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(Author’s Wife’s Note: It’s not the only one.)
It happens whenever we’re watching TV and one of those Criminal Minds/Law and Order/CSI comes on. Within the first five minutes, I tell her who the bad guy is. I’m right about 90 percent of the time.
“How do you know?” she asked me one time.
“Look for the character that has no other reason for being in the story.”
Now, writing a one-hour TV show is not something I’ve ever done, or would want to do for that matter. I think it would be incredibly difficult to come up with something fresh in such a constrained environment without resorting to formulaic writing.
That’s one end of the spectrum – concentrating on developing one or two characters to move the plot along. In some stories, it’s the right approach, but when you’re trying to pull off a mystery or keep your reader in suspense, you’re probably going to tip off the end-game before you wanted to.
At the other end of the rainbow are those stories that have so many characters that when you read them, you constantly keep asking yourself, “now who was that again?” If a novel has a Cast of Characters just past the title page, you’re probably going to have to take notes when you’re reading just to keep up. The plot may be fantastic, but the story gets lost in a whirl of characters that are no more than just names on a page.
Which brings me to my point: every character in a story must have a reason for being there. Pretty simple concept, but believe me it can be tough to do. It’s a balancing act, and if you screw it up, your story will suffer.
An author much better than me once said that you knew you had a good character when your reader could guess what they had for breakfast without being told. I always keep that in mind whenever I write.
Now, I’m guilty of violating my own rules. I’ve created scenes where I dumped in a throwaway character either to further the plot, expose some aspect of another character’s personality, or for a myriad of other reasons. They show up for that one, brief moment, then poof – they’re gone, never to resurface again. But even then, I try and give them enough depth to make them memorable. If you want an example (and no, I’m not comparing myself to Shakespeare), look at the Fool in King Lear. He shows up in only the first few acts, and then disappears without a trace. But he’s one of the more incredible characters in literature, and anyone who’s ever read or seen the play remembers him.
So if you write in the mystery or suspense genre, bring in enough characters to move the story along and develop them to the point where your readers feel like they them.
And always keep ‘em guessing.
Donald Edward Peters is an Army veteran, award-winning journalist and former Thoroughbred horse owner and breeder. He and his wife have four children, and are currently held hostage in Southern Maryland by two Scottish Terrors and a cat.