You often hear it said that ‘character is plot’. I’d put it a little differently. For me, relationships between the characters in a novel are crucial to building a plot. This applies to novels of all kinds, I believe. It’s certainly true of crime novels, even in those where there is a very strong focus on plot – whether a whodunit plot, a ‘will he get away with it?’ plot, or any other.
So a key challenge for writers is this. We need to think not only about how to develop a particular character, but also how to develop his or her interactions with other people in the story. It’s worth mulling this over before pressing finger to keyboard, but I’m not sure it’s a good idea to try to map out everything at the synopsis stage.
Writers often talk about their characters ‘taking over’ (although some other writers disapprove strongly of any such idea!) My own take on the subject is that, as in real life, people in books sometimes do unexpected things, which even their creator might not have anticipated originally. However, if this happens constantly, it may just be that the author didn’t devote enough care at the outset to thinking about the person they were inventing. It’s a mistake that- I admit it! – I’ve made myself once or twice over the years, and it tends to necessitate a good deal of re-writing. Revision is always valuable, but it can become an endless task if you haven’t concentrated enough on the human relationships in your story before trying to describe their consequences.
Most writers and readers focus on the path taken by character relationships within a particular book. But for many of us, there is another dimension. Most readers love series of books featuring recurring characters. This is so whether we favour regional sagas, historical romances, amateur detective mysteries or police procedural novels.
In the crime field, one of the huge changes over the years has been the increasing focus on how characters and their relationships develop over a series of books. In the past, the likes of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, for all their virtues, did not ‘grow’ as people. Dorothy L. Sayers bucked the trend when she transformed Lord Peter Wimsey from a Bertie Wooster clone into a three-dimensional character. Sayers set the pattern for modern writers such as P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Reginald Hill and Ian Rankin, all of whose detectives develop as the years pass. The relationships that, for instance, Adam Dalgleish has with colleagues and lovers are an important feature of James’ novels. Of course, there has to be some suspension of disbelief (Dalgleish made his debut in 1962, so it’s a happy miracle that he hasn’t shuffled off into retirement yet) but truth in the drawing of character relationships is a skill shared by all those fine writers.
My own approach has varied between the two series I’ve written. Harry Devlin, a Liverpool lawyer, appears in eight books. The most recent is Waterloo Sunset, the paperback of which came out last autumn. The first book appeared as long ago as 1991, and over the years I’ve charted the way in which Harry’s relationships with colleagues and friends have evolved. Even his relationship with his native city has developed – Liverpool has changed dramatically over the past few years, and the new book shows Harry trying to come to terms with life in a modern, cosmopolitan environment that is less cosy than the one he knew before.
When I planned the Lake District Mysteries, I decided that at the heart of the series would be a developing relationship between the two protagonists. Daniel Kind is an Oxford academic, a historian with a troubled personal life, who downshifts to the Lakes as a means of escape. Hannah Scarlett is a Detective Chief Inspector, in charge of the Cold Case Squad which looks into old unsolved crimes. Their shared professional interest in the past is a bond, as is the fact that Hannah was close to Daniel’s father, who abandoned his family and left home forever when Daniel was young.
The relationship between the two characters is established in the first book in the series, The Coffin Trail, and moves on in The Cipher Garden and The Arsenic Labyrinth. There is a strong attraction between Hannah and Daniel – but the snag is, they are honourable individuals and they are already in relationships with other people.
I gave a lot of thought to this set-up before I started work on the first book. It seems to have worked, since The Coffin Trail reached the final short-list of six for the Theakston’s Prize for best crime novel of 2006, along with books by Ian Rankin and Val McDermid. But I didn’t try to map out the detailed course of the couple’s relationship in minute detail, or anything like it. It’s not so much a matter of letting the characters do as they please, but rather of building an infrastructure for the series and then weighing up how things might develop between the couple as they become involved – in varying ways – with trying to solve one mystery after another. Along the way, they find that solving the mystery of how to live a good and fulfilling life is the toughest challenge of all.
Does this sound as though a modern crime series is rather like a soap opera? Perhaps it’s a good comparison. There are strong reasons why soap operas have such widespread appeal. From reviewers and readers alike, I’ve had more positive reaction to the slow-burning relationship between Hannah and Daniel than to any other aspect of my books – even the complex and, I hope, ingenious plots on which I lavish such care!
So there you have it. Characters in book don’t exist in a vacuum, just as real people don’t. To create characters that seem to live and breathe, taking care over how they relate to other people in the story isn’t just a sensible idea. It’s absolutely vital.
- Think about how each of your characters relate to the others
- Keep at it, whatever the disappointments or let-downs – writing isn’t for those of a nervous disposition
- A piece of writing can always be improved – but only if you’ve actually produced it, so get going today!