Want to develop your character? Write a Dating Profile

canstockphoto15012604Run a Google search for “character profiles” and you’ll pull-up lot’s of character worksheets and questionnaires. Some of them are really basic, asking your character’s favorite color or if he ever had a pet. Others delve into character background – sometimes tracing steps all the way back to the character’s immigrant great, great grandparents.

But what if we took a real world approach to character profiles?

Stay with me, as this may sound crazy — but dating websites are designed to ask questions that allow other people to really get to know you. They’re geared toward real people, and you want your characters to be as real as possible. So, what if you turn the profile around and answer questions in the head of your protagonist (or antagonist or love interest or whoever). You’ll really get to know that character, and probably discover some new, surprising things in the process.

Here are some sample questions from an eHarmony profile:

  • Other than appearance, what is the first thing that people notice about you?
  • What are your three BEST life skills?
  • Four things your friends say you are…
  • What are five things you “can’t live without?”
  • What are you most passionate about?
  • What are three things for which you are most thankful?
  • What is the ONE thing that people DON’T notice about you right away that you WISH they WOULD?

These questions (and many more found in a good dating questionnaire) go beyond the basic height, weight and hair color descriptions found on generic character profiles, and really ask for a deeper-level understanding. Spend time thinking about the answers and it will directly influence your writing of character reactions and dialog. It will also subtly weave descriptions and imagery that lead your reader to say, “That character was soooooo real!”

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The key to writing a solid murder mystery outline

canstockphoto5370784Writing a mystery is fun, but tricky. It takes some planning. Think about it. When a real criminal rushes into murder, he ends up getting caught. A mystery novel’s equivalent to getting is caught is the reader figuring out whodunit before the sleuth. And when that happens, it’s not just the victim that winds up dead – so does your book.

So how do you keep your book out of the morgue? It takes thorough planning. (a.k.a. The Outline)

I don’t know how some authors “wing it” and I don’t know any successful mystery author who ties all the ends together without first outlining the plot.  My murder mysteries follow a six part outline that begins with the murder. Even if the death takes place outside the story itself, it’s still the act that sets the story in motion.

The outline doesn’t have to delve deep into all the little details. Those can be worked out later. It does, though, include the suspects and motivations. It lays out every major scene and the genuine, fake and pivotal clues. Without this direction, I’ll get lost when I begin writing and go off on tangents and into dead ends.

However, you know that in any good murder mystery, nothing is as it appears.

So, here’s the key: There’s another, deeper outline that plots the off-the-page action. It’s the real story beneath the surface. It describes what the murderer is doing to cover-up his crime, misdirect the sleuth and every little deceptive lie. This deeper outline will help line-up clue placement within the story so they aren’t just dropped into the story but methodically placed.

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Looking for good character quirks? Check out this book

Book Personality TraitsI just found this book and I want to know where it’s been hiding. It’s a brainstorm of ideas for creating unique, interesting characters. And, as you know, I always say, “Readers may open the book for the plot, but they stay for the characters.”

‘Writer’s Guide to Character Traits’ is written by a practicing psychiatrist and writer, Linda N. Edelstein Ph D.  I have the second edition (which is available on Amazon for under $15 by clicking here). Honestly, I can’t put it down and I’m now trying to come up with stories to put some new character ideas into.

Not only will you find a lot of ideas on ‘quirks’, but the book goes on to explain how that quirk can affect different areas of a person’s life, including work, relationships and romance. It even delves into possible causes for a particular quirk.

Honestly, I think every writer should have a copy on their bookshelves!

 

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Quirky Character Traits

Does Your Sleuth have a quirk? He better have a history to back it up

Bad to Worse to Impending Disaster: Escalating tension creates suspense

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We all know that suspense builds as danger approaches. Expanding on that concept, a suspenseful story puts characters that the reader cares about in jeopardy. It makes for a great scene or, even better, a page-turning chapter.

Now, to create suspense in the novel as a whole, the author must gradually turn-up the heat. There’s an arc that leads the plot upwards on the Bad to Worse to Impending Disaster escalator. So, if the Princess is abducted in Act 1 (Bad), then the hero must risk his life to save her in Act 2 (Worse), until finally the entire Kingdom may fall if they don’t return in time in Act 3 (Impending Disaster). If the tension doesn’t escalate, the book will run out of steam.

 

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Tension doesn’t always have to be bloody life or death scenarios though. Depending on the genre, suspense can just as easily build through emotional, romantic or economic threats. The shy romantic hero doesn’t have the courage to profess his true feelings to the love of his life in Act 1 (Bad), then just as he’s about to tell her, a new suitor comes on the scene in Act 2 (Worse), until finally, in Act 3, the girl and the new suitor are about to get married and the romantic hero will lose her forever (Impending Disaster).

