The Writer’s Life A-Z

Beth Terrell wears many hats, and wears them, oh, so well. Besides being a darn good ballroom dancer, she is a successfully published author and serves as Killer Nashville’s Special Projects Coordinator. She also has a passion for helping beginning writers.

In her monthly column, Beth shares her journey while referencing the paths of different writers who have come into our Killer Nashville family. It is a journey worth learning from and it will save years – maybe decades – if you follow along.

Last month, Beth, who writes novels under the name Jaden Terrell, got you to dip your big toe into the world of writing with her piece about growing ideas to become stories. This month it’s all about the main character and the questions you must ask yourself when you create that special someone.

Your Protagonist

By Jaden (Beth) Terrell

Can you imagine Miss Marple slugging it out with a hopped-up pimp in a shadowy alley that smells of urine and rotting garbage? Can you imagine Mike Hammer sipping tea in a parson’s parlor, quietly ruminating about the psychological foibles of a small-town microcosm of society?

Well, maybe you can—writers live on imagination—but the image doesn’t hold up over the long haul. Poor Miss Marple would end up with a cut throat or a broken hip, and Mike Hammer would punch out the parson, and the balance of the universe would be restored. The characters must be true to the story—and vice versa.

The most important character in your novel is your protagonist. Why? Because, while the antagonist’s actions may drive the story, it’s the protagonist your readers are going to be invested in, the one they have to care enough about to follow for the duration of a book, or (in the case of a series) several books. In a crime novel, your protagonist is generally the one who solves the mystery or foils the villain’s diabolical plans. If you already know what kind of book you’re writing, you already know a few things about the main character.

If you know you’re writing a cozy mystery set in a small New England town, you can already rule out a few characteristics. Since this subgenre typically features an amateur sleuth, you know your character isn’t a police officer or other law enforcement official. She’s not foul-mouthed or brutal. She’s curious enough and courageous enough (even if she doesn’t know it) to try to solve a crime that most people would leave to the police. 

Remember to keep the tone of the book in mind. In a cozy, the protagonist will have flaws and a history, but her baggage can’t be too heavy. She might bite her nails, but she’s probably not addicted to heroin. She might have a strained relationship with her mother, but she probably wasn’t locked in a closet for days and then beaten with coat hangers. 

On the other hand, if you’re writing a gritty psychological thriller, you need a character with the skills to defeat a cunning and dangerous killer. Her background and emotional life may be darker and more complex.

You’ll notice that each choice you make narrows your future choices. If your character is a tightrope walker, he’s unlikely to also be clumsy—or if he is, you’ll need to explain why he chose such an unlikely profession and how he manages to both keep his job and avoid being splattered all over ring three. By eliminating choices or making (and explaining) unlikely ones, you begin to get a clearer picture of your character. Later, this will help you with plotting.

Ready? Let’s get started.

THE BASICS

First, is the character male or female? What does he or she look like? Some writers choose to leave the character’s appearance vague so the reader can create the character in his or her own image, but even if you choose not to put these details on the page, you should know them yourself. Why? Because how we look affects how people respond to us. It affects how we perceive ourselves and what we expect from other people.

Thought Bubble Protagonist
A prime example of this is Jack Reacher. Jack’s sheer physical size is the first thing people notice about him. It gives him an advantage in some situations, a disadvantage in others. It influences his tactical decision-making. A short, small-boned man, even one with the same level of skill and training, would approach the same situations in a very different way.

Imagine two women in a café. Emma is tall and slender. She is, and always has been, beautiful in all the ways our society defines beauty. She’s wearing an expensive dress and expensive jewelry, and her makeup is flawless. Sybil is plain-featured with acne-pitted skin, lank shapeless hair, Coke-bottle glasses, and wears a worn sweatsuit stretched tightly over rolls of fat. How do the servers and the other customers respond to each woman? How does each one carry herself? What body language does each woman use as she interacts with a man she finds attractive or a surly salesperson at a high-end boutique? 

Now imagine a third woman. Let’s call her Claire. By all objective standards, she’s beautiful. She could be a super model. But she was a plain, awkward teenager whose parents belittled her and whose classmates teased her about her appearance. The world sees her as an Emma, but inside, she still sees herself as a Sybil.  Can you see how that self-image will affect all of her interactions and relationships? 

Ask yourself these questions: Is your character attractive or plain? Is he physically strong? Fast? Fit? Is he generally healthy? How does he dress? Is he well groomed, and to what degree? Growing up, was he the kid picked last on the playground, or was he the captain of the team? Is his self-image in line with the way others see him? How does this affect his relationships with others?

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Shakespeare said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” That may be true, but your character’s name will create an image in your readers’ minds. You’ll be living with it for a long time, so choose well. 

Hello My Name IsSometimes a name will just come to you. Sometimes it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, skim a few baby name books or browse through the phone book. If you use the phone book, remember to mix and match. If you name your hard-drinking, chauvinistic detective Hubert Saltzwanger, and there is a real Hubert Saltzwanger in your town, you’re just asking for problems. Better go with Hubert Fizbing or Alex (or Andrea) Saltzwanger. 

Listen to how the name sounds.  Does it fit the character and the tone of the book? Hubert Saltzwanger, for instance, is a name better suited to the hero of a humorous novel than a serious one. If you choose it for the hero of a serious political thriller, is your reason for choosing it important enough to offset the jarring or incongruous image it creates in readers’ minds?

PROFESSION

Many of your character’s skills are dictated by (or reflected in) his or her profession. In a thriller or harder-edged mystery, you might choose a professional investigator (perhaps a police officer, federal agent, private detective, or corporate spy) or someone who works in a technological field.

