Writers as Cops


One of the things that this investigation following the Boston bombing has reminded me of is character building. This is the writing disease, to connect even awful things to writing. Graham Greene said every writer has to have a splinter of ice in his heart, that he has to be able to be inside a terrible situation and still observe and record. As I look at how the cops are trying to piece together these men and understand the how, why, when and so on, I realized how similar that is to what writers do.

Don't think she's not got a motive and means. She's just looking for opportunity.

Don’t think she’s not got a motive and means. She’s just looking for opportunity.

I have a character in my WIP. (Wow, how crazy is that? Having a character in my WIP? Moving on, Dr. Obvious . . . ).  Anyhow, I began with what she looks like and her name. As I started putting together the idea for this story, I had started gathering pictures on Pinterest. I was essentially collaging my world. I had a few stray ideas that were colliding and gluing themselves together and becoming more, but while the world and the situation was building, my character’s life and story were not. I knew very little about Taryn as a person. In fact, I wasn’t that sure Taryn was her name. It seems to be, however, because I can’t find anything that rings right when I try shifting it. So it will be. The town she lives in is Axton. I don’t know why, but it is. My mind says that’s true. It’s now a fact.

I have learned more about her as I’ve looked into her past. I’ve learned about her parents and her childhood, her great-aunt, and where she lives and how. I’ve learned about her jobs and hobbies, her likes and dislikes, and so on. I know what kind of person she is and I know what’s broken her in the past. I know a lot about what her problem is now, but not entirely, and not the big driving central force. But I’m uncovering. I’m digging into her background. Every clue I find about her leads me to more clues and more understanding and knowledge about who she is now and what the trouble is that is brewing, just like a cop investigating a suspect. Some of the same questions apply–Means? Motive? Opportunity?–are very apropos.

Think about it. In any given conflict, you want your main character to have agency–to be the actor not the reactor, to be the one with the power to do things rather than have others do things. Main characters who are passive don’t tend to excite readers (with some major exceptions like Bella). Anyhow, that means they want to *d0* something, but they need a motive, something that drives them. They need the means to do it, whether that’s skill, research, buying something, or so forth. And they need the opportunity to do it, whether that’s being in the right place at the wrong time, or having the knife in reach, or having the murder victim walk in at the perfect moment. Not only that, but they have to take the opportunity to do the deed.

As with suspects, these things must all make sense. I know that in truth, odd things happen and people do crazy things without rhyme or reason that many outsiders watching might not understand, but truth is no excuse for fiction or for police work. There has to be an understandable and reasonable story for the characters. It has to make sense in the context of their lives and what made them who they are and what made them do what they did in this moment.

That is why it is so important to explore and understand your characters’ lives and to know much more about them than will ever hit the page. You have to know what made them who they are, even if no one else does. You have to know how they will react in a given situation, based on the life they have lived and the sum of their experiences.


10 comments to Writers as Cops

  • sagablessed

    Totally agree.
    One must know one’s characters inside and out. I write their life history before I put them in the WIP. I even go so far as to make astrology charts, just…well, because no matter your personal feelings on the issue, it rounds out their psychological profiles for me.
    My main issue the main protagonist is she is flat. My others and the BBU’s are much more rounded.
    As always, a thought provoking post. You are a good mentor.

  • So very true, Diana. All parts of this, including the part about still taking ideas and making connections from horrible happenings. Great post!

  • Really thought-provoking post. I realized as I read how you’re uncovering your character that I’m uncovering mine slightly differently. One of my starting points for my WIP was the main character’s background, so I knew most of that at the very beginning. What I’m uncovering is how her past affects her actions in the story, digging into the details of what she says and does in different situations, how she will react to other characters. I’d never thought of that the way you discuss it here, and it’s opened up some new avenues of thought for me.

    I also thought that maybe how we as writers allow the reader to gradually get to know the character by uncovering bits and pieces throughout the book mirrors how we as writers uncover those bits and pieces as we plan the story . . . something that might be really helpful as I decide when and how much to tell the reader about the character.

  • Di, seeing your post makes me so aware of the MW adage — there is no right way to do anything, it just has to work.

    For Jane Yellowrock, I had no idea who she was when I started the first book. I am still learning about her as the plots peel her for me like an onion, layer by layer. And for that reason the writing of these books in this series is a continuous discovery, and perhaps the most creative I’ve ever been, character-wise.

    Hmmm. I feel an MW post coming on… Thanks for this!

  • sagablessed: I’m having some issues with my main character being flat too. It’s why I haven’t been getting far. She’s flat because I don’t know enough about what’s going on with her in the here and now. So I keep excavating who she is. I’m glad I can be helpful!

    Laura: Thanks!

    Sisi: that’s really true. Making the revelation in bits and bites also helps keep readers intrigued as well.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    This is an interesting post, thank you. For myself, I often feel more like I’m doing character assembly and engineering than detective work. Usually I start with a major plot point/structure and then ask “Why in the world would my character do that?”

    For instance (my next project), very rarely is a human going to fall in love with a troll. At the front, most trolls won’t even let them get close enough to get started. “So why is my troll different?” and then on to world-building: “And what is a standard troll like, anyway?” (So if anybody out there has tips on the modus operandi of trolls…)

    Back to detective work: How often do you find that your previous intelligence was wrong? Or do modifications usually come in the form of added-on layers and quirks?

  • Razziecat

    So true! And sometimes very surprising things can happen. I have a space opera character who had killed someone, and I THOUGHT I knew why. I knew his background in detail, I know his state of mind when he acted, I thought I understood his motives. It wasn’t until another character interacted with him, and saw right through his evasions and lies, that I realized I didn’t really know him quite well enough. It took me 11 months to figure out exactly why he had killed. It was pretty disconcerting to realize that another character, who after all was also my creation, could see something that I as the writer could not. And it’s likely that in the final version of the story, her conversation with him will not even appear; but now I know what makes him tick and can make sure everything in the story reflects this.

  • Good post Diana. I mostly come up with the plot then my character history as the story reveals itself. In my current WIP, I didn’t know Bethany had been a drug addict until old friends showed up to take her mind off her new problems.

  • Faith: I write much the same way, adn I think this book will be that way, but there are things that I need to know before I start. I discovered today that it was a map of place. I needed to know her space. now I can make progress on writing and discover as I go. I only wish I knew more about the main conflict. Like anything about it.

    Hepseba:I think you are doing detective work with the questions. But I have this image of a mess of legos scattered across the floor of a big room and you in the middle piecing together characters. As to your question, it depends on how deep the changes cut. I may have to go back to the beginning if I learn something truly fundamental, but otherwise I do the layering thing. Good question!

    Razziecat: isn’t that the best part of writing? When the character becomes real enough to lie? I love that, even as it pisses me off when my characters lie to me. Bastards.

    WaitforHim: Very cool.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Character legos would be awesome. And if you ran out of one type of piece, you’d know you’d been using that type of attribute way too much.