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Regardless of the genre, the reader must feel that the Protagonist is headed toward something terrible. Impending Disaster is just a page or two away. That’s tension.

How do you get readers to connect with your Sleuth?

canstockphoto1131704A memorable murder is essential for a memorable murder mystery. However, readers don’t turn the pages because they care about an unfortunate corpse. They want to help the cool kids solve the mystery.

That means your murder mystery has to start with an interesting sleuth.

Being smart, attractive, and witty with the puns doesn’t cut it. In a murder mystery (and really any modern novel) an interesting protagonist has a character trait that readers identify with. They feel a connection to the character, and can empathize with what makes that character tick. When you think about it, characters that have a strong desire to achieve something – whether that’s overcoming an internal struggle or finding love, freedom, forgiveness, acceptance – have the strongest impact on readers.

There’s an inherent tension in wanting the Protagonist to achieve his desire, but also knowing that he may fail. It makes great character drama.

So how do you write this?

Well, first establish the Protagonist’s desire. This is different from solving the murder mystery. This is an individual and deeply personal need of your main character. It could be to reconcile with a family member, to seek forgiveness for a past accident, to return home, to overcome an addiction, etc. What would be unique to your main character’s life or personality?

Second, define what obstacles are keeping your main character from achieving this desire. If it’s to reconcile with a family member, what’s keeping them apart? What’s preventing him from receiving or accepting forgiveness? Why can’t he go home? Is there an enabler in his life that’s preventing him from overcoming the addiction?

Finally, establish the stakes. What terrible consequences will result if he doesn’t achieve his desire? Will he never find love? Lose his family? Never see his son again?

This internal drive serves to make the Protagonist relatable to readers. This desire should affect the main plot as well, providing a stumbling block or two while solving the murder. And, if you can come full circle, tie both plots together in the end so that the Protagonist achieving his desire allows him to ultimately identify and catch the murderer.

WAITER! THERE’S A DEAD GUY ON PAGE ONE!

canstockphoto2235123So, in a murder mystery, when should the corpse be found? The quick answer is “as soon as possible.” However, there are two rules you must respect:

  1. The murder must occur within the first 3 chapters.

Anyone who picks up a murder mystery is expecting, well, a murder to occur. Until that happens, the reader is just sort of left in suspended animation, waiting for something to happen. I’ve read a lot of mysteries where the actual murder took place before the book began, and the corpse is found in chapter one. I’ve also read books where the first two or three chapters are setting-up suspects and motivations, then the murder occurs. Personally, I like to start off with the murder occurring in chapter one, then introduce the sleuth in chapter two.

  1. The murderer must be present within the first 3 chapters.

You’re not playing fair if the character who committed the murder is introduced too late in the book to be a viable suspect. He (or she) should be present from the very beginning. A strong mystery writer will introduce the character, but not draw attention to him.

Really, you can’t go wrong as long as a body is found that kicks-off the investigation within the first three chapters. The murder and the questions that follow are what hook your reader. Obviously, you want to do that as quickly as possible.

 

The murder must always be believable

canstockphoto1131704I just finished reading a mystery novel in which a wife was pushed over the side of a cliff while trying to reconcile with her estranged husband. The husband was the obvious suspect, but in the end it turned out to be her jealous, wheelchair-bound sister who actually committed the crime. I can’t even begin to tell you how much this frustrated me.

The crime must always be believable. If not, the entire story unravels and bags of burning dog poop should be left on the author’s doorstep. And, in this case, the resolution to the mystery borders on criminally ridiculous. How would the jealous, wheelchair-bound sister get up to the mountain cliff in the first place? And even if she could somehow get there, how could she knock her sister over without the estranged husband seeing it? And how did she not leave tire marks behind?

The author was making the least likely character turn-out to be the murderer, and I’ll admit I didn’t guess the ending. But that reveal left a lot of questions on the table. While the motive made sense — jealousy — the means and opportunity aren’t plausible. The physics of the murder don’t make sense.

So, the lesson here is, all the little details of the murder (the how, where, and why) have to come together cohesively. It’s the missing puzzle piece that must fit perfectly to complete the puzzle.  Your reader will feel cheated if the crime is not something that could really happen.

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What not to do at a writer’s conference

How-to-dress-up-like-a-nerdAre you going to a writer’s conference?

