SANDRA CAREY CODY: ON CHARACTERS
The first puzzle in any mystery is figuring out who’s who. This is true for the reader and especially true for the writer. How do you populate a mystery? Ask a dozen mystery writers that question and you’ll probably get a dozen different answers. Maybe more. We’re a changeable lot. There are, however, a few constants. In a mystery, the three main characters are the sleuth, the victim and the killer.
For me, the sleuth comes first. This is the character with whom I most identify and that, I think, is what you need for your sleuth: empathy. In LOVE AND NOT DESTROY, this character began as a snapshot in my head. Picture a baby in an old-fashioned wicker basket. The tiny face is framed with red curls. She (I knew from the start it was a little girl) is clothed in a hand-embroidered Christening gown with a matching cap. She’s not crying. Her eyes are blue, wide open and unafraid.
Fast-forward 22 years.
Another snapshot: It’s a weekend in early May, the first day of Folk Fest, a perfect celebration in a perfect town, until a shout rings out. “Blood! All over him!” The body of a homeless man is discovered in exactly the same spot where the baby was abandoned all those years ago. My victim has made his appearance. In many ways, the victim, often a character the reader never sees alive, is the one a writer most needs to understand. Everything in the story flows from some aspect of his history or his personality. Someone thinks he doesn’t deserve to live. And, since mysteries, at least traditional mysteries, are puzzles, you need more than one person who feels that way. So, victims are usually easy to hate. Not always, but quite often.
The third member of this trio is the killer. I’m not going to spoil my ending by telling who that is, but I can say a few things about how I create a killer. For the sleuth, you need empathy, for the victim, understanding. You can find those inside yourself, but for the killer, you have to go on imagination. What would make someone commit that most forbidden crime? More than just fantasize about it–actually do it? I try to call up times when I’ve been really angry–or really scared–give those emotions to a character, then push him into a corner. I put him under pressure until he commits a murder. And, sometimes he has to commit another one, to cover up the first. This has to be done without tipping your hand to the reader. The actions of the killer should be under the surface, poking up, but not quite through, disturbing everything, but not quite visible–until the very end.
So, you have the three main elements. To make it interesting, you need other suspects. For those characters, I go back to the victim. Why would, not just one, but three or four, people want him out of the way? Different people might have different motives. I like to create opposites and play them off each other. Here you can really have fun. It’s like doodling.
Now you have your cast. But, so far, they’re just personalities. They all have to be fleshed out. More fun. More doodling. Maybe the subject of another blog.