Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Developing the Protagonist

This past weekend I attended Crime Bake, the annual mystery conference held in Dedham, Massachusetts. This is a small conference with lots of panels and opportunities to meet other writers and readers. In the coming weeks I'll share some of the ideas and insights from the conference. Today I'll talk about the practice of developing a protagonist by listing 20 things you know about this character.

At first this sounds like an easy exercise. This is your novel and your protagonist, so you know all there is to know about your character. Right? Probably not. Each item or characteristic will limit what can be included afterwards, and some will have a greater impact than others. In addition, once you get past the first ten or so items, the exercise becomes more difficult. Let me work through one example, using Chief of Police Joe Silva. When we meet Joe, in Murder in Mellingham, he is already entering middle age.

1. Joe Silva is of Portuguese descent. This has implications for the kind of experiences he has had growing up and as a young man.
2. Joe is a little over average height, so he's considered tall. But his height isn't so great that he would compete with Jack Reacher, Lee Child's creation.
3. Joe is unmarried. This opens up all kinds of plot possibilities, and indeed he makes a commitment in the third book, Family Album.
4. Joe worked on his father's fishing boat. This means Joe is working class.
5. Joe is easy going.
6. Joe has a kind sense of humor.
7. Joe is the middle of seven children.
8. Joe calls his mother every week, but rarely visits his family, who live about two hours away.
9. Joe attended Northeastern University. This is a co-op school, meant for commuters as well as the working class population. He would have dressed well, jacket and shirt, perhaps even a tie, for his first week of classes. If he'd been born in a different environment, and gone to Harvard as a legacy student, he would have dressed very differently.
10. Joe is patient. No one would ever call him a hot head, and for a career policeman this is important, affecting his chances for advancement.

By this point we're going deeper into Joe's character. We could fill up the slots with personal tastes (coffee with milk), physical description (black hair and brown eyes), talents (he learned to carve from his grandfather), and childhood (he shared a room with his two brothers). But these aspects, though important details, don't tell us much about the man who is Joe Silva. This is where we have to make choices, and dig deeper for human qualities and behaviors.

11. Joe is broadminded. Having grown up as a minority and working class, he felt the sting of prejudice, and he is sensitive to how circumstances can make other people feel.
12. Family matters a great deal to Joe, so he understands the motivations of others who often make bad decisions for what seem to be the right reasons.
13. Joe is tolerant. He knows people are different simply because he grew up surrounded by siblings who were always debating and arguing and being as different as people can be.
14. Joe grew up in an old-fashioned home, and has chosen to maintain certain practices. You will not hear him call his older relatives by their first names. His uncle will always be Tio.

The deeper we go into the list, the less observable the qualities are. We are now delving into Joe's character, his way of living in and dealing with the world. These are the qualities that people come to know about another after living or working with them for a number of years. They are also the qualities that emerge in a crisis, as we follow our character through the process of discovering the murderer or confronting him or her.

15. Unless someone else's rights or standing are on the line, Joe will prefer to walk away from an argument. Life is too short to be tense with anger all the time.
16. Joe will not bear a grudge but he will keep his distance from people whose way of life repulses him, the fast-talker, the smooth-talker, the builder who cuts corners, the man who whines about his taxes but lives in a million-dollar home.
17. Joe loves his family but he vowed as a young man when he entered the force that he would not show favoritism to any friend or relative. This has not always been easy for him, but he takes it day by day if he has to, as in Last Call for Justice.
18. Joe grew up working on his father's boat and his uncle's farm, so he is physically strong, but he finds most sports a waste of time. He doesn't play golf or tennis (no one in his family did), and only signed up for track and field during high school. He was big enough for football and fast enough for ice hockey, but the violent physical contact didn't appeal to him. He'll watch a football or hockey game but he's not interested in playing.

Even though we may now think we know this character well, he can still surprise us, and we should be ready for that. Joe Silva remained unmarried well into adulthood. But when he did make a commitment, he exhibited two more qualities that are important to our understanding of him and his life story.

19. Joe is a man of fidelity. Once he makes a commitment to a life partner, he is never going to cheat on her.
20. Joe became a stepfather and discovered that he loved being a father. He had set aside his feelings about family and parenting when he didn't marry as a young man, so coming to this in his middle years has brought unexpected happiness. He looks forward to opportunities to spend time with his stepchildren, and to teach them what he knows, in Come About for Murder. 

We learn who someone is by watching his or her behavior, and the same is true in a novel. I developed Joe Silva's character through several books, but in each one I had to stay true to the original impression I created in Murder in Mellingham. In each book, however, we get to know Joe more deeply. He's not perfect, but he's a decent human being who loves his work and his family, and faces challenges squarely.

 To find the Joe Silva/Mellingham books, go here.here


  1. Susan,

    It's easy to understand why your characters have depth. Doing a character Bible is a great thing to do prior to starting to write a novel.

  2. Thanks, Jacquie. I think it's most challenging when you're just starting out and trying to figure out who this character is. It's always a good idea to leave room for surprises too.

  3. Great advise Susan!
    Thanks for sharing
    Good luck and God's blessings

  4. What a great idea, Susan. As you said, the more characteristics or information one lists, the more the writer really gets to know the character.

  5. Thanks, Pam and Maris. This is a very challenging exercise, and whenever you do it, you're sure to learn something. Thanks for commenting.

  6. This is a great exercise. Given how my characters always seem to change and grow as I write, I could use this.

  7. I'm glad this looks useful, Anne. My characters also seem to change without warning, so I hope this exercise keeps me on track. Thanks for commenting.

  8. I like this very much, Susan. Thanks for a useful tool.

    1. Thanks, Earl. I learned a lot about Joe from using this.

  9. Excellent advice, Susan. For those of us who are list-keepers, jotting down these features of our characters can prevent giving him/her the wrong trait in future scribblings.

    1. Absolutely right, John. I also use notecards, so I can keep track of things like how Joe takes his coffee, or a special trait he admires in others.

  10. Great idea. Susan! I'm in the middle of my 5th book, but I'm going to give this a try.

    1. I hope you find this useful. Thanks for commenting.

  11. Thank you, Susan, for sharing. Like you, I give heroes and heroines many, specific characteristics. Good folks are always fair and generous and slow moving. Bad ones bear the names of people I do not admire. Helps me keep them straight. Characters are acquaintances. Once in a library, I saw a familiar man and noted that he'd gained a little weight since I had seen him last. Moments later I realized I didn't know the guy, but he bore a startling resemblance to one of my characters. I have not shared that with anyone. You and your friends probably will know what I mean. Weird, huh?

  12. Sharon, I love this story of the man in the library! Yes, I do know what you mean. I've learned that being a writer opens into an unusual world and I can't imagine living any other way. Thanks for sharing the story.