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.
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.