“It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.”
― The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson
Creating well-rounded, interesting, and, most importantly, believable characters is not always easy. As an editor, characterization is one of the most important elements I consider. You may have plot, setting, pacing, and dialogue down pat, but characters touch the emotions of a reader in a way that the other elements usually can’t. Michael Connelly, in Writing Mysteries, calls characterization the most important of the elements. “A good plot is empty unless filled with the blood of character,” he writes.
I recently attended the musical production Jekyll & Hyde, and was reminded of the duality that we all possess. This was a major theme in Stevenson’s work, as Jekyll asserts that “man is not truly one, but truly two.” In trying to separate good and evil, however, Jekyll only succeeds in alienating the dark side—a creature of pure evil who soon overpowers the good Dr. Jekyll.
The story is a good lesson in creating characters. The most interesting protagonists (and antagonists) are those who struggle with inner demons—it’s a reason why many detectives turn to alcohol, are divorced, or harbor deep family secrets. It adds dimension to the character. And, because a character must always face personal conflict in order to grow, it helps to add this inner drama.
At the beginning of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series, her two main characters, essentially good people, find themselves drawn to each other. The problem: Police Chief Russ van Alstyne is married and Episcopal priest Claire Fergusson is not looking to break up his marriage. However, the attraction is strong, and it’s something they must fight against.
Louise Penny’s novels often feature characters who are capable of both good and bad. Characters are jealous of spouses and colleagues, let resentments fester, and face problems of addiction—in short, they are quite human, with these “ugly” sides that we all possess from time to time.
Michael Connelly, in the same book mentioned above, gives an example of how Det. Harry Bosch’s character is revealed through a small scene. Some might call it mean-spirited; others, humorous. Bosch is getting no information from a bureaucrat at City Hall. After she leaves her cubicle, performing a pirouette move to get through the narrow channel, he pushes the desk a couple inches closer to the wall. When she comes back in, performing the same maneuver, she hits her thigh, spilling a drink she had on her desk. Connelly says the scene was all about character, showing how Bosch doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
You might also want to play with characters who shift throughout your novel. Perhaps you introduced the character for one reason. This doesn’t mean the character’s reason for existence has to remain static. Author Alyson Richman, in a recent talk, explained that she brought in one character for a specific scene of a sinking ship. The father in the scene gives up his seat on a lifeboat so a young, gifted musician can survive. It’s a pivotal scene. Later, however, toward the end of the book, it turns out the surviving character also had another important reason to remain throughout the story.
We also have to remember that a character is often seen differently by those around them, just as in real life we behave differently around our family, co-workers, and strangers.
S.J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin, a 30-something Chinese-American private eye, is one example. She is one thing to her clients: a professional, no-nonsense investigator. She is something else to her partner Bill Smith, with whom there are sparks. But some of the funniest scenes are between Lydia and her traditional mother. Lydia lives with her mother, who disapproves of her daughter’s career choices, love interests (and single status), and even her clothes—and lets Lydia know it often.
Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and copyediting instructor.