Protagonist Job Application
In a cozy or traditional mystery, you’re more likely to need an amateur sleuth. Cozy novels have been written about herbalists, cheese makers, chefs, and quilters, among other things. Lisa Wysocky’s award-winning novels feature a horse trainer. Nancy Cohen writes a successful series about a hair stylist. 

Does your protagonist even have a profession? Maybe she’s homeless and unemployed. Maybe she’s an independently wealthy dilettante. If she’s an amateur sleuth, how does she keep getting involved with these murder investigations? And what is it about her that makes her want to?

How did your character choose her profession? How does she feel about her job? What does she love about it? What would she change about it if she could? What’s her relationship with her supervisors? Is she a rule-follower or a maverick? Is she respected in her field? Is she a loner, or does she prefer to work with a team?

If she’s working in a male-dominated profession, what challenges does she face? How does she handle them? How about if he’s a man working in a field that is typically considered feminine?

HOBBIES, INTERESTS, AND SPECIAL ABILITIES

What are his hobbies and interests? Might any of these be useful in solving a mystery? For example, if he’s an expert in beadwork, might he notice if a supposedly wealthy suspect is wearing a necklace made of cheap imitation glass beads, rather than the expensive crystal beads one would expect? If he’s a hunter, might he be able to read tracks?

Does she carry a gun? Does she study martial arts? Is she an expert with a bow? Does she despise firearms and refuse to carry one? How will she defend herself? One of my characters, Kit Cohen, has never used a weapon and never wants to. When a fight erupts and her date is being strangled, she breaks up the fight by dumping a pitcher of ice water down the aggressor’s collar.

SOCIAL CONNECTIONS AND RELATIONSHIPS

How about family? Is he married? Divorced? Widowed? If he’s divorced, what kind of relationship does he have with his ex-wife? Why did they divorce? If he’s married, what is his relationship with his wife like? Is it comfortable, tempestuous, or strained? If it’s a troubled marriage, how did it get that way? How does he deal with it? How does she? Are there children? And what is his relationship with them? Is he a serial monogamist, a playboy, or is he celibate? Or gay? If he’s single, is he in a serious relationship, or is he looking for one, or does he play the field and like it that way?Socia lConnection Protagonist

Are his parents living? What’s his relationship with them? How about siblings? How many? How well do they get along? What patterns carry over from their childhoods?

Does he have a best friend? Who does he confide in? Does he have a rival? An enemy? What if the rival is also a close family member or friend—someone the character loves? 

Does he have pets? If not, why not? If he does have pets, what are they, and why did he choose them?

BACKGROUND AND ENVIRONMENT

Where does she live? What city and state? Does she have her own house? Rent an apartment? Sleep on her mother’s couch? Is she a neatnik, a slob, or something in between? Are her living quarters lush or spare? What kind of security precautions does she take?

Does the story take place near her home? If not, where does it take place and how does she come to be there?

Where did she grow up? Did she stay near home, or home, or did she get as far as away as she could? Why? 

LOOKING FOR PATTERNS

Are you beginning to see any patterns? What are this character’s strengths? What are his flaws or weaknesses? Does he have a support network? If so, who are they? If not, why not? How does he interact with other people? Is he charming and personable, or is he a curmudgeon? Is this a façade or a true reflection of his personality?

Do you feel like you’re getting to know this person? Keep asking yourself questions until you understand your character. You can make up your own questions or pick and choose from other sources. Most bookstores carry “All about me” books, books full of questions about a person’s history, likes, dislikes, etc. These are excellent sources for character development. You don’t have to answer every question, just choose those that resonate with you—those that spark ideas about your character. 

WritingYou can answer the questions in either first or third person. For example, if the question is, “What was your worst birthday experience?” you might write, “On Ronald’s fourteenth birthday, the head cheerleader, on whom he had a huge crush, sent him a perfumed note asking him to meet her behind the bleachers, and when he got there, the entire cheerleading squad was there laughing at him.” 

Or you might say, “In the ninth grade, I had this huge crush on the head cheerleader. Her name was Allison. Allison Linley. On my fourteenth birthday, as we were leaving homeroom, she slipped a note into my sweaty palm. The note smelled like flowers. ‘Meet me behind the bleachers after fourth period,’ it said. I couldn’t believe it. I practically floated down to the football field that afternoon. Never mind that I’d be late for Mrs. Pinchley’s Algebra class and would probably have to write ‘I will not skip class’ nine thousand times. I was in love. When I got there, she was standing beside the concession stand. The rest of the cheerleading squad was gathered around her, and they were all laughing and pointing at me. ‘Oh, Ronald,’ Allison said. ‘You’re such a dork.’ I’ve never asked a woman out that I didn’t think about that day and break out in a cold sweat.”

You’ll discover other things about the character as your story progresses, so leave yourself room for surprises. A long-lost cousin? A secret sibling? Time will tell.

And remember, if you come up with an idea you love that doesn’t fit what you’ve already chosen, you can backtrack and bring your previous answers into line with your new vision of your character. Some things are bound to change as your story grows, but the better you know your character before you begin, the easier you may find it to step into his skin and see the story through his eyes.

Jaden Terrell (Beth Terrell) is a Shamus Award finalist, a contributor to Now Write! Mysteries (a collection of writing exercises by Tarcher/Penguin), and the author of the Jared McKean private detective novels Racing The Devil, A Cup Full of Midnight, and River of Glass. Terrell is the special programs coordinator for the Killer Nashville conference and the winner of the 2009 Magnolia Award for service to the Southeastern Chapter of Mystery Writers of America (SEMWA). A former special education teacher, Terrell is now a writing coach and developmental editor whose leisure activities include ballroom dancing and equine massage therapy. www.jadenterrell.com.