Finding a Character

By Bob McCrillis

With all kinds of worksheets and techniques to flesh out your characters, I thought you’d be interested in mine.

Here’s the situation: Someone had to help my readers understand the progress of the police search for my protagonist. If I had been writing in the third person, it would have been easy – the omniscient narrator could just tell the readers what was going on. Or I could head jump among the characters to keep the reader up to date on the closing loop of the police.  Since I was writing strictly from my protagonist’s point of view, someone has to tell him how close the cops are.

I had some options.

  • My hero, a serial killer, could communicate with the cops directly like Jack the Ripper. However, the police today are much more sophisticated than in the 19th Century and would never divulge any significant information.
  • He could follow the search in the media but that wouldn’t help him much.
  • A spirit from the Great Beyond could update my killer – but I’m not writing that kind of book.
  • A character with access to the progress the cops are making comes on the scene and somehow communicates it to the killer.

As much fun as the ghostly visitation idea would be, I decided to find a human who would have access to the information and would be willing to share it. Maybe my guy has a girlfriend, a civilian clerk in the police department. She loves him so deeply that she’s willing to overlook a few murders and feed him classified information. After all, she wants him to stay out of jail. Or, maybe I could create a relative or a compromised cop who can be blackmailed. Not quite right.

How about a reporter? One that’s young and hungry? She connects three of the murders, discovering that these aren’t random killings but part of a series. By digging tenaciously, she finds enough evidence to convince her editor and breaks the story. My killer see the story and makes contact. In exchange for an exclusive interview, she passes along what she’s learned from in-depth interviews with police detectives and other involved parties. She can also provide him with a platform to explain why he’s murdering these particular people. The reporter sees an opportunity for a series of juicy feature stories about the mind of a serial killer.

Why a woman reporter? As well as trying to overcome her relative inexperience, she’s fighting to be taken seriously as a reporter. She writes as CJ Simons rather than Candace Simons as her byline and avoids clues in her writing that she is a woman – even when she’s assigned to the community pages. Initially, I even considered a possible romantic connection.

My next issue is to come up with her voice. What kind of a person is she? How does she see herself? Is she cynical and world-weary or optimistic and hopeful? Does she react with revulsion or fascination when confronted with the details of the murders? When she speaks, is she flip and sarcastic, or straightforward and earnest?  How does she react upon discovering that the murders are a moral statement?

I concluded that she’s a young, attractive woman who presents a tough, seen-it-all exterior to disguise her underlying idealism. She believes that the Fourth Estate is the bastion against tyranny although she’d never admit it.

How about her career so far? We know she’s young but has she been identified as an up-and-coming star or is she still laboring in obscurity? Has she ever gotten a byline on a feature? Will she be excited by the potential story or frightened when she receives a telephone call from the murderer of seven people?

Having her voice, I can fill in her background and link her experiences to the way she interacts with the killer, her editors, and the subjects of her interviews.

For my story, I visualized Clarise Starling in Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs. She is the first in her family to go to college, socially unsure of herself, diligent, and hard-working. Anxious to prove herself, she’s also committed to fulfilling a higher purpose. She works for a good Midwestern paper, the Kansas City Star, and has a slight chip on her shoulder about the reputation that such publications are second-rate.

When my killer first sees her, what will he see? Maybe I was too influenced by the movie version of Clarise, but I immediately saw my character as Jodie Foster.  She’s petite, vulnerable, and has a core of stainless steel.

My final step is to find photographs of my characters and pin them up on my bulletin board. It helps me to look up and see the players when I pause in my writing. Sometimes, I even speak to them (I don’t hear responses so I’m still on this side of the line).  This approach results in this scene.

As usual, my method is messier that the one you find in the how-to books but it works for me.

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