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I have a guest author on my blog, Efrem Sigel, author of The Disappearance!  I asked him to write about how to create realistic characters.  So read through, and hopefully you will learn something new!  I also have a request for you, my readers.  Which do you prefer, author interviews, or essay type posts such as this one?  Please leave your comment on this post!  Now, here is Efrem on creating realistic characters:

Creating realistic characters is challenge enough for any author.  Creating realistic characters for a mystery is a special challenge.

A mystery by its nature must be plot-driven: a who-dunit that impels the reader to turn the pages faster and faster to get to the end.  But real characters in literature need time to breathe.  That means detours: side plots, interior monologues, dreams and nightmares, conflicts of personality or motivation, all of which may slow down the action for the reader.

Nevertheless, I don’t think this is an irreconcilable contradiction.   It is possible to create realistic characters within a mystery or thriller, and writers like P.D. James and Scott Thurow and Martin Cruz Smith manage to do so in a way that enhances rather than detracts from the story.

Which brings us to the central point: what makes a realistic character?

The obvious way to distinguish one character from another is by physical attributes: one is short, another is tall; one is beautiful, the other plain as a sheet of paper; one chain smokes and finishes a bottle of wine with every meal while the other won’t even touch a drop of alcohol (not that such a teetotaler could ever be the protagonist of a mystery, could he?).

 

Certainly when I began writing stories I spent a lot of time trying to depict characters by how they looked and acted.  This may be necessary but it is not sufficient.  Because it’s not so much how characters look and act as how they feel.  How they feel translates into how they speak and act, how they relate to other characters, how they deal (or fail to deal) with their own shortcomings. If the reader believes that he or she is inside the head of a character, and that this inside view is markedly different from that of another character, then the author has drawn a distinction between those two people that goes far beyond short/tall, fat/slim, wine lover/mineral water aficionado.

 

My new book, The Disappearance, is a mystery, but along with the mystery of what has happened to this missing child is the drama of what will happen to his parents as they try to cope with this tragedy.  They are very different people because they feel and react to events in different ways: Joshua, the father, is impulsive, restless, driven, consumed by the need to find his son.   Nathalie, the mother, is reserved, cerebral, disciplined; rather than being propelled into action by her son’s absence she becomes immobilized as a result of it.  With a husband and wife pulled in such different directions by the same event, the drama of whether their marriage can survive becomes as important as the who-dunit of the plot.

 

And this, finally, is the true distinction between a mystery that is plot-driven and one that is character-driven.  The plot-driven mystery ends with the solving of the crime.  The character-driven mystery ends when the protagonist resolves—or definitively fails to resolve—the internal conflict within him or her.   If this is done well, the book is cathartic for the reader in quite a different way from finding out that it’s Colonel Mustard in the library with the revolver.

–Efrem Sigel, February 18, 2009  Information about Efrem Sigel and The Disappearance is available at: http://www.efremsigel.com

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6 Comments

  1. The Disappearance book sounds like a good read. I think I tend to like character driven mystery than the plot driven one.

  2. Cool. Sounds good!

  3. In answer to your question, I really like the good mixture you have been doing. I do not know if this is up to you, but I would enjoy reading more reviews and or interviews of historical fiction and non fiction novels. But that is not to say that you aren’t doing a fantastic job! Keep up the good work! By the way, have you written anything lately?

  4. If so, I’d like it if you would post about it!

  5. As to the books I review, it really depends on what I am sent. As to my writing, I haven’t written a whole lot lately. I don’t have a whole lot of time for it, and when I do sit down and try to write, everything is so crappy that it frusturates me.

  6. Yeah, I understand. I have been writing 1 or 2 short 1 page stories a week for school about my family, and boy, a lot of them are so pitiful! I write WAY better when I don’t have to!


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