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Between the Pages, past
A Mystery Column
By Dennis Collins


      It’s pretty obvious that it’s the characters that carry a series of books and keep the readers coming back. Everybody remembers Mike Hammer and Travis McGhee but can you recall most of the titles? So it only makes sense that authors invest a lot of time in developing the important characters.

  One of the most intriguing things about writing fiction is training yourself to build a character on every person you encounter in your daily life. It’s a fun challenge and it changes the way you look at everyone you meet.
Most of my characters are a blend of at least three real people. I might take mannerisms from one, a temperament from another, and physical traits from a third. I try not to put too much of any one person into the mix. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone identifying too closely with a murderer or any of the victims.

   Sometimes the personality of one character is determined by the qualities of another. A mob hit-man who only murders rival mobsters might be a bad guy but if he invades an orphanage with an assault rifle, he becomes an outrageous monster. He is defined by his victims.

   I tried an interesting experiment in one of my books. I introduced a character and gave her a pretty generic name. She had a past that most women would not normally escape. But this woman had courage and fought her way to respectability. Some of the dialogue that I gave her occasionally slipped into the “street language” category. I made her a very likable person but never gave a physical description of her. I asked a few people who had read the book to describe her to me. About half of the people pictured her as being white while the other half saw her as African-American. I was happy knowing that readers could develop a vivid mental image without having to draw them a portrait. It was the result that I had hoped for.

   A good writer can actually slip into the personality of a character as he’s writing and provide a little soul to make that person more believable and genuine and that’s one of the rewards of being an author because you can actually include a little of yourself.

   The ability to develop believable and distinctive characters is one of the most important skills that an author must learn. Even a good story won’t save a novel full of faceless and weak characters.


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