I recently wrote an article about what to do if you’re going to a writer’s conference. However, there are some things you really shouldn’t do, as well. It always amazes me what some people do. Don’t be one of these people:

  • If you’re an attendee, don’t promote your book in classes, workshops, panel discussions or critique groups. There’s always someone trying to bring the conversation back to his or her self-published manuscript. I sat in one workshop held by a distinguished mystery author, and a fellow classmate handed out flyers for his Civil War drama.
  • Don’t be late to a conference class or workshop. People walking in late, interrupting the class, opening and shutting doors, shuffling to find a seat — it’s rude and distracting. Make every effort to be on time.
  • Give the speaker some space. After the speaker/faculty has finished his presentation, please don’t rush the podium with questions and attention seeking theatrics. Give the speaker some space. It’s okay to thank them for their time, ask for a business card, and possibly buy their book. But don’t try to monopolize their time. You can always email your questions later, and build a professional relationship.
  • Don’t monopolize a class with specific questions about your work-in-progress. A question or two is fine, but there have been classmates who act like this is a one-on-one opportunity to discuss their book, and seem to be under the impression that every other student in class is going to be just as interested in his character motivations and Irish lineage.
  • Don’t try to outshine the instructor. Everyone is in class to learn from and benefit from the instructor’s experience, not yours. An older gentleman in a recent class continually used passages in his Vietnam War thriller as examples of points the author was making. His acting like he was the co-instructor got really irritating and, finally, the author had to cut him off.

Want to read more? Check out:

5 Tips to Prepare for a Writer’s Conference

Rules for Writing a Mystery Novel

canstockphoto9200023Like any good game, there are rules to writing a good mystery. The author challenges the reader to solve the crime before the detective. The reader expects there to be clues leading to the correct answer, and trusts that everything will come together in the end.  So, for the author to play fair, these rules must be followed.

Rules to Writing a Good Murder Mystery:

  1. The crime must be a murder. Burglary, kidnapping, extortion and the like make for great thrillers, but only murder makes a mystery worth solving. Personally, I like to begin with the murder, then introduce the sleuth and start the investigation. However, there’s nothing wrong with having the murder occur before the story begins, or introduce the sleuth, victim and suspects, then have the murder occur.
  2. The murder must be believable. In other words, the motive, means and opportunity all make sense, and the culprit must be physically and emotionally capable of committing the murderer.
  3. Introduce both the detective and the murderer early on, preferably within the first three chapters.
  4. The detective must solve the mystery using only rational and scientific methods that, if observant, the reader could equally solve the mystery with the same information.
  5. Provide at least three genuine clues that point to the murderer’s identity. These clues don’t have to jump off the page, and probably shouldn’t, but they have to exist, none the less.
  6. Wait as long as possible to reveal the culprit, ultimately in the penultimate or final chapter.

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What is your Mystery Subgenre?

canstockphoto10560802The mystery genre has a deep subgenre which defines the degree of adult language, the amount of gore, the type of sleuth and even the level of investigation, among other things. Understanding your subgenre will help you market the story to the write audience and sell it to the right publisher.

Mystery-Suspense Subgenres

Amateur Sleuth:  the murder is solved by an ordinary person, as opposed to a professional detective or police office.

Classic Whodunit: a murder is solved by a private eye, generally written in first person from the detective’s point of view.

Comic: a murder investigation is played for laughs, often featuring a bumbling detective who is grossly unskilled, but manages to solve the crime despite himself. Inspector Gadget and Inspector Clouseau come to mind.

Cozy: a mystery in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the murder takes place in a small, socially intimate community where an outside, often eccentric detective investigates.

Dark Thriller: a mystery that ventures slightly into the horror genre, with intensified suspense and violence.

Forensic: a murder solved by a crime lab team who analyse, identify, and interpret the physical evidence. They reconstruct events to prove a crime was committed, and to connect a suspect to that crime.

Historical: a mystery that takes place in a distinct, recognizable era of history, with a great deal of emphasis on describing the details of the setting.

Legal: a mystery that takes place largely in the court room or within the justice system, and often features a defense attorney believing his client is innocent and trying to prove it.

Locked Room: a murder that appears to have been committed under impossible circumstances — such as a room with a locked door and windows and no visible sign of entry.

Police Procedural: a murder investigated from the perspective of police detective, with a great deal of emphasis on detailed, real-life police procedures.

Hard Boiled: A murder investigated by a tough-guy, private investigator for hire, who generally operates outside the long arm of the law and plays by his own rules. These are generally told from the first person Private Eye’s Point of View.

Noir: Generally a dark, disturbing narrative told from the point of view of the victim, a suspect or the murderer.

Psychological Suspense: mysteries focused the Why-dunit, not only delving into what motivated the murderer to commit the crime, but often why the sleuth is driven to investigate, and even why the suspects are driven to lie, cheat and mislead the poor sleuth

Romantic Suspense: a murder mystery which devotes an equal amount of the plot to the basic romance formula (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back).