is to give them human frailties,
which means reacting to the
things that happen to them
in the plot."
Keeping Characters Real
By Sheila Lowe
I’ve just finished reading a medical thriller by Michael Palmer, which I really enjoyed…until about the last 20%. The protagonist is a doctor who has Asperger’s syndrome, so I learned something about what life is like from behind the eyes of a high functioning “Aspie.” The plot was intriguing, the main characters likeable, and there was a great twist. So what bugged me about that last bit of action?
Without giving anything away, let’s just say that one of the characters has been tortured, yet is able to immediately jump up, do heroic deeds without the injuries interfering at all. Another has come close to drowning, has sustained serious cuts and bruises, but seems to disregard all that and just plunges on. Well, of course adrenaline could account for some of that but really…after torture? This character doesn’t even wince when clothing touches the wounds.
As a mystery writer myself, I fully understand that stories aren’t real life and that characters in books have to do things that ordinary people in the same situation just wouldn’t do. But shouldn’t their experiences leave some mark on them (physical and emotional)? One of my sons broke his collarbone in a motorcycle accident. He’s big, tough, and a bodybuilder, but he still feels significant pain from it eighteen months later. In fiction, he’d be jumping from one building to another, regardless of injury or pain, right after the accident.
Seeing people die in horrible ways, maybe even having to kill or seriously injure someone, has got to impact our characters in life-changing ways. In life, if they didn’t deal with such experiences directly, they would likely suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (which could make for all sorts of interesting sub-plots).
We want our readers to identify with our characters, and over time, come to genuinely care about them as if they were old friends. Part of making a character real is to give them human frailties, which means reacting to the challenging—okay, awful—things that happen to them in the plot.
If your protagonist has just faced down a killer and shot him or her, I’d like to know how he feels about it. Is he exhilarated or does he feel guilt? Or is she just plain exhausted by what she’s gone through? If your protagonist was kidnapped and threatened, brutalized, perhaps, when she escapes from the situation, does she begin to feel as if she must now always look over her shoulder? Can she ever feel safe again? Does she have nightmares about what happened to her?
I addressed this issue in Dead Write, where Claudia Rose was still suffering emotionally from traumatic experiences she’d undergone in the previous book, Written in Blood. Having lost a friend to a brutal killer, and after witnessing violent death, and being forced into other frightening situations, Claudia is depressed. She tries to hide it by withdrawing, but the distance she creates causes uneasy ripples in her relationship with her lover, Joel Jovanic. The trauma also brings up painful old memories of a childhood situation that continues to haunt her.
Our protagonists are expected to have a character arc and to have learned something through their experiences. By using what happened in one book as a stepping stone to Claudia’s emotional growth in another, I was able to add to her arc and give her character more humanity. Humans suffer and hopefully, we grow from it. Our characters should, too.
Last Writes is out NOW!
What does an old stuffed bunny have to do with a fundamentalist religious cult and a forensic handwriting expert?
Erin Powers is a member of a religious sect, living in an isolated compound called the Ark. Now her husband and young child have disappeared, leaving behind a cryptic note with a terrifying message. In desperation, Erin seeks help from her estranged sister, Kelly Brennan, who in turn enlists the aid of forensic handwriting expert Claudia Rose. Seizing on an unexpected opportunity to use her professional skills, Claudia becomes one of the few outsiders ever to be invited inside the cult compound. With time fast running out, Claudia must uncover the truth about Kelly’s missing niece before the prophecy of a secret ancient parchment can be fulfilled and a child’s life is written off for good…
Reblogged from Susie Kline
Stop on by Motherhoot: Moaning, Groaning & Laughing About Family Life!