Wednesday, June 07, 2006

WTPEN -- Character Development

Well, after a little hiatus, I’m moving on to the next topic in writing the private eye novel: character development.

Even though PI novels are traditionally about action, present day readers are also interested in character. In fact, developing strong characters may be the only way to overcome the current bias against PI books and have your novel stand out to agents, publishers and readers.

So how do you build strong characters? The old saw applies: show, don’t tell. Let readers draw their own conclusions based on the clues you leave for them in what a character does, what he says, how he moves and dresses, what possessions he has, and even how he appears.

Conveying character by appearance may draw upon assumptions, stereotypes and prejudices to some extent—for example describing someone as having a high forehead might suggest intelligence—but it can also be done by giving details about grooming and hygiene that let the reader know how fastidious or vain someone is.

Traditionally, the PI character has not always been developed to the same extent as other characters. He was often portrayed as the stoic lone wolf who is more the catalyst for action than someone on whom the action works.

Later writers have moved away from that approach and made the PI and his life an integral part of the story. For example, one of James Crumley’s PI characters—Milo Milodragovitch—is battling alcoholism, a family history of suicides and is only killing time until a multi-million dollar family trust is available to him and he can go on a partying spree to end all partying sprees. His family history and his struggle to stay alive and (somewhat) sober until that time are key elements of the first two books in which he appears.

One way to enrich your PI’s character is to give him a vocation or outside interest. Similarly, as in the case of PIs Sid Halley and Alex McKnight, he can come from another career that manages to intrude upon or inform his current one.

Character flaws or physical weaknesses can give your PI something to battle against in addition to plot conflicts. For example, Sid Halley’s hand has been crushed in a racing accident, and in one book, the villain threatens him with a debilitating injury to his other hand.

And, as mentioned earlier with Milo Milodragovitch, background or life experiences can shape his character and current motivations.

But you can’t simply pick one attribute from column A and another from B to form character—it’s not a list making exercise. It’s an exercise of imagination where attributes must be synthesized to form a whole person in whom readers will believe.

Also, in this day of anti-heroes, keep in mind that while the PI character must not be likeable per se, he must retain stature in readers’ eyes. He must have skills, qualities or strengths that the reader can admire.

Finally, be aware that if your PI is intended to appear in a series, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to have a full arc of character development for him in each book, such as you might find in a traditional literary novel. You will need to pace yourself.

Next up: plot, part I.


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