The Clue to Character
Where would a story be without a character? Character is the engine that drives the narrative. For me, it is a magical process. Imagine having the omnipotent power to create and mold a person on the page. Not only do I get to conjure up the character’s physical attributes and such details as a birthdate, but I have the opportunity to develop his or her personality. Evil or noble? Intelligent or foolish? Witty or dull? Take a smidgen of this and add a pinch of that, and voilà a person starts to emerge. To be believable, the reader must be given intimate insight into the character’s thoughts and emotions, likes and dislikes. One has to understand the motives behind why a character reacts a certain way. Of course to be fully formed, the author must imbue the character with both admirable qualities and flaws. After all, in real life nobody is perfect. So too must it be on the written page. Once the author is satisfied with the character sketch, then the real fun begins: unfurling the imagination to weave the tale.
When writing a mystery series, the essential component is a sleuth to solve the crime. Here, the author is presented with two possibilities: professional detective or amateur sleuth. It all circles back to character and the story that the author has in mind for him or her. For my series, I chose the amateur sleuth. My protagonists are journalist Emmeline Kirby and jewel thief Gregory Longdon.
Why a journalist? A journalist is inherently curious about many subjects. His or her job is to ask questions to uncover the truth and ensure transparency. Naturally, a journalist would be intrigued by crime, especially murder. The determination to find answers and see that justice is served are all important.
Now, how does a jewel thief fit into the model of a sleuth? Aren’t lying and evading the law a thief’s modus operandi? Isn’t this in stark contrast to a journalist’s reverence for the truth and justice? Most definitely, but that’s exactly the point. A portrait in contrasts. Who better than someone on the wrong side of the law to discern the twisted workings of a fellow criminal’s mind? A thief immediately recognizes things that the honest person would never even contemplate. In Gregory’s case, he has a certain code of honor. Murder is an offensive transgression. A line that should never be crossed. Thus, I have two diametrically opposed sleuths who are of one mind when it comes to the taking of a human life: the culprit must pay for the crime, otherwise chaos would reign in the world.
Meanwhile to round out my ensemble, I have Chief Inspector Oliver Burnell and Sergeant Jack Finch of Scotland Yard. They represent “the law” in all its gravitas. While their job is to hunt down criminals, sometimes the law’s constraints chafe and make their task more difficult. That’s why I have Gregory. He is Burnell’s nemesis. They have an adversarial, cat-and- mouse relationship. As a thief, Gregory has more flexibility to maneuver and never misses an opportunity to needle the chief inspector. Burnell, for his part, has been thwarted in his many attempts at catching Gregory red-handed. Will he ever succeed? The jury is out on that question.
There are myriad things to consider when delving into the essence of what makes a captivating and appealing character. The author must much achieve a delicate balance of shadow and light, intrigue and clarity, to give the story meaty substance and an air of authenticity. It’s an ongoing challenge, but one that you as a writer have to explore in every book as you seek to make readers truly care about your characters. Once readers make an emotional connection, you have them hooked because that means they want to know the story behind the character.
Daniella Bernett is a member of the Mystery Writers of America NY Chapter. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.S. in Journalism from St. John’s University. Lead Me Into Danger, Deadly Legacy and From Beyond The Grave are the first three books in the Emmeline Kirby Gregory Longdon mystery series. She also is the author of two poetry collections, Timeless Allure and Silken Reflections. In her professional life, she is the research manager for a nationally prominent engineering, architectural and construction management firm. Daniella is currently working on Emmeline and Gregory’s next adventure.