Everyone knows the most important people to any successful business are their customers. Running a close second and facilitating that success are the company’s employees. As a hiring manager in operations for the past forty years, I have interviewed and hired hundreds of people; from janitors to forklift operators to departmental and area managers.
This interview experience contributed substantially when it came time to create the characters for my Crime Suspense novel, When the Music Dies. That may not sound rational at first, but I assure you, it worked for me.
Over the years, whenever I’ve had a need for a new employee, I created a job description, or used an existing one, in order to outline exactly what success, and the ideal employee for that job, would look like. Once I had that description on paper, I went on the hunt.
Assuming you know the basic outline of your story, the setting, key scenes, roles required to make the story work, where you want it to begin, where it goes and more or less how it ends, you are ready to go on the hunt for your characters.
Talk with the characters you think you want for the key roles in your story as if you were interviewing them for a job, since that’s more or less what you are doing. Listen for their answers. How do they sound when they speak? Their voice and possibly their vocabulary should be distinctive. Are they memorable? How would you describe them to someone? Ask them all the same open-ended questions you would ask in a job interview in order to learn about them and their past. This way you can discover if they are the one you need or if their persona needs to be tweaked. (I’ve hired some folks that had to be tweaked.)
The more data you collect on each character the better you’ll know how, and sometimes if, they will work in your scenes. You will want to know much more about your characters than you will ever use in your story. I wrote approximately two single-spaced pages of background on each of my key characters in order to feel like I knew them and knew what they would do or say in each of the situations I was about to thrust them into. Less than twenty percent of that background data ever came out in my story.
At some point, like employees, your characters will need guidance from you concerning what you expect from them. Well-developed characters, like well-trained employees for a business, become huge assets and more often than not help write the future. Spend the time necessary to know your characters and they will contribute to your story’s success in amazing ways.
Once you think you have the right mix of characters, and you’re convinced you know these people well enough (be prepared, there are always surprises), call a meeting with the characters you’ve “hired” and let them interact with each other in your scenes while you sit back, watch and take notes.
When a group of people are going to work closely toward a shared objective, the right fit is critical. The fit in your story is equally critical. Share with each member of your character group your goals for the scenes throughout the story, and along with that, the role each character plays in the success of those scenes.
Note: This is where your approach may fluctuate from the employer/employee analogy. As an author of mystery and suspense fiction, you do not want all of these people to get along. If they do, your story is bound for boredom and ill-fated for failure. As an employee or business owner yourself, you already know: conflict, tension and confrontation do not make for a happy and productive workplace. But, as a writer in our genre you also know, these elements are highly combustible accelerants for the fires of suspense-filled mysteries and thrillers. Bring on the conflict.
Don’t tell your characters how the story ends. They’ll find out soon enough. If your planned ending is as disastrous as my first one. Then, you may want to do as I did and ask your key characters how they would end the story. If you’ve spent the time to develop and get to know them, and if you listen to what they say, their suggestions could help you find answers you’ll need for the construction of a more interesting, more character driven and more successful finale.
I’ll admit it. My characters wrote my new ending, and for their efforts I have agreed to employ them for the sequel, Face the Music.
Ken Vanderpool is a life-long fan of Crime Suspense and Thriller fiction who began to write his own in 2006 following an eye-opening medical procedure and an intimate encounter with his mortality. Ken is a graduate of Middle Tennessee State University with his degree in Psychology and Sociology with a concentration on Criminology. He has also graduated from the Metropolitan Nashville Citizen Police Academy and the Writer’s Police Academy in Greensboro, NC. His first novel, When the Music Dies was published in October 2012. He is currently at work on his second in the Music City Murders series, Face the Music. Ken has spent his entire life in Middle Tennessee and proudly professes, “There is no better place on earth.” Ken currently lives near Nashville in Murfreesboro, Tennessee with his wife Sandra and their Cairn Terrier-ist, Molly.
(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/). To be a part of this series, contact Beth at firstname.lastname@example.org.)