Monday, February 1, 2010

Creating Interesting Characters by Robert Sutherland


© Robert D. Sutherland, 2010

            Creating interesting and believable characters is one of the chief challenges facing writers of fiction. When they succeed, as with Ebeneezer Scrooge, Scarlett O’Hara, Madame Defarge, Atticus Finch, Dr. Jekyll, and Lady Macbeth, the characters are not only interesting and believable, but frequently memorable as well.

            Mystery authors—whether writing cozies, espionage thrillers, capers, police procedurals, or tales of amateur sleuths or private eyes—frequently create characters that meet these standards. Scanning your own experience, don’t you feel you “know”—almost as real people having lives of their own—such characters as Jane Marple, Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes (and Dr. Watson), V. I. Warshawski, Lord Peter Wimsey, Kinsey Millhone, Brother Cadfael, Nero Wolfe (and Archie Goodwin), Adam Dalgliesh, Mike Hammer, Kay Scarpetta, George Smiley, Inspector Morse, Joe Leaphorn (and Jim Chee), Easy Rawlins, Sharon McCone, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, and Jessica Fletcher?

            Certainly, among such characters there are many differences—of occupation, ethnicity, social standing, time period, background, temperament, personal “history”, physical environment, and geographical location. But what do they share in common? For one thing, each of these is a protagonist appearing in a series. This gives devoted readers multiple opportunities to see the character in action, get to know personality traits, habits, and eccentricities, and observe changes the character may undergo throughout the sequence. Doyle wrote four novels involving Holmes, for example, and fifty-six short stories. This repeated exposure makes characters memorable.

            Ancillary characters—friends, associates, rivals—who accompany the protagonist from story to story may also be appealing and memorable. (Typically, villains do not continually re-appear as a series progresses; and if they do, they tend to be seasoned career criminals or conspiratorial enemy organizations. In most whodunits, for example, the murderer is “just one of the possible suspects” who is eventually unmasked and dispatched; and since he or she is frequently one of the least likely suspects, that character tends not to be one who lingers in the reader’s memory. There are exceptions, of course.)
            Other things that believable and memorable characters have in common are distinguishing or unusual physical traits: Holmes’s lean hawkishness, Nero Wolfe’s fat, Poirot’s waxed mustache and elegant grooming, Miss Marple’s deceptive demeanor of benign good-natured simplicity while knitting away and taking tea.

            Likewise, they tend to have distinctive habits and personality traits: Holmes’ intensity while on a case, and his depression when no game’s afoot; Wolfe’s indolence, orchid growing, and reluctance to leave his house; Poirot’s egocentric dandyism and trust in his little gray cells; Miss Marple’s cynicism and will to justice; Morse’s love of opera; Dalgliesh’s poetic intellectualism and emotional reserve; Warshawski’s psychic toughness; Marlowe’s philosophical bent; Fletcher’s wholesome geniality.

            How they conceive and develop their characters will of course vary from writer to writer. Some things are undoubtedly universal. Believable characters are rounded and multi-faceted, like real people are. They aren’t cardboard cutouts, allegorical abstractions, or stereotyped cookie-cutter clichés. They have peculiar traits, habits, mannerisms, modes of thought and speech, personal values, obsessions, strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, goals and ambitions, successes and failures, past histories and future plans, hopes and fears. They are as consistent and as contradictory as the people you know. Authors must come to understand their characters thoroughly, knowing how they would feel, react, and express themselves in particular situations, and—equally important—how they would not. Memorable characterizations are not generally achieved through lengthy description, but by dramatization—showing through actions and dialogue who the character is.

            In writing my mystery novel, THE FARRINGFORD CADENZA (The Pikestaff Press, 2007 ), I let the story itself suggest and shape the characters. I’ll explain.

  The novel is a suspenseful, humorous literary mystery that subtly skews generic conventions to continually surprise readers with reversals of their assumptions and expectations. Suspense is achieved, in part, by keeping readers off-balance, unable to predict what will happen on the next page, or in the next paragraph; in part, by providing them information which the characters don’t possess. Since being continually surprised is part of the fun of reading the book, the surprises come thick and fast. Part of the suspense and much of the humor is achieved by also continually surprising the characters.

Here’s the storyline that suggested and shaped the characters. In 1947, Charles Philip Farringford, one of America’s foremost composers, dies on a train returning home to New York after performing his as-yet-unpublished Fifth Piano Concerto on a concert tour of three cities. When his body arrives at Penn Station wearing pajama trousers backside front, there are two one-way tickets to New York in the sleeping compartment—but no companion. Also missing is Farringford’s suitcase, and with it the unique manuscript of the six-minute cadenza for solo piano which occurs in the concerto’s fourth movement. When, after intensive search, the cadenza manuscript cannot be found, the concerto is published in 1948 with a blank spot in the score where the cadenza would have gone; and performers must improvise their own cadenzas to fill the gap. People in the three audiences who heard Farringford perform the cadenza attest uniformly that not only was the music sublimely beautiful, but hearing it constituted a peak experience which changed their lives in beneficial and empowering ways. For those who never had the chance to hear it played, the missing cadenza thus comes, in the ensuing decades, to have legendary—even mythic—status.

