Getting to Know Your Characters

Kaitlyn Dunnett here, author of the Halloween-themed mystery Vampires, Bones, and Treacle Scones. It’s a cozy mystery set in the fictional western Maine village of Moosetookalook, peopled by a goodly number of slightly eccentric characters, many of whom appear in more than one book in the series. I know most of those folks pretty well by now but, with each new book, there are also new characters. Getting to know each of them can take some pretty odd turns.

When I’m in the planning stages of a novel, I make a character sheet for each character. I use these in two ways, to plan ahead and to record important facts about that character that come up as I write. This is also where I try out character names, since it’s always a good idea to make sure a new character’s name isn’t too similar to any other character name in the same book. Similarly, jotting down notes on hair and eye color, facial features, height, weight, and other details of physical appearance keeps me from introducing a whole slew of characters who look too much alike.

Physical description is important, although I’m not sure it’s crucial to mention hair and eye color for every character. That a minor character is horse-faced or blushes easily might be more significant. How do they speak? How do they walk? Do they have a favorite cuss word? That’s the sort of thing I look for to make an individual stand out. Each character needs something to keep him or her from ending up as a cardboard cutout.

So, I put a certain amount of thought into each new character ahead of time. But to be perfectly honest, what works best for me in creating distinct individuals is putting a character into a scene and letting him or her start talking.

In Vampires, Bones, and Treacle Scones, I introduce the character of Boxer Snipes. The Snipes family has appeared before. They are not upright citizens. Boxer is the older boy series regular Beth Hogencamp, a precocious preteen, brings with her to a planning meeting of the Moosetookalook Halloween committee. His presence immediately raises the hackles of the adults who are present. In the beginning, that was all I needed Boxer to do, since that would automatically make him a suspect when strange things start to happen in the old Chadwick mansion, proposed as a “haunted house” for the Halloween festivities.

Boxer, however, had other ideas. He developed an unexpected talent for malapropisms like “that’s the way the cookie bounces.” And then, when I was about halfway through writing the book, it dawned on me that Boxer had another role to play in the story. It turned out that he had a secret, one I knew nothing about when I started plotting. I can’t reveal what it is (spoiler!), but once I knew this significant fact about him, it not only gave Boxer a more fully developed character, it led to new insights into two of the series regulars and produced yet another suspect with a motive for murder, someone I hadn’t previously considered in that role. Getting to know Boxer better led to a better novel.

One piece of advice I received when I was starting out (writing mysteries for the 8-12 year old set) was “give everyone a secret.” I’m thinking that works pretty well in mysteries for grown-ups, too. I’d love to hear how other writers develop well-rounded characters, especially secondary and minor characters, and what readers notice about these characters in the books they read.


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3 Responses to Getting to Know Your Characters

  1. Kaitlyn — I agree with your comment that putting a character in a scene is the way to get to the heart of his or her personality, and I love your advice to give everyone a secret. That simple bit of counsel can make even the most blah secondary character become interesting.

  2. Patrick Gomes says:

    Thank you for expanding on this. I truly enjoy hearing how my favorite authors create characters, and also keep them straight. Now I have to re-read the books with an eye towards the knowledge that bit characters may be harboring their own secrets, secrets only future books will tell.

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