Mystery writer Gayle Trent, author of Murder Takes the Cake, made a stop on her WOW! Women on Writing blog tour to share what she’s learned about creating characters by writing her cake-decorating cozies — and watching TV’s Lost.
I had never watched an episode of the television show Lost until this past summer. I rented Disc One from the first season and proceeded to watch all the discs from every season available. Then I watched the latest season on the computer because the discs were not yet available. I learned something from Lost’s writers: hooking readers and keeping them on the line is all in how you reel them in. And much of that “reeling” is in creating believable characters.
If you’re unfamiliar with Lost, the first episode begins with a plane crash. The cast of Lost are the survivors of the crash. During that first episode, you begin to see characters’ personalities emerge. In the ensuing episodes, information is provided about each of the characters in flashbacks.
Interesting premise for a show, you say, but how does that help me in my mystery writing?
Revealing small tidbits about your characters as you go along helps engage your readers. We know how important that is in dropping clues and red herrings, but it’s also an excellent way to have your readers identify with your characters — even the villains. This is especially important in a mystery because it isn’t until the end of the story (hopefully) that the reader figures out who is truly the villain.
Remember, everyone has a story. We’re all major characters in our own stories, but minor characters in someone else’s. Giving your minor characters personality and dimension makes them more interesting and — particularly if you hope your book will be the first in a series — provides fodder for additional books. For example, the grocery store clerk in your first book might be a major character in the next. Maybe he’s the villain. Or perhaps he’ll be the victim. Or maybe he’ll somehow be pivotal in solving the crime. Either way, you can build upon the personality you gave him in the first book to shape his character.
Every character has a reason for his or her behavior. Right, wrong, or simply misguided, those reasons will drive the character’s every action. In Lost, the character Jack immediately sets himself up as the leader of the group of survivors. It appears at first that this is because he is a doctor and everyone needs medical care. However, after he assumes the role, the rest of the group looks to him for guidance. He begins to weigh the consequences of everything he does against how it will affect the group as a whole.
You also need to provide growth for your characters as the book progresses. It doesn’t have to be a lot of growth — it could be something as simple as accepting a relationship for what it is rather than what the character would like it to be. With Lost, the survivors are forced to live under circumstances they wouldn’t normally be facing. Friendships are created among people who might otherwise never notice each other. You can create a “fish out of water” scenario to some extent within your book. Your character is in a dead-end job; although he’s looking for other work, he can’t find anything. How far will he go to change his job status? Your character has realized her co-worker is a murderer. How will she handle this situation? Your character has just moved to a new town. How will he know who to trust?
A reviewer mentioned that one of the things she liked best about Murder Takes the Cake was the relationships between the protagonist Daphne and her various family members. Those relationships were important to me when I was creating the characters and trying to provide them with some depth, but I didn’t realize the relationships would resonate with readers as much as they have. I think this, in part, goes back to the Lost comparison: when people care about your characters, they’ll care about your story.