A fresh approach to crime fiction

Acting out of Character

When I was asked how I created my characters, I replied, ‘I don’t know.’

That’s not entirely true. I should have said, ‘I’ve never really thought about it.’

That was true until I started writing this post.

Years ago, when I was an unpublished writer, I read plenty of books on how to write better. Nearly all of them gave me roughly the same advice on characters – get to know them intimately, better than you know your closest friends and family.

Do character profiles help?

Character charts allow you to list every detail from hair colour, schools attended, to favourite films and food. There were spaces to identify the character’s values and attitudes, significant events in their past, and what drove them to be who they were.

Good stuff for writing a biography. And I wrote many of these character biographies, often stretching to 20+ pages. But did I know the characters any better as a result?

I knew which curries they would eat and the music in the car on the journey back from the takeaway. If they were more upmarket, they might visit an expensive restaurant after an evening at the opera. They could discuss football or politics, provoke fights or walk away and brood.

What I really wanted to know was how they’d behave in my novel. And I’m not sure a character profile was that great an indicator or help.

Do characters need a flaw?

Take my lead character, Kent Fisher. In the original character profile, he was married to a wife who didn’t love him. He was ex-army, argumentative, (‘ornery’ as one reader called it), and gung ho. This was what heroes in stories were like, right?

Kent didn’t ‘leap of the page’ as one agent put it. Maybe I’d omitted the obligatory personality flaw. I rejected most of the obvious ones like alcohol, drugs, infidelity, gambling or trainspotting. I thought about making him an unhealthy eater, but as a chip lover, this would never do. How about a healthy eater?

Kent Fisher – tall, strong, and ready to battle the bad guys after a pot of organic yoghurt.

No, not quite.

When No Accident was accepted for publication by Penmore Press, I’d long given up on character profiles. Most of my key characters were already performing in my satirical and somewhat irreverent blog, Fisher’s Fables. When I wrote the blog posts, I simply created characters for the roles needed and let them develop with the posts.

In most cases, I started with a name, job title, and the relationship to Kent. Gemma, who he describes as ‘the most attractive woman he’s ever known’, only entered Fisher’s Fables midway through its run and at the end of a post.

But what an entry she makes. After she’s introduced to the team, she pulls a pair of red boxer shorts from her jacket pocket and hands them to Kent. ‘You left these behind,’ she says.

I knew almost nothing about her character when I wrote this. I simply wanted to end the post of a high. But from that entry, I knew so much more about her and let her develop from there.

And I think that’s how I approach all my characters, major or minor. I usually give them a name, a role in the story and a purpose. Sometimes, I use Google to bring up images that help me identify the appearance of a character as faces, and particularly eyes, can often suggest personality.

You don’t really know your characters until you drop them into the story

Then I drop them into the story and let them run. Their dialogue, behaviour, actions and reactions define them. These are often driven by who they are, what they believe and their experiences.

It doesn’t take long before I’m getting to know these characters quite well. But isn’t that how it works in real life? You meet someone and start with appearance, followed by voice and then what they tell you. As time goes by you learn more and more about them, including past, family, and secrets.

In the real world you rarely have to solve murders.

Okay, you may never get to know their deepest fears and longings unless they’re very open with you. Then again in the real world, you rarely have to solve murders, save the world, or jump on a plane to declare your undying love to someone you met an hour ago.

But when your characters do, you have to consider why they behaved as they did. That opens up such a world of possibilities and ideas, it’s a joy – and much more fun than a character chart.

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