your hero?
  7. Last book you read – struggle or pleasure?
  8. What do you usually have for breakfast?
  9. In what ways are you like your parents?
  10. If you were an animal, what would you be?
  11. Give an example of one of your rituals.
  12. What are you most afraid of and why?
  13. What is the last thing you do before you go to sleep?
  14. Are you normal?
  15. What would be your desert island disc and why?
  16. What would you change about your appearance?
  17. When was the last time you indulged yourself? How?
  18. What prejudices do you have, if any?
  19. What makes you laugh?
  20. Do you have any scars? Where did they come from?
  21. What is your most precious possession?
  22. What keeps you awake?
  23. Why do you/don’t you have children?
  24. Who is your best friend?
  25. When did you last lose your temper? Why?
  26. Which items do you always carry with you?
  27. What is your idea of a perfect evening?
  28. What is your greatest regret?
  29. Which characteristics do you look for in a friend?
  30. Describe your most recent achievement.
    (With thanks to Sheila Bugler)

Exercise B: From the Outside

Looking at your character from the outside is like trying to see yourself as others see you. It’s not easy so here’s a way in.

On the left hand side of a piece of paper, write down five of your character’s key values. What are the things they hold dear? Think conceptually, eg, truth, loyalty, persistence, kindness, etc

Now on the right, write down how those characteristics could be perceived by someone who doesn’t know/is prejudiced against/hates your character. Eg, truth can be seen as rudeness, loyalty as blind devotion, persistence as pig-headedness, kindness as being a sap, etc.

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This week, The Guardian newspaper published this: Stop it, Sherlock! Five TV Tropes that need to die.

I wholeheartedly agree. Here’s one I wrote earlier.

(Tune in next time for chick-lit.)

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Only Dead Fish Have Open Mouths by Jed Blood

It’s Friday night in Greensville, Colorado. Apple-cheeked Melanie Mills is pretty tired after school and a volunteer shift at Kitty Corner, the homeless cat charity. But tonight is special. She has a secret. She tells her folks she’s studying with the girls and heads out for her romantic blind date.

I’m neither romantic nor blind, but I’m waiting for you, Melanie. Inside my head is a lonely place. Inside my pocket is a garlic crusher. Tonight is for Daddy.

Lauren Laphroaig (don’t try to pronounce it, honey, you’ll choke) is woken at 3am by the phone. On the other end is Detective O’Malley, wearing a shower cap on each shoe, shouting at civilians to stand back and chain-smoking cheroots. The mutilated body of an apple-cheeked teenage girl just washed up in the creek. Lauren sighs, swears and drags on a leather jacket. En route to the river, she listens to Miles Davis, snacks on a chili dog and regrets her inability to commit to relationships.

Chief Inspector Elmet Bird is at the scene when she arrives; besuited, livid and in urgent need of soundbites for the city council. Lauren rolls her eyes (because she’s feisty) and mimes ‘Bird Brain’ to O’Malley. Bird spots their sniggering and assigns one of his own to assist in the investigation. Travis C. Weed is a law-enforcement-consultant with an apricot tie and a handshake limper than wilted chard.

Pathologist Rita Ferrongut won’t hazard a wild guess as to cause of death, insisting on a full PM first. Lauren and Weed talk to Melanie’s parents (traumatic), her friends (dramatic) and the weird owner of the cat sanctuary (erratic). Weed takes everything in his stride and asks intelligent questions. Lauren notices his long eyelashes and warm smile but still hates his tie.

The morgue. Ferrongut is having lunch (sashimi, sushi and edamame beans) over Melanie’s eviscerated corpse. She offers everyone chopsticks, while demonstrating how the victim’s injuries were caused by kitchen implements, including an oyster shucker. Weed rushes out to puke. Ferrongut belches. Lauren sighs, swears and goes home for a hot shower.

Time to wash off all that death, grief and wasabi. Wraps herself in bathrobe, fills whisky glass, puts on Chet Baker, has bitter phone call with ex-husband. “Married to the job? Maybe. But I’d rather be married to something I care about.” She sighs, swears and sleeps on the sofa.

Detective O’Malley uncovers police records for Barry King, owner of Kitty Corner. The man is dangerous. So Lauren decides to investigate, at night, alone, with no phone. Oh, and it’s raining.

Stumbling blindly through the midnight-black catty-combs beneath the feline refuge, Lauren is whacked on the back of the head. When she comes around, she’s in a cage, gagged and tied with fish scales smeared on her face. Barry (call me Bar) King, with fetid tuna breath, unveils his master plan – the only restaurant in the world to serve human flesh.

Weed, worried, turns up at Lauren’s house. He finds her mobile and listens to the last message. Kitty Corner? That weird guy who smelt of Whiskas? Of course! He tracks them down and calls for back up. But waiting is not an option when Bar King  selects the Hiromoto Hacker from his knife block. Today’s Dish of the Day, with truffle oil and rocket, will be Carpaccio of Inner Thigh.

Weed mans up and bursts in, wrests the cleaver from the madman’s grasp and stabs King with a chopstick. With his last gurgling breaths, King explains he was abused as a child and only allowed to eat tofu.

Beside the corpse, Weed unties Lauren and wipes the scales from her cheek. Relieved, she holds him tight. Confused, he confesses his love.

Lauren sighs, swears and with one regretful lingering kiss, moves on to the sequel.

A rant-ette.

On patronising readers.

This summer, I read a lot of crime and ‘psychological drama’. Some good, some not so much. But something bugged me. Like summer flip-flops, one minor irritation rubbed a soft spot and grew into a big fat blister.

Here is where it bursts.

Surely…

Author: Surely she wouldn’t have walked out on him without even leaving a note?

Reader: Well, that’s what it looks like.

Author: Surely he’s just being friendly and has no designs on my nubile body?

Reader: Are you really that naïve?

Author: Surely these teethmarks can’t possibly mean he bit the victims?

Reader: Yawn. What’s on telly?

DO NOT TELL THE READER WHAT QUESTIONS TO ASK!!!

mini snail

Look! Can it really be? Not a mini snail? Surely?

Readers actually like trying to work things out for themselves. Those who enjoy crime (and this year’s irritating umbrella term ‘psychological’ drama) read such things to analyse the information given and come to their own conclusions.

‘Surely’ has the same effect of someone behind you in the cinema saying, ‘Did you see that bangle/photograph/cricket box? That will be significant later’ or ‘I hope you noticed Simon’s unhealthy interest in hedgehogs’. All in an annoyingly smug voice.

Variants on Surely…

Had he really emptied their joint account and fled the country?

How could she lie to her sister, our mother and her own children?

If they really had killed before, what was to stop it happening again?

Did three brutal and spookily similar murders indicate a serial killer?

Deduction allows your reader to take all the clues and knot them into an explanation, theory or wild goose chase. Then after the author’s cunning denouement, compare their map-reading, character-comprehension and familiarity with the genre to see how your theories (mis)matched.

Induction beats them around the head and face with blunt signposts until they accept the fact your naïve protagonist would accompany the psychopath to a deserted castle to be sacrificed to the God of Unlikely Coincidence, who happens to be called Shirley.

When we (and here I speak for readers) put the book down and do something which allows cogitative thought, such as dog-walking, lawn-mowing or glass-blowing, we are perfectly capable of conjuring questions of our own.

Why did s/he do that? I reckon it’s because…

Just as you leave a party and reflect on your new acquaintances, you add all the signifiers together and form a subjective opinion. That person is funny/needy/weird/sexy/dodgy/sociopathic. This game becomes far less fun if each party guest has a Post-It on their forehead saying, ‘Slimy Womaniser’, ‘Gold-digging Divorcee’, or ‘I Hurt Gerbils’.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a reader, writer, or someone like my mum, who does both. So here’s some knuckle-bloodied advice for free.

Write your first draft as a writer, then change in a phonebox and read it as a reader.

If Reader You wants to punch Writer You in the face and shout ‘Don’t patronise me. Who do you think you are?’ something may need to change.

Surely.

 

 

 

An article in The Spectator investigated a death. The death of murder. Crime rates are dropping, not just in Britain, but all over the world. A good thing, surely? As Andrew Taylor says, pity the poor crime writers.

