There’s nothing better than a memorable protagonist in any story, and the good guy in a murder mystery saves the day by solving the crime and bringing the perpetrator to justice. So for the next couple of weeks, I’d like to share a few character development tips that I use.
To develop storylines for thrillers and murder mysteries, character development is paramount. As dramatic as it is for someone to die on paper or an e-screen, it’s the actions of the protagonist that make the story come alive. So after deciding what should happen to begin the story’s journey, I think of how that will affect the protagonist.
Our character’s reactions to scene situations are what drive the story forward. If someone gets murdered and a police detective says, “Oh well, another day, another murder,” the readers’ reactions will be mundane as well and they’ll move on to another book. We have to give our readers a sense of urgency, a reason to turn the pages and to care about what’s taking place. And that only occurs when the protagonist cares to the point of obsession.
We, as writers, must perceive our protagonists as complex psychological beings driven by various combinations of past experiences, emotional baggage, current likes/dislikes/frustrations and future expectations. We are driven by our past experiences and future possibilities, and so are our characters—none more so than our main character, the one driving the storyline.
When we tap into the raw emotions of our protagonists—the hurts, the joys, the anger and disappointment, their driving forces—that’s when we begin to reveal a deeper story. Whether you consider a novel plot driven or not, the characters actually propel the action forward.
The trigger may be a murder, a series of them or some other great evil, but the real story is how the protagonist will arrive at a solution to the presented problem. Without tapping into the back-story of the main characters, there can be no story in the present. There must be motivations directing our characters to do what they do to restore equilibrium to the world as it’s presented.
Primarily, those motivations come from a mix of external and internal changes that happen as the story progresses. Externally, the character must achieve something and be better off at the end of the story than at the beginning. It may be a newfound romance or a job change, but there must be some character transformation to entice readers to push forward to the last page.
Even more importantly, we must draw in the readers’ emotions and cause them to become invested in the character’s world. That happens when the protagonist undergoes an internal change: a shift of viewpoint, a realization of a source of fear or achieves some significant resolution.
But that change, that paradigm shift, should not happen easily. It should affect the character to his or her very core. That internal struggle gives depth to the story, and the eventual acceptance of the change makes the believable lie that fiction is . . .well, believable.
And there are no rules that require those changes to be for the better. Tragedy happens all the time in real life and it’s especially dramatic when it happens in a well-written novel. The protagonist MUST undergo an internal and external change for the reasons stated above, but those changes may well end in tragedy.
A protagonist may deal with a life-long struggle of achievement and acceptance, only to lose a prized possession in the end. This character is forever changed because of the loss, but that may be necessary for the character’s life to progress in a certain way. So even in adversity, there is an evolution in the character.
When I develop a storyline for a murder mystery or thriller, the evil lurking beyond reach becomes the supporting pillar for the real story of the protagonist’s reactions to the events and what those actions eventually cost the character.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!