Characters in crime

Image by Mikhail Lavrenov

Image by Mikhail Lavrenov

One of my greatest ah-haa! moments in learning to write creatively was realising that characters are the essential essence of a good story. Whether you are writing memoir or romance or fantasy, or (as I do) historical fiction and crime, it is the characters who do all the work. They hook in the interest of your readers and drive all the action.

Last week I read an enlightening article by author Katherine Howell, published in WQ Issue 250. In her treatise entitled ‘Crime and Character’, she notes:

The key is making the characters compelling enough that the reader can’t help but be drawn in. The reader has to care about the character and what happens to them, because the desire to find out what’s around the corner for this interesting person is what makes them read on.

The compelling character is the driven character. They need to have a goal they’re trying to achieve: something they want, and the more desperately the better.

I couldn’t agree more.

But before you can write a fascinating character, you need to know them as well as you know yourself. Getting inside your character’s head isn’t easy. You need to create a personal history and lots of irrelevant trivia about their ‘lives’.

One of my favourite characters in Baby Farm is investigative reporter and ladies’ man extraordinaire, Seth VerBeek. To write the story from his point of view, I had to understand where he’d come from and what had shaped his life. I also needed to like the character I’d created, so that I could write with compassion (and some passion as well).

So, without giving anything away, here is Seth VerBeek in a snapshot.

Raised in working-class Paddington in Brisbane, Seth was heavily influenced by his father, a tram driver who’d lost his job after the great tram depot fire of 1962. Seth left home as a late teen and did his training as a journalist in Sydney. At age twenty, he was conscripted and sent to fight in Vietnam. Afterwards he worked as a foreign correspondent in dozens of countries including the Middle East. Returning to Brisbane, he slipped into a comfortable rut until meeting the new love of his life, a woman who needed rescuing herself. His loves are: women in general; a good Scotch whisky; unravelling the mysteries of the world; and smoking which he’s valiantly trying to quit with mixed results.

Who is the favourite character in your work in progress? How well do you know them?

What do they like? What do they hate? What gets up their nose?

A piece of advice I was once given was this. Go out to the pub with your character and get roaring drunk. While I’m not advocating drinking irresponsibly, sometimes you just have to go with the flow. You’ll be pleasantly surprised what you find out … about both of you.

Like to hear more? If you’re in or near Brisbane (Australia) come to one of my author talks at the following locations:

Until next time, happy writing.

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About Debbie Terranova

Debbie Terranova is an Australian author of contemporary and historical fiction. 'The Scarlet Key' published in 2016 is the second Seth VerBeek mystery. The crime-busting reporter is back with a new cast of unforgettable characters and a new puzzle to solve. It's about live, love, death, and tattoos, with a touch of the mystical. 'Baby Farm', her debut novel, is a cozy crime mystery about forced adoptions of the 1970s, and a surrogacy and baby trafficking racket. It is the first of the Seth VerBeek series. Debbie Terranova is a prizewinning author of short stories: 'Mowbray Brothers' about growing up in East Brisbane in the 1920s; and 'Mischief' about reinventing yourself and in the process falling in love ... with an adorable but mischievous cat.
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