But the article got me thinking about the difficulties of crime writing in a world of forensics and DNA, cameras and mobile phones, political correctness and terrorism. Has writing crime got harder? I rounded up some of the usual suspects for interrogation.

Today, I’m so chuffed to welcome Lorraine Mace, who writes crime as Frances di Plino.

Murder She Wrote F di P

Modern technology undoubtedly makes it easier to catch criminals. But does it help or hinder the crime writer?

The technology we use on a daily is changing so rapidly, it’s hard to keep up with it. Looking at it from a crime writing perspective, it makes our lives harder because criminals now use the dark web, but it seems you need to be a criminal to be able to access it. However, from the point of view of using technology within a storyline, I find it adds additional layers. For example, the antagonist in Looking for a Reason (book four of the D.I. Paolo Storey crime series) created a blog which was entirely private. I used this as a method of informing the reader about the crimes, while at the same time preventing the police from garnering that same information.

Which areas of police procedure or criminal use of technology have you needed to research? And how did that influence the plot?

For Someday Never Comes I had to research the way in which two forces would need to work together when criminals work across borders. Who would take precedence in such a case? How much information would be shared ahead of arrests? What would happen if both forces had grounds for arrest?

Today’s world of school shootings and suicide bombers seems a long way from country house killers and dastardly butlers. All of you write contemporary crime – would you ever consider writing historical crime, ie, before fingerprinting and DNA?

I would love to write crime set before the recent forensic advances but I think it might be even more difficult than writing contemporary crime. Not only would the detective not have all the modern forensic tools, but there would be no mobile phones or any social media to trace people’s movements. I sometimes watch a programme set in 1920s Australia, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, which is fascinating because the detective (usually a step or three behind Miss Fisher) has to rely entirely on observation, witness statements and gut instinct. It makes for great viewing, but I would imagine writing it took even more research than trying to keep up with today’s advances.

In the majority of crime novels, the culprit must be brought to justice. It’s rare to see one get away, which is the opposite of reality. Are we tied to the formula of a ‘happy’ ending?

For me, the criminals must never get away with their crimes. Ultimately, I have an innate sense of justice and cannot stray from it, even if I wanted to. I read a book recently where the criminal walked away because the murders were revenge for earlier wrongs. Even though I could sympathise with the emotional need to strike back, I still wanted the perpetrator to be locked up.

Murder She Wrote Lo books

Ian Rankin observed how Scandinavian noir is politically engaged and makes a comment on society at large. Do you think British crime is more focused on the individual?

I think most crime novels in Britain deal with small communities, even if those communities are located within our large cities. Our writers tend to look at how the crimes impact on the victims. So, yes, I do think British crime is more focused on the individual.

In our lifetimes, there’s been a major shift on what we can and cannot say. Certain terms are taboo and using stereotypical clichés of race, gender and sexuality can result in a critical backlash. How far do you ‘police’ what you write so as not of offend?

I don’t. I want my characters to be real people and most people step over those boundaries at some point in their lives, even if unintentionally. I never try to prevent my criminals from speaking or acting exactly as they would in real life. However, when one of the ‘good’ guys says or does something that isn’t acceptable, I make sure that Paolo raps the guy’s knuckles. For example, in Bad Moon Rising, the first in my series, one of the policemen is misogynistic and refers to a colleague as a dyke. For that (and a few other choice comments) Paolo steps in to deal with the situation.

Finally, for those of you writing a series featuring the same main character(s), would you ever do a Reichenbach Falls and kill off your hero? Or are you afraid of the Annie Wilkes effect?

I did kill off one of my ‘regular’ characters and was sent an email by a fan in which she said she felt like doing a Misery on me when she read that part of the book. Thankfully, she doesn’t live close enough to carry out her threat. I think if a character has gone as far as you can take him or her, and there is a danger of losing the magic ingredient that brought the character to life in the first place, then it’s time for them to go.

 

Find out more about Frances (and Lorraine) here:

http://www.francesdiplino.com/

http://www.lorrainemace.com/