Thirty-four years after Farringford’s death, a music student finds the cadenza manuscript in the false bottom of a piano bench in a Baltimore flea-market. Professor Pettigrew holds a triumphal press conference to announce the discovery; but before the concerto’s publisher can arrive to claim the cadenza, the manuscript is stolen from Pettigrew’s house—in the first of three separate burglaries that occur on the same night. The publisher and Farringford’s family hire a New York firm of private investigators, N. F. Trntl Associates, to recover the manuscript.

In Baltimore, Ms. Trntl is spied upon, confronted with shadowy misdirections and dead-end clues, entangled in two murders, and forced to deal with repeated attempts on her own life. As the search for the stolen manuscript progresses, readers gradually come to realize (which Trntl never does) that at least ten distinct individuals and groups are avidly pursuing it for a variety of motives and purposes. Most of these pursuers are not aware of the existence of the others, or become so only when their paths continually cross. All of them are aware of Trntl, however. Some want her to find the manuscript for them; some will use any means to prevent her from finding it, and some see her as a dangerous nuisance to be eradicated. As she struggles to recover the cadenza for her clients while guarding her flank, Trntl continues to question what bearing the manuscript’s unexplained disappearance in 1947 has on the puzzles and dangers she faces now.

The characters have roles defined by their relation to the cadenza manuscript. Detectives N. F. Trntl, Felix McKay, Torvald Grimsson, and Carol Brown try to recover it for their clients (and stay alive in the process). The extremely rich Victor Zyzynsky sends operatives Marco, Jerry, and Chip to obtain the cadenza at any cost for his collection of unique artifacts. Another collector who calls himself the Count is competing with Zyzynsky. Music publisher Silas Dinch is obsessed with reuniting the cadenza with the concerto to profit by a new edition. Son Anton Farringford is willing to hold the cadenza for ransom to repay sums that he has embezzled from the trust accounts he manages. “Lefty” Scaevola, a Baltimore mob boss facing Federal indictments on a number of charges, wants to destroy the manuscript and eliminate Trntl, who knows too much about the death of Stephanie Simms, the student who discovered the manuscript. Other purposes motivate pianists Peter Shipley Abbott and Rosamond Foxe (who incidentally is romantically involved with Detective McKay). Zyzynski, who lusts after Rosamond and wants to add her to his collection as well, does not know this, and is bitterly jealous of Abbott whom he mistakenly thinks is his rival for Foxe’s affections.

Hopefully, this indicates how storyline can generate characters and supply motivations to plausibly shape their actions. Each of my characters has distinctive habits, mannerisms, fixations, desires, and modes of operation. Reviewers find them interesting and believable. Memorable? Time will tell.


Robert D. Sutherland taught courses in Linguistics and Creative Writing at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois until his retirement in 1992. He particularly enjoyed teaching Descriptive Linguistics, History of the English Language, Semantic Theory, and Old English. In 1977, he and his co-editor James R. Scrimgeour founded Pikestaff Publications, a not-for-profit literary press that published The Pikestaff Forum, a literary magazine, until 1996. He continues serving as editor at The Pikestaff Press, which publishes books of poetry and prose fiction. In 2009 he began a blog for writers and readers of mysteries. He and his wife Marilyn have traveled widely, reared two sons to adulthood, and worked to promote peace, social justice, and preservation of the natural environment. His publications include a scholarly book, LANGUAGE AND LEWIS CARROLL; a novel, STICKLEWORTAND FEVERFEW (containing 74 of his pencil illustrations), which received the 1981 Friends of American Writers Juvenile Book Merit Award for author/illustrator; a second novel, THE FARRINGFORD CADENZA; short fiction, poems, and essays on literature, education, and publishing. His interests include classical music, the nature of metaphor, reading, travel, film noir, and the comparative study of mythologies.

Books by Robert D. Sutherland:
             LANGUAGE AND LEWIS CARROLL, Janua Linguarum, Series Maior, 26 (Mouton DeGruyter, 1970). 245pp.  A scholarly work; currently in print.

             STICKLEWORT AND FEVERFEW.  A novel for children, adolescents, and  adults, with 74 illustrations by the author.  (The Pikestaff Press, 1980). 355pp. Prize: Received the 1981 FRIENDS OF AMERICAN WRITERS JUVENILE BOOK MERIT AWARD for author/illustrator.

            THE FARRINGFORD CADENZA. A NOVEL (The Pikestaff Press, 2007). 523 pp.

Personal web site:

Pikestaff Press web site:


s.w. vaughn said...

What an interesting premise for your novel! And excellent advice in this post. :-)

(Also... oh, how I miss Murder, She Wrote! I loved Jessica Fletcher :-)

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Robert, welcome back to Murderby4! I'm reading the Farringford Cadenza and find the surprises delightful and the characters most memorable. It's a fun read, and it brings to mind some of the finer English mystery authors you've listed above - the style is savvy, the settings real, and I really, really, REALLY want to hear that missing cadenza that sent people into tizzies of euphoria when they got a sneak preview of it. I want my life changed by such a piece of music!!!

Marta Stephens said...

Welcome back Robert and thanks for reminding me of my many favorite characters!

Kim Smith said...

Welcome Robert! I love spending time in a book with characters that are real and well-developed. Characters and their great adventures are why I read mystery. thanks for the post.