HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Was it --dating myself now--Readers' Digest?---that had a feature called My Most unforgettable Character? I used to read Readers Digest at my grandmother's house, and come to think of it, learned to type by copying out articles. Well, mostly jokes.) And I built my word power like mad. (Tell me you remember the old Readers' Digest.)
But as writers, now, we are in a constant focus to make sure our characters are real. A Scout Finch, for instance. Kinsey Millhone. Claire Starling. Moe Prager. Jack Reacher. All those people we talked about in Tuesdays mash-ups...we can talk about them, right? Because we know them.
How do you do that? At Love in Murder this year, I finally met Gail Lukasik, whose books have gotten raves from PW and Kirkus. And she's got some wonderful ways of making sure our characters are not cardboard.
Writing characters that grab readers’ imaginations is as crucial to a mystery as a compelling plot. My belief is that no matter how compelling the plot is unless it is filled with memorable characters, it’s empty.
So how does a writer create memorable characters? First you have to know your characters intimately. This is especially important for main characters. The more you know about your characters, the better you will be able to draw them on the page in a believable way. And believability is key to creating memorable characters.
Here are three writing exercises I’ve used to teach characterization as well as in my own writing. These exercises help you get to the heart of your characters.
Eye of the Beholder
Find a photograph of a person that speaks to you. Write a physical description of that person, including looks, clothing style, facial expression, and any personal nuances such as gestures and gait. The physical description should convey as much about personality as appearance.
Ask yourself what does your character’s physical appearance say about him or her? Don’t we make assessments of people based on their physical appearance even before getting to know them?
In creating my nineteenth-century protagonist for The Lost Artist, I began with a portrait photograph I found in an antiques shop. Written on the back of the photo were the young woman’s name, and the words “Carter School pupil from 1921-1923.”
What initially drew me to her were her sad, intelligent eyes, her expression of longing, and her mouth that seemed to hold too many teeth. But as I studied the portrait, I saw that the artistry of her dress belied the plainness of her face. Her choice of necklace that echoed the lacy scalloped edged collar told me she had an aesthetic eye. Though the young woman lived in the twentieth century, her face, expression, and artistry fit my nineteenth-century protagonist Emily Lord Braun.
Starting with a physical description of your characters often leads you to discover aspects of their characters you hadn’t expected. What you infer from characters’ physical appearance speaks volumes about who they are.
The objects that we value say a great about who we are. The same goes for our characters. This exercise approaches characterization in a different way, letting an object define the character.
Choose an object you’re drawn to. When I give this exercise in class, I buy inexpensive items from the dollar store. Then I have students choose an item and write a character sketch of the person who owns this object. I instruct the students to have the character talk about his/her thoughts and feeling about this object.
This exercise aided me in creating my present day protagonist for The Lost Artist Initially I was having trouble envisioning this character. All I knew was she had to be an artist because the character had to be capable of interpreting the four murals that are the key to finding the sixteenth-century art treasure. Finally I settled on a performance artist mainly because performance art is edgy, which interests me. And here’s where the object lesson helped. My protagonist Rose Caffrey’s performances involve evocative, overly large dresses that she wears in public spaces. Not only are these dresses part of her art but they also define her entire life. When she’s kicked out of her Halsted Street apartment, the only things she’s frantic about are her dresses. That devotion to her art made her the perfect protagonist to embark on a dangerous quest to find a lost art treasure.
Say What You Want
Another way into a character is through dialogue. For this exercise give your character an overriding desire. Have the character write about this desire using the prompt: “The only thing I ever wanted was ...
HANK: So fascinating! Reds, have you tried any of these? Who's your most unforgettable--fictional--character?
Gail Lukasik is the author of the Leigh Girard mystery series, which is set in the resort community of Door County, Wisconsin. Kirkus Reviews described Death’s Door, the second book in the series, “as fast-paced and literate, with a strong protagonist and a puzzle that keeps you guessing.” Her debut stand-alone mystery, The Lost Artist (Five Star/Cengage, June 2012) received praise from Publishers Weekly who said, “Rose’s present-day sleuthing and the intertwined tale of the original homeowners command our interest until the final page.” Before settling on writing mysteries, she was a ballerina for the Cleveland Civic Ballet and a published poet. Her website is: www.gaillukasik.com
The Lost Artist is available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble