Wednesday, August 19, 2009

On Creating Characters and Storylines


At my recent reading book signing for Publish or Perish, I was asked an interesting question: How do you develop your plots? Do you use an outline and then fill it in, or do you just start writing? The question got me to thinking about how a storyline - especially a murder mystery - and the characters are created. When I write, I usually have in mind a character - the main character. Usually it's the person who's going to be the victim. I get interested in the main character: his or her background, likes and dislikes, all of the things that make a character real. I do that because, as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot used to say, it's often the personality, the character, of the victim that leads to his or her death. For instance, in Mrs. McGinty's Dead (a favorite of mine), it was arguably the circumstances of the main victim's life (her job) as well as her character (inquisitive) that got her killed. I think in lots of cases, when there's a deliberate murder (rather than, say, a random shooting), something about the victim's life, personality, etc. leads to the murder. So knowing the victim well is essential to figuring out who the murderer is. That's why I start with the victim.

For instance, in Publish or Perish, the victim, Nick Merrill, is a successful graduate student who's developed a high-quality and potentially very successful piece of software. He's also having an affair with a member of the faculty in his department at the same time as he's dating another woman. He's also just won a prestigious fellowship. As I thought about this character, I realized that in, many ways, it's Nick's habit of plunging into life, of being lucky and successful, and of placing his trust in the people around him, that lead to his murder. In other words, because Nick is the person he is, and makes the choices he makes, he ends up getting killed. In my upcoming novel, B-Very Flat, the main character is an undergraduate student, Serena Brinkman, a highly talented violin major. In Serena's case, her family background, her unusual musical talent, her lifestyle and a valuable Amati violin she has all play roles in putting her in danger. Ultimately, she is murdered. Again, it's because Serena is who she is that she is killed. That's my extended answer to that question I got.

What do you think? What draws you into a murder mystery? Is it the main character? Is it the plot? Is it figuring out whodunit?

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