J.A. Jance on Creating Believable Characters ‹ CrimeReads

Years ago I participated in a writer’s conference where I was required to read a certain number of pages from various attendees’ manuscripts. Afterwards I was required to have one-on-one meetings with the authors to give them my evaluations. Some of the manuscripts showed promise, but one of them stopped me cold.

The story was what the author referred to as a “genre-jumping murder mystery.” My first issue with the story had to do with the idea that a group of time-traveling homicide investigators would not do so with three-inch thick paper files in hand. It seemed to me that if they could do time travel, they’d use tools somewhat more tech-savvy than pen and ink.

And then there were the cops themselves. They all had ethnic-sounding names, but there was nothing in the story to support their presumed ethnicity. There were no details that gave any indication of who they were or where they came from. But then I hit the first distaff member of the team. She was listed as Female Protagonist #1. 

So when it came to doing my time in the barrel with the author, that was the first thing I asked him. “All the male characters have names, so why is the woman called ‘Female Protagonist #1?” “Oh,” he replied. “When I did my global search and replace, I must have missed her.”

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I was appalled. I spent most of my allotted time explaining to him that characters aren’t just a few letters in a name. I told him that, as writers, it’s our responsibility to bring our characters, both major and minor—to life outside the lines of the manuscript. We need to know who they were long before the current story started. That includes knowing where they came from. What’s their background? Was this character raised by two happily married parents or by a struggling single mom? What was their socio-economic standing? What church did they attend? Was the character part of a youth group there? Did he or she get good grades in school or was school a constant struggle?

When I finally paused for breath, my would-be writer looked at me and said, “But is it publishable?” 

The answer to that was a resounding no, but I don’t believe he’d heard a word I said, and I doubt he followed any of my heartfelt advice, either. But, when it comes time to write a book, I give myself the same advice I gave him—don’t just slap a name on new characters—think about them long enough to get to know them before ever putting fingers on my keyboard. (No, I don’t use pen and ink, either!) 

That probably sounds simple, but it’s not. Coming to terms with who  characters are and how they’ll behave under certain conditions is a process that often entails countless nights of wrestling with who they are, where they came from, and what makes them tick. In that regard, the devil is in the details, because it’s those tiny pieces of a character’s history and background that will create someone who’s a living, breathing entity as opposed to a flat and lifeless paper doll. 

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Sometimes, just giving a character the correct name is enough to point the author in the right direction. While writing Nothing to Lose, the moment the name Twinkle Winkleman came to mind, the very sound of it made me laugh. She was a middle-aged woman, born and bred in Alaska. At the time I thought she was going to make a brief appearance in the book and then disappear. Instead she ended up playing a major role.

Like Johnny Cash’s boy named Sue, someone named Twinkle Winkleman would necessarily have to grow up tough as nails. As a result, she’s a force to be reckoned with. She runs a limo company, but that’s using the term “limo” very loosely. Shortly before starting the story, I had watched a TV show called “Wheeler Dealers” in which someone rehabbed a decrepit 1970s vintage International Harvester Travelall. With that in mind, it made perfect sense that an aging Travelall would be Twink’s preferred mode of transportation. She spends a lot of time driving lonely Alaskan roads in all kinds of weather. Naturally, she does so armed to the teeth. And, because she’s a trained mechanic, the heavy duty luggage rack on top of her vehicle is loaded with spare parts in case she has a breakdown far from the nearest AutoZone.

As I said, I originally expected Twink to make a brief appearance in the book, but once she came to life for me, she turned out to be someone with a mind of her own. When it was time for her to exit stage left, she flatly refused to do so. In fact, she ended up playing an integral role in the story’s crashing climax. And, much to my surprise, once the book came out, readers launched a campaign for me to bring back Twink – something I may eventually do, although most likely in a novella rather than a full-blown novel.

That’s the magic part of writing that I doubt the author of Female Protagonist #1 will ever understand. In the novel, while I still thought of Twink as a minor character, her former daughter-in-law helped her track down some missing car parts. In order to write another story about her, I’ll have to deal with why Cindy is her ex-daughter-in-law. What happened to Twink’s son? Even though he never appeared on screen in the first story, I have to make the details in the next outing consistent with what I wrote in the first one. 

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Keeping details straight from one story to the next or even from the beginning of the story to the end is vital. Have I always practiced what I preach in this regard? Well, no. At one point, J.P. Beaumont’s son-in-law, Jeremy, suddenly turned into a Jeffrey. Early on, Joanna Brady’s height tended to go up and down an inch or two from book to book. And then, while I was signing one of the later Joanna Brady books, readers pointed out that a character I’d knocked off in book number one was alive and well in the current one. That’s when I broke down started keeping a character name file.

It’s a reminder of what I’ve said in previous books so I can carry those details over into subsequent ones. What are the characters’ full names? How tall are they? What color hair and eyes? What kind of vehicle do they drive? When and where were they born? What kind of relationship do they or did they have with their parents? What’s their favorite food? If they carry weapons, what kind?

By the way, in regard to that unexpectedly resurrected character in the Joanna Brady book? I eventually painted my way out of that corner by making the new character the nephew and namesake of the previously dead one, but it would have been a lot easier if I’d consulted a name file early on.

And, just so you know, consistency isn’t limited to physical attributes. Occasionally an offhand remark or comment will slip into the story without seeming to be important enough to make it into my name file. For example, in Beaumont #9, Payment in Kind, there’s a nine-word passage in which Beau recalls the fact that he never served in the military during the Vietnam War. Those nine words became an issue in a much later Beaumont when, in Second Watch, his military service in Vietnam is front and center. Some of my SERs (Sharp-Eyed Readers) were quick to point out that error. So we fixed it. Readers encountering current editions of Payment in Kind will find no trace of that nine-word passage. It has since been expunged and de-published.

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When it comes to creating new characters, those are my pieces of advice to beginning writers. Don’t just slap a name on someone and let it go at that. Take the time to think about that person—about who they are, where they came from, and why they do the things they do. That’s what will make your characters believable and memorable to your readers.

And once you do that, don’t trust those little gray cells to remember all those telling details. Make a name file and consult it often. If you’ve put enough thought into creating the characters to begin with, when it’s time to do the writing, you’ll be able to sit back and watch your characters strut their stuff and put themselves through their paces. 

That’s the point when writing stops being work and starts being